San Francisco

“Art and Power, Esthetics and History, and the August Exhibitions”

San Francisco Museum of Art

The critic’s function is to bring to bear, publicly, his pub­lic’s ideas on a given subject. He is a public tool and, in this respect, is sim­ilar to a museum of modern art which is, as George Culler, Director of the San Francisco Museum of Art, sees it, the community’s implement, the public channel, to “the creative.” The museum is a tool which the public forms and uses.

In becoming this public channel, the American museum of modern art has established a pattern of activities. These are (1) exhibition of contemporary works of art; (2) education of the public to understand such works. From the first arises the need to present actual ob­jects, from the second, to frame them: fit them into themes, periods, histories; give them names, countries, values. A permanent collection then becomes necessary of works whose function is to frame, with their burden of past reference and their standard of past accomplishment, the ache and the cry of the present. In order to accomplish any of these activities successfully, there must be lures, and so openings and other social events are initiated. So, all these are the activities which have been rationalized into the idea of a museum as tool for the community.

Actually, before the community activities called a modern museum began, the idea, the awareness of metaphysical situation which would call them forth, was present. Franz Kafka wrote it out and published it in 1924, in Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.

Josephine was a mouse, a soprano probably, and she sang each evening in the great auditorium of the mouse-­nation. All the mice were always there, they needed her song; it was, somehow, their expression and she their very own voice, singing on in the void, the danger, the wonder and anxiety of the world. The relation between Josephine, the artist, and the mice, the public, and the wonder and anxiety of the world (Josephine’s song, the thread through all those labyrinthine, worldly and dangerous ways) is that also of the artist, the public and the ‘creative,’ which is the artist’s own artistic gift. The museum is the great auditorium of the mouse-nation and the director its impresario. The story, as Kafka wrote it, caught the shape of an entity then only vaguely beginning to be, though now in full, active presence: the Amer­ican museum. (Art is prophetic!)

Because of what Josephine’s song actually is: the shape of the spirit­-world of mice, and because of what art, culture, actually is, the shape of the spiritual world of man, the museum becomes of prime importance. Its ac­tivities and the things––objects and events and social and intellectual relationships––which it uses to achieve activity, are the representation, the in­carnation of our spiritual world. The power, the vitality, the life-blood of a museum is Josephine’s nightly song. Its life is great and good when she has a brilliant season, it falters when she falters, repertoire curtailed and voice cracked. The life of a museum is in its power to incarnate our human con­versation as it reaches into that very world where Josephine went: into the void, the anxiety, the wonder and danger of that which is coming ever to be. The museum’s life is rich when works fullest of song can be presented for our joy, when it has the power to utter the important sentences in the conversa­tion that is today. These works may be obtained only through getting and spending with the world, through pres­tige plays, through threats and bluffs and horse-trading, through the politks of power, a politics which will, after all, only lay waste the spiritual power, the life of art which they were to preserve.

The San Francisco Museum is a weak museum. Its income is not great, its political power among American museums is comparatively small. It must, if it attempts to play in the great field, play there with special care, for it is the poker player with the weak­er hand. And so for it the politics of power is a life and death proposition in two ways. Without especial political astuteness on the part of the Director, the Museum would fall immediately from its shaky stool at the game of American public culture. Yet, the more astute the Director, the more the world will become with him, the more he and his institution will be threatened with a life and a power laid waste, turned aside from art into politics.

This situation shapes the Museum’s program and thus molding the sole medium through which we can exper­ience this aspect of the life of the spirit, shapes even that spiritual life as well. For example, the Museum must have a collection of work far be­yond that needed merely for education (which could be done usually as well or better from a book or a slide) so that it can trade from a position of political power; it must risk the current art of crucial life for certain works of past art, crucial to politics. Out of this situa­tion arises “Art for the Collector,” an excellent because supremely typical example of the complex of impulses and purposes shaping nearly every ex­hibition.

“Art for the Collector,” considered as a group of works of art hung on a wall so that the conversation of man may take place in an aesthetic orienta­tion to the aspirations of our time con­structs a room in time and in space. The temporal room has its center some­where in the middle 1920’s. The slopes of the temporal walls are toward and away, are ever in consideration of the problems and the achievements of Euro­pean art and culture in the ’20’s. The space of the room built by these works is also a European one: problems of in­dividuality in a world torn between subjective and objective definitions of value, the actual conceptions of space which arise in visual art during such spiritual situations (cubism), these are paramount. So far as education as preparation for life is concerned, the works in this show announce, the room of them is the anteroom of an empty drawing room, an abdicated king, for American art in the later mid-twentieth century has a time based in the middle 1940’s and a space founded on the solitudes of the ocean or the street. Man is now a solitary actor in a cosmos composed commonly only of objects.

But esthetics and history are sep­arate studies and a work of art is not an artifact because it transcends history. The Picasso Bullfight, an­nounced in the catalog as “A brilliant, large, late wash drawing by Picasso needs no further comment. Any col­lection would be enriched by it,” is not educational, it is a visual exper­ience centering on itself, not oriented to some other end, the later apprecia­tion of Robert Motherwell for example. However, for a museum the objects in its collection are political as well as educational and esthetic and every ex­hibition has a political side, overt or potential, which contributes to its final form. This exhibition is called “Art for the Collector” though the Museum really means “ . . . for the Collection” because the structure of the politics of power––psychology and taxes, social position and personal aggrandisement­––demands that a clear personal attrac­tion be made for potential donors of the works.

So, in evaluation of the exhibition “Art for the Collector,” one must take three aspects into account. First is esthetic quality, in this show always adequate, in only a few cases major. Works in other parts of the museum clearly put most of these in the minor department: useful about twenty years from now as loans to schools for “study collections.” Second aspect of the show to consider is its educational value––the conversation of these paint­ings, drawings and sculptures is no longer directly relevant to contemporary art, the works are largely by artists of three generations ago, the show be­longs in the general museum––it docu­ments man’s history, not our moment. But the third aspect of the show, politics and power, is masterful: its use of techniques for structuring a presen­tation for sale is well-conceived. Those who actively participated in organizing, writing, selling, buying, giving and using, are happy and secure parts of a satisfying rational political machine.

The political aspect should be further analysed: (1) organization-by Katherine Kuh, a name to conjure collectors with (2) writing––the catalog carries no by­line, but only the headlines including the names of great twentieth century artists are needed to (3) sell to (4) buy­ers, who buy and bolster art and pres­tige simultaneously (the marriage of heaven and hell in the politics of art) while solving a part of their tax prob­lems by (5) giving a work of art which they are assured by Miss Kuh to be significant to their museum for (6) use in lending to other museums for other, even more assuredly significant, works in return.

“The world is too much with us . . . ” and especially with the director of any American museum, for his job is to use the world for art, laying waste his powers as little as possible, becoming a politician like a Chinese sage remain­ing unmoved at the center, watching peacefully as the world improves and serenifies itself at his presence. Such an oriental image does not work in America, and so the director-curator re­lationship was born: a curator to study art, a director to study power politics, the two working together in a balanced institution so art can live in the world. “Art for the Collector” is a director-­type show. “The Arts of the Bay Area” and “New Art from Brazil” are curator type. The first is the kind of exhibition deemed necessary if Josephine is to sing, the second are the actual texture of her song.

“The Arts of San Francisco” and “New Art from Brazil”: our conversation, the veritable speech of our time. Much of it in the international language, es­pecially the works from Brazil. It must be true that some places in the world have no character or else only one that cannot be expressed in the common speech of our day: hence the artists of those places present chiefly a talking about our talking. There is in their work little personal twist or cry or stutter, either because it was too strong to ex­press or because it was not strong enough to bother with. There are usually some people there who are more than artists, talented with brush, pencil and torch, and who have so vivid a personal life that it can supply to their art the unique and immediate content that their countryside and the international style cannot. There is, though, in this Art of Brazil (and one must admit in the Art of the Bay Area as well) little of this personal twist or cry or stutter. There is here a lot of art, good, intelligent, even brilliant making of things, but there is not over much pity, or hope or terror or even sweetness: the true touches of personality. “The New Art of Brazil” is an excellent indicator of the state of being in Europe, America and Japan. It is the voice of the Western world, talking about what its own voice sounds like to it, a late art, full of such phrases as ‘Do you remember . . .’ and that’s when he said . . . It is an in­fluenced art.

Perhaps the most vicious habit of connoisseurs of painting and sculpture is to see every object as derivative from another. Thus no work is ever seen directly, and perception concentrates on the viewer’s memories rather than the possible experience of the object before him. But, no matter how vicious­ly, art comes from the past, one of its Janus faces is the language we heard our fathers speak. A habit is vicious when it becomes satisfied with itself, dissociating from the world with which it was built to deal. An art is vicious when it has only the one face, the speaking face, and forgets the other one that told it what to say. The “New Art of Brazil” though lacking in feast­ing upon the world of Brazil, and the “Art of the Bay Area,” though only re­motely related to the life-concerns of most of the people of the Bay Area and to even the sheer sensuous perceiving of the Bay Area as a place, is not vi­cious. Not yet, anyway. It is elegant, the elegance of the euphemist, of the dis­engaged who may soon become the degenerate.

Much of the “Art of the Bay Area” boggles noisily at the elegant, hoping thus to achieve the unique, the per­sonal, the expressive and the important. Nonetheless, in San Francisco as in everywhere, the gods must be clarified, serenified and control led, and so, even if they be clumsiness (for personal ex­pressiveness) and ignorance (for avoid­ance of influence) they will become ultimately elegant: locally conceived as “dumb” and “funky."

This Summer, George Culler, the Di­rector, and John Humphrey, the Curator at the San Francisco Museum of Art, presented a survey of all of the art languages as they are spoken presently in the Bay Area, the languages and the life-contents which they carry. Some languages, abstract expressionism action painting, assemblage/neo-dada, were present in force. Others were com­pletely absent (representationalism.) It is common to criticize a museum for having omitted a certain artist or style from its survey of the “creative,” al­though seldom does the critic stop to consider that the artist may have chosen not to exhibit or that the style has no longer a life-content. It were possible to quibble or even quarrel over various inclusions and omissions in this three-month series of exhibition, but this would be mainly an attempt at one-up by know-better on the critic’s part. The Museum, the artists and the public would not at all be served. It is possible on the other hand to say, and this article has tried to prove that such an exhibition as this is the Museum’s authentic task, both as seen from the Director’s viewpoint as channel to the creative, (and foundation for political power) and this critic’s viewpoint as arena of the conversation of man. Fur­ther, that rather than a room-full of permanent collection Jairly permanent­ly settled somewhere near the entrance, a far better public introduction to the rest of the Museum’s contents would be a continuously changing gallery of such major available works by local, living artists as these have been.

Thus could the Museum begin to re-assume the courageous role of full leadership in presentation of living art, and thus re-achieve a clear shape and function in the community. The coura­geous museum tells its public what is important; it does not enquire and then reassure its public’s preconceptions. So long as the courageous museum and its director have sufficient political strength to begin to speak (which the San Francisco Museum undoubtedly has) the museum will succeed and add to its strength until it is one of the “important” museums, With an im­portance based first on its service in presenting, shaping and valuing the conversation of our time. Only follow­ing that importance may come prestige-­public relations importance, the se­condary importance so primary to pol­itics, to boards of trustees, to publics, to other museum directors. However, when the director-curator or the mu­seum which is his image over-reaches his political strength in presenting the real (but also publicly distasteful), he will fall and the museum may even be closed. Such a fall of directorship amid a complex of causes happened in San Francisco some years back. The San Francisco Museum is still attempting to rebuild after the fall, still seeking a new, coherent public on which to base a new, coherent structure of political power. “Art for the Collector” is a current expression of this search and is indicative of the wrong-headed­ness of attempting to build significance out of prestige. Genuine museum pur­pose and activity go the other way: the esthetic-historical evaluation and presentation of the art objects of our time comes first so that in their consonance and discord (“New Art from Brazil” and the “Arts of the Bay Area”), may sound the music of our authentic song.

Art and power, esthetics and his­tory: the San Francisco Museum. To use power for art and to obtain power first of all through an art monetized by esthetics and history: this is the Museum’s task. In the task it will find a public. Finding a public, Josephine sings.

––Fred Martin


Mr. Martin:

Thank you very much for giving me the chance to read your article for Artforum. Nothing has come my way recently which interested me so much. If Artforum can regularly obtain con­tributions as thoughtful, provocative and perceptive as this we can look for it to make a real impact in art publish­ing. None of this, of course, should be taken to mean that I agree with every­thing you say.

I was much encouraged by the sub­stance of your conclusions. THE ARTS OF SAN FRANCISCO this summer grew from strongly held convictions about what the Museum should stand for and move toward. The enthusiasm expressed for what we were able to do this sum­mer has been most gratifying. At the same time I contend that if a museum of modern art is to contribute sub­stantially and in depth it must show more than the contemporary work of its own area, however good this may be, and must certainly be more than a conversation room.

To show you what I mean may I pick up first of all a parenthetical remark of yours on page nine. In relation to the collection you suggest that educa­tion in the Museum “. . . could be done usually as well or better from a book or a slide.” Here I feel you have not stopped to consider the kind of educa­tion which is the responsibility of the Museum. Aesthetics and art history as scholarly disciplines we leave to the universities, which have the means, as we do not, to establish curricula and organize substantial units of study. The professional education of the artist we recognize as the province of the art schools and extend our best wishes to them in their efforts. But education in the Museum, while it may touch on his­torical facts, evolution of styles, information about artists, etc., is based primarily on the belief that the ap­perception of a work of art is a human act, essentially creative. We feel that the capacity to achieve aesthetic ex­perience from looking at a work of art is a mental and emotional skill which can be increased in the individual by exercise under conditions where this activity is excited. If people are to grow in their capacities to know and enjoy­ art they need to be able to see impor­tant works of art of many kinds in the original, and perhaps to see these works again on other occasions and in dif­ferent relationships. The development of this capacity is the primary educa­tional function of the Museum and this is the main reason for its permanent collection. You can’t do it with slides, as some of the products of our graduate schools prove.

This brings me to what seems to be the core of your concern: ART FOR THE COLLECTOR. Before going further a few facts may be helpful. For example: of the 22 artists represented in this exhibition 15 are living; 7 are not. The only work purchased by the Museum for its collection was the HUMAN CON­CRETION by Jean Arp. Arp is a living artist, and the sculpture is considered not only by us but by many others a major work. Certainly it is badly needed by the Museum; it exemplifies an im­portant development in modern sculp­ture and we have nothing else like it in the collection.

On page nine you refer to the acquisi­tion of works of past art as being “crucial to politics.” I would submit that this goes beyond the bounds permissible to generalizations to become an active distortion of fact. It is true that works of art by artists of national or international reputation are a resource of the museum owning them in the area you call political; they give the museum the means to participate with other museums in endeavors which re­sult in bringing to the community im­portant works owned elsewhere. But the masterpieces of modern art in our col­lection––the Matisses, Klees, Braques, etc. (and now the Arp)––are important first because they are vital works whose impact is real for us at this moment. At the risk of being obvious I can point out that if they were not first of all a source of significant aesthetic exper­ience for us, they would not have what it takes to serve what you call the Mu­seum’s political needs.

Although in one place (in connection with the Brazilian exhibition) you speak eloquently of the role of the past in the present, the rest of the article seems to proceed on the assumption that all works except those of this moment are not living art and have only academic or historical interest. I know this is the age of the instant, but in­stant aesthetics I cannot buy. In spite of everything we do not live only in the moment––the past––and especially the recent past of direct experience––is very much a part of us as thinking and feeling human beings. The museum of modern art should be concerned with the developments in the arts which most importantly involve us as a culture now, but to interpret this to mean that only the art of this year should appear in our galleries would reduce the exhi­bition program to a cross section thin as paper, without depth and therefore without meaning.

I would not go on about this so much except that your rejection of the works in ART FOR THE COLLECTOR exhibits the symptoms of a disease which seems to be, suddenly, epidemic: that only the art produced today has anything to say to us today. In some instances this point of view approaches hysteria; we not only insist on living art but we try to bury artists before they are dead. At this writing Arp, Picasso and Miró are quite as alive and contemporary as Fred Martin; don’t push. In the last analysis this denigration of the creative act almost before the paint is dry has ominous implications. Must we disin­fect the museums (and the studios) each night so as not to have in our nostrils tomorrow the stink of yester­day’s art? By extension, to reject so quickly the insights of a few years ago condemns to a short and ephemeral existence everything now being done. Conversation (your term) is transient, this is true. But I maintain that in the ARTS OF SAN FRANCISCO––and in ART FOR THE COLLECTOR––are to be found works which are more––much more––than conversation.

Yours, sincerely,
George D. Culler
San Francisco Museum of Art


Mr. Culler:

Thanks for your remarks re “Art and Power . . . ” I am afraid that I failed therein to clarify “conversation” and my own emotional and intellectual entanglement with the past.

I used “conversation” as Heidegger uses it, following an insight from Hoeld­erlin (a debt to how distant a past):

Much has man learnt.
Many of the heavenly ones has he named,
Since we have been a conversation And have been able to hear from one another.

which Heidegger amplifies: “Since the gods have led us into conversation, since time has been time, ever since then the basis of our existence has been a conversation. The proposition that language is the supreme event of human existence has through it ac­quired its meaning and foundation,” be­cause, as Hoelderlin notes, “ . . . that which remains; is established by poets.”

It seems to me that the supreme challenge for your museum lies in being present at that establishing, that it is for other museums to acquire and to treasure that which remains, and it is for us public to strive to see in each museum that which it most authentically celebrates.

Fred Martin