Apollo’s Lyre and Pandora’s Box: Douglas Crimp on the Neoconservative Museum

In preparation for his talk at the Wexner Center for the Arts next week, I have been reading Douglas Crimp’s On the Museum’s Ruins. 

The book, published in 1993, gathers together essays that Crimp had previously published (especially in October) in the 1980s, alongside a selection of Louise Lawler’s photographs. Mid-way through the introduction (“Photography at the End of Modernism”), written especially for the book, Crimp mentions the final three essays, each of which:

take as their impetus, respectively, three “originary” institutions, the late Renaissance Wunderkammer, the Fridericianum in Kassel, and Berlin’s Altes Museum, not to uncover their true histories but to observe how they have been pressed into the service of contemporary museological historicism. What is at issue is the contemporary art of exhibition: the construction of new museums and the expansion and reorganization of existing ones to create a conflict-free representation of art history, and, concurrently, the effacement or co-optation of current adversary art practices.

This reference to the museum at the heart of Documenta – the Fridericianum in Kassel – and the idea of the creation of a ‘conflict-free representation of art history’, sent me towards the back of the book and to the essay “The Art of Exhibition”.

In his essay, originally published in October in Autumn 1984, Crimp discusses three exhibitions – Rudi Fuch’s 1982 documenta 7 in Kassel, Christos Joachimides and Norman Rosenthal’s Zeitgeist, also in 1982, at the Internationale Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin, and Kynaston McShine’s 1984 An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Through an analysis of the statements of the curators and essays in the exhibition catalogues of these expansive exhibitions devoted to the neoexpressionist ‘spirit’ in painting and sculpture, Crimp identifies a neoconservative resistance towards politically engaged art, located in the space of the museum as institution. Crimp writes:

In this, the official neoconservative view of the current purposes of the museum, it is one of the consequences of the distortion of the historical avantgarde that the museum should abandon altogether its task of presenting any practices which do not conform to the traditional view of fine art, to return, that is, to the prerogatives of painting and sculpture.

At documenta 7, Crimp recalls the intervention of Louise Lawler, who was invited, not by the curator Rudi Fuchs, but by a participating artist, Jenny Holzer. Lawler produced stationary that presented quotations from Fuch’s letter of invitation to the artists. Here is an example, with a detail of the quoted text:

In writing about how documenta 7 glossed over the history of Kassel and the Fridericianum in particular, Crimp picks up on Fuch’s use of the phrase ‘Apollo’s lyre’ for criticism:

Kassel has, however, as I have stated, a recent history that is relevant. If Fuchs had to build walls within the museum it was because the original ones had been destroyed by the Allied bombings of World War II. Kassel, once at the very center of Germany, was one of Hitler’s strategic am- munition depots. But Kassel no longer lies at the center of Germany; it is now only a few miles from the border of that other Germany to the east. [Hans] Haacke’s work, then, might have evoked for Documenta’s visitors not Kassel’s glorious eighteenth-century past, but its precarious present, at a time when the tensions of the cold war have been dangerously escalated once again. Perhaps it is this hard and brutal fact above all that Fuchs would have us forget as we are lulled by the soft sounds of Apollo’s lyre.

Later, when discussing Zeitgeist, Crimp returns to this classicizing phrase in a way that suggests that the neoexpressionist painters on display were, in fact, more Dionysian than Apolline (evoking Nietzsche’s dynamic tension). To make this argument, Crimp again quotes from the catalogue, this time, not the curators, but a contribution by Robert Rosenblum.

From this Pandora’s Box, a never-ending stream of legendary creatures is emerging, populating these new canvases in the most unexpected ways. This attack upon the traditional iconoclasm of abstract art and the empirical assumptions of photographic imagery has aggressively absorbed the wildest range of beings taken from the Bible, from comic strips, from historical legend, from literary pantheons, from classical lore.

Crimp reacts to this overblown statement and others in the catalogue by returning to the figure of the museum and neoconservative power games that align the ‘new’ with an apolitical ‘spirit’ in painting and sculpture.

But what is left out of these descriptions of contemporary art? What is, in fact, repressed, denied? The hidden agenda of this version of recent history is the calculated exclusion of the truly significant developments of the art of the past two decades. By characterizing the art of this period as abstract, geometric, intellective, the real terms of art practice are elided. Where do texts of the critique of the institutions of power which seek to limit and function of art to the purely aesthetic? Where is a discussion of the attempted dissolution of the beaux-arts mediums and their replacement with modes of production which could better resist those institutions? Where do we find an analysis of work by feminists and minorities whose marginalization by the art institutions became a significant point of departure for the creation of alternative practices? Where do we find mention of those direct interventions by artists in their local social environments? Where, in short, in these essays can we learn of the political critique which has been the real thrust of our recent art?

Crimp continues to expand this analysis closer to home, at McShine’s 1984 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, recently reopened and which displayed a Bell 47 D-1 helicopter for its design as a “ubiquitous contemporary artifact”. Crimp notes the irony of how it is displayed as purely aesthetic object, without any reference to the then current US warmongering:

ubiquitous indeed, since it is and has been the most essential instrument of counter-insurgency warfare…right now in use in El Salvador, Honduras (which means, of course, against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua), and Guatemala.

We need to remember Crimp’s chilling conclusions today more than ever, during the so-called Freedom Week”, in which members of an OSU student group arm of the conservative group Young America’s Foundation, chose to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and spread of the neoconservative “freedom” of the Reagan administration by plastering hateful posters (stating “Leftist Ideas: “progress” that always leads to death”) across my office bulletin board (targeting, no doubt, my “No Hate Space” poster) and documenting it on their Facebook page.

It is within this context that, as a Classicist, I today read the references to Apollo’s lyre and Pandora’s box in documenta 7 and Zeitgeist. Both classical reference act as grounding the neoconservative discourse that Crimp is set on deconstructing. How many institutions today, both in the art world and beyond, mobilize a conservative agenda of exclusion and hate by invoking the Classical past?

I find in the work of Crimp (and in Lawler) timely tools whereby we can point to cracks in the triumphalist discourse of a ‘new’ conservatism, as well as its creaky appropriation of a racist and sexist antiquity, and build a truly new museum (university and world) firmly on top of its deluded and hateful ruins.

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