Moral Museums

In the past, when people wondered how to live moral lives, they could look to the saints, or take their questions to church.

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June 23, 2017 – Free MCAT CARS Practice

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In the past, when people wondered how to live moral lives, they could look to the saints, or take their questions to church. Today, some of us might instead turn our attention to art and the institutions that house it.

That’s what several dozen artists did, for a related but different reason, last December during the United Nations climate talks in Paris. One afternoon, in a week when crucial policy negotiations were underway, hundreds of environmental activists gathered outside the Louvre to protest the museum’s sponsorship ties to two of the world’s largest oil companies. Among the demonstrators were members of politically minded art collectives like Occupy Museums and Not an Alternative, from the United States, and Liberate Tate, from England.

Carrying open black umbrellas that spelled out the phrase “Fossil Free Culture,” most of them stayed in the plaza around the museum’s glass pyramid, singing and reading position statements. Meanwhile, inside the museum, another action was in progress. Ten performers poured an oily liquid onto the atrium floor and walked barefoot through it, creating a chaotic pattern of footprints before the police moved in.

The Louvre performance was one of a growing number of protests recently directed at large international art institutions, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Some museums were urged to stop taking money from ethically dubious corporate or personal sources, including board members who deny that climate change is underway. Others were called out for condoning, if not actively supporting, inhumane labor practices, like those imposed on migrant workers building new Guggenheim and Louvre franchises in Abu Dhabi.

Comparable protests in the past were usually aimed directly at corporations or at major universities, like Harvard, with elaborate corporate connections. That museums are now targets says something about their newly perceived status. Once considered standoffish, genteel and politically marginal, they are now viewed as being emblematically engaged players within the power network of global capitalism. And some are seen as using that status badly.

Public art museums have long engaged in the exchange of cultural and corporate capital. Museums get money, and in exchange, corporations get to look somewhat nice. In 1983, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened a Midtown branch that was paid for, and named for, the Philip Morris tobacco company, which for decades had steadfastly denied that smoking causes lung cancer. The Whitney escaped sustained censure for its alliance, partly because America was still a cigarette culture, but also because museums still retained an aura of moral superiority left over from a more romantic era. They were still temples of art, repositories for the creative best that humanity had to offer.

Few people see them that way anymore. In the 21st century, greater and greater wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. And a significant number of those hands are snapping up investment-worthy contemporary art. Much of the art in these competing, market-vetted private and corporate collections is being consigned to museum premises. Aggressively shaping themselves into this new dynamic, museums have, in turn, adopted corporate strategies: relentless expansion, user-friendliness, slick advertising.

To some degree, the museums have benefited, at least financially. Urban museums that have mastered these strategies most successfully are crowded places — destination brands; busy, event-driven entertainment centers. But as generators of life lessons, shapers of moral thinking, explainers of history, they no longer matter, because they’re not asking people to look for any of that.

Could anything change this dynamic? Maybe telling the truth about history, including their own, could. Periodically, in past decades, they’ve been forced to do this. Such was the case in the 1960s, when a group of antiwar, pro-labor artists, loosely united under the name Art Workers’ Coalition, connected the dots linking some members of the Museum of Modern Art’s board of trustees to the governmental and economic forces backing the Vietnam War, including companies that manufactured napalm.

The artists staged guerrilla performances inside MoMA and designed one of the most potent art images, a poster using a photograph of the dead at My Lai, with the caption “Q. And babies? A. And babies.” The museum stonewalled, and the moment passed. But the reality that museums are, or can be, ethically and politically compromised had been exposed.

It was exposed again in 1969, when the Met mounted the exhibition “Harlem on My Mind.” The Met’s stated purpose was to attract African-American visitors, a neglected constituency, to the museum. But actions speak louder than words. The show consisted of photomurals, slides, films, texts and audio recordings, but no art, in the traditional sense, at all. The takeaway was that the Met had deemed no work by Harlem artists worthy of display. In the view of some visitors, the show had inadvertently betrayed the curators’ real feelings about their target audience. And members of that audience pushed back.

Black artists picketed the show, and soon afterward took their activist anger to other New York museums. (This history is fully documented in Susan E. Cahan’s new book, “Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power.”) By organizing the show, the Met had, in ways it could not have predicted, raised political consciousness about de facto racial segregation and exclusion in American art and its institutions. That segregation would loosen only gradually, in what is still very much a work in process. But a crucial impetus for progress can be traced to that exhibition.

Exhibitions come and go; displays of work from a museum’s permanent collection are on view all the time. Supervised by staff curators, these exhibits are the true indicators of how an institution thinks about art as evidence of history. Yet even in a museum like the Met, whose globe-spanning collections are rich and deep enough to yield many narratives, and opportunities to revise, correct and expand these narratives, very little attempt at exploratory truth-telling can be found.

Adapted from Nytimes.

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Jack Westin
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19 Comments


  1. Museums are now a source of protest within communities. The question lies whether or not museums reveal the true reality of all groups of people and the culture of a society. Ex: Louvre and Met/ oil rigs/AA + art representation

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  2. Moral life used to be instructed by (art) museums, but this status has changed in light of ethical and political issues; confronting museums’ own history in an all-inclusive way could allow them to once more become authorities of truth deserving respect. (ex: Louvre, MoMA, Met)

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  3. Museums are no longer a place of truth-telling, it became more like a corporate business and a place for entertainment. Many museums doesn’t represent all groups of people.

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  4. How to live = art. Museum = corp. Museum =/= truth-tell (CW).

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  5. Museums have moved from a place of morals to one of corruption and corporate business.

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  6. MI: Museums guilty of taking money from opponents of climate change, or anti-environmental or health corporations. Historically people pushing museums to uphold more righteous image, not taking money from these sources- also, museum like MET not displaying Harlem art.

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  7. Museums have become more involved in the political stadium than before

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  8. Museums are businesses just like the corporations that fund them, and their public image is changing (negatively) due to the increasing transparency of this fact.

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  9. back in ages, museums are thought to be a moral standard where people can look up to.
    however, these days they are corrupted by wealthy marketing focused investors and companies.
    museums and the institutions alike must tell truth to make a come back.

    Reply

  10. musuems and similar institutions have become capitalistic, and are a part of/maintaining the status quo rather than spear heading change

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  11. Museums = spoiled by corporations, adopted corporate strategies —> no truth. Museums must tell truth about history and their own history as well.

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  12. The link between corporations and museums is rooted in history; there is no truth sometimes in the art from these museums

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  13. Museums have lost their status as moral centers through works of art and have transformed into hotspots for global capitalism

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  14. museums influenced by corporations, museums morally compromised

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  15. MIP: People have looked to art for moral advice, and this idea ties into the power that art museums have on peoples perception. People now perceive museums as partners with corporations who look to increase global capitalism.

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  16. Art was the way to answer people’s questions in many ways. The museums were somewhat helpful at first, until it started to shift its interest to a more profitable and just to get more attention while hiding the truth of history. Museums have been exposed multiple times when people started to protest against its ties and relationships with major corporations.

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  17. Art inspires change, museums can be exposed, change bad practices = truth telling , Tone = Negative ‘met’

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  18. art have been the place for people to go when feeling lost. however, due to corruptions that have been placed, museums aren’t really seen as sacred place anymore. author said that museum should a place of truth.

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  19. MIP
    (1) Art = help w/ moral issues (past)
    (2) Art museums = new target b/c “status”
    (3) Current museums: entertainment/profit >> moral/thinking
    (4) Museums = ethically & politically compromised
    (5) Protests against museums bring issues to light (au)

    Tone
    Positive towards protests; critical towards museums

    Reply

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