The Postmodern Art Museum
In a New York Times article titled "Outside In: Non-Western Art Moves Into the Main Gallery" (no longer available without a fee), critic Holland Cotter described the way major museums have started opening up their galleries to non-Western art in response to this new sense of pluralism, placing work by those who would have been "outsiders" very recently next to kings of the Canon. Despite the trend in expanding museums, however, this new non-limiting approach will result in much larger inventories for those institutions who pride themselves on having "deep" contemporary collections, and even still, they'll---by definition---be forever hopelessly incomplete.
Edward Underscore identifies the dilemma facing museums that hope to represent an avant-gardish, unified notion of The Progress of Art. My hope is that museums will recognize that attempting to be totally representative is futile. There is, frankly, too much art--Western and Non-Western, high-art and low-art, avant-garde or experiments cut off--for a museum to hope to embody the whole. So much of what an institutitionalized museum buys in the name of completeness ends up in the basement anyways.
Instead, I'm all for a dispersion of artistic forms into specialized genres and media. I have a French friend who's mad into 17th century etchings. In order to see the Louvre collection of Jacques Callot--which is extensive, comprising period printings and the original plates--he first had to apply for a special archivist's permit and finally ended up using family connections to get into the underground lair of people interested in art printing. This was of course in France, where bureaucratic hurdling is practically a spectator sport, but can American museums really boast that their "minor arts" are so democratically displayed? are the "minor arts" more available to the average fan? Of course, I do have to say that the new MoMa in New York is making gallant efforts to showcase its minor-art collections--the print and drawing galleries are prominently located, and the contemporary artists are, incredibly, on the first exhibit floor--but it's starting to seem like a rear-guard effort.
I'm reading a lot of eighteenth-century history of print right now--please don't ask--and one of the more amusing avenues of research has been the evolution of the old "tree of knowledge" model of organizating everything that was known into the more familiar encyclopedia model. See, the "tree of knowledge" related all the bits back to each other: the lineage of each idea was supposed to be known, and the categories were supposed to be clear. With the encyclopedia, on the other hand, the only ordering is alphabetical. It's supposed to be a break-through in the Enlightenment project, but in many respects it's more like a break-down: "we can't construct a master-system any more, so just look it up yourself!" I guess it is a break-through if you look at it one way: the first step, after all, is to admit you have a problem.
So, that's what I think about the universal art museum--and particularly as the institution has evolved in America. The attempt to have every museum construct its own little system of everything, represent every important movement, and put everything into relation is meeting a day of reckoning. This break-down is an important break-through because it means that there's more art out there being produced than can be comfortably fit into a totalizing system. Or shunted off into a basement as inconvenient.
[And I recommend highly reading the entire thread of Edward's post: he discusses the problem of valuing art with a number of readers with wildly different exposure to art and art theory and manages to keep his cool and his enthusiasm at the same time. Edward, I'm impressed.]