Does Contemporary Art Need Museums Anymore?

The 1990s showed an increasing proliferation—indeed a boom—of museums. World architects competed for a dreamy amount of money, capital that was reserved by city councils, state associations, and funds in Western Europe and America for the third millennium deal-of-a-lifetime in culture, from Texas to Boston, from Helsinki to Berlin, to build new museums for art and to renovate old ones.

In the heart of the city of Berlin, in the so-called Berlin inner city island, five museums will be rebuilt in the year 2000 and beyond; the cost of the project is estimated at one billion euros.

According to various reports, never has such a quantity of museums and galleries, at such a rate of financial support, been constructed. The triumph of the museum is real, and thus it is perhaps more appropriate to reverse the introductory question: Does the Western museum of modern art need art anymore?

Further, how does this affect or undermine the set of parameters of the museum in itself? Museums are among those structures that institutionalized the processes of art and culture in a way that allows us to think about art as an institution. Museums institutionalize and regulate a public sphere of demand, production, and consumption in art. Museums, moreover, are institutions that have codified and structured art in the modern world.

We must recognize the redistributed relations of power and the new inner agents and forces in the very institution of art. Currently, the audience in art is turned from res nulius, from something which belonged to no one, into res publica, a public affair, which must be accounted for in every serious analysis of modern art.

Not only is this because of the new tourist logic of the museums, but because of new art production in the changing (local) map of Europe, Asia, Africa, and so on. Museums, and the institution of art, have to reflect the establishment of new relations of power among the urban periphery, the center, and the institutions.

The question—”Does contemporary art need museums anymore?”—perhaps would suggest that it is time to bridge the gap between art and life, transcending Art as the institution of power, bringing it down to earth, making it direct and real. But, as we already know, outside the corrupted “institution of art” there is no authentic, unspoiled reality of life.

Even the community itself is an institution of relations, of stratified power and dynamics. The institution of modern art, including the whole spectrum of power and hierarchic relations embodied and comprised in it, shows something more: that our historical ideas about how we construct the museum are clearly vanishing in the face of this new situation.

Does this imply the death of the museum, as has been proposed in poststructural theory?

No. On the contrary, it is, as Peter Weibel has stated on the subject, the end of the historical definition of the museum. This conclusion of definition (that has nothing to do with the end of the museum, as it seems thatthe museum will in fact live eternally) should be viewed in the context of a complex set of complementary oppositions: between reality and its phantasmic support, between the law and the inherent transgression of law.

To clarify, phantasmic support, or scenario, is a construction of fantasies or, simply put, of thoughts on different situations and relations that help one, or the object, the topic under discussion, to resist and to survive unchanged in so-called everyday reality.

The subject fantasizes about the object and relations not to escape from them, but to sustain them in reality unchanged, as these phantasmic scenarios or thoughts simply prevent the passage to real action and change.

Herein lies the power of fantasy, or of the phantasmic scenario or construction. Fantasy and the phantasmic scenario have nothing to do with something fantastic or unreal, but are, despite being constructions and scenarios, almost material.

The phantasmic scenario, a fantasy, has the power to prevent an action and to sustain, or support, the situation as it is in reality: unchanged and more effective than with the so-called hard-boiled material facts, present and active in this very reality.

Returning to the statement that we are witnessing today the end of the historical definition of the museum, we see, and I refer once again to Weibel, a shift from author- and object-centered work to observer- and machine-operations-centered work. The question revolves not around the machine, but around the logic of the machine that is transposed in the work of art.

Here we find a change in the historical definition of the museum. A new moment that seems crucial is also an artificiality of perception and positioning that is connected with the fictionalization of history.

The museum is traditionally perceived as a “natural” site and was preserved in a locality of surroundings and continuity, but with the new projects and media-oriented artworks that integrate the public as a fundamental element of the work, we can experience and recognize the artificial social construction of the site of art. The museum is an extension of art, but an artificial one.

We can argue that today the power of the Western museum of modern art is real, but we cannot move further if we establish the analysis exclusively in such a way.

I would say simply that the universe of the museum cannot be grasped only as a means of direct social criticism (the repetitive phraseology about the museum as an institution of art, coresponsible for the distribution and reproduction of the power of capital, is a fact confirmed even by those who run these museums).

I propose that we traverse the phantasmic universe of the museum not only by way of direct criticism, but strictly theoretically (relying upon philosophy, psychoanalysis,art theory, and art history), reviewing fantasies of the current position of the museum, about its historical power or nonpower relations, in order to reach a possible conclusion. We have to change slightly the terms of perspective.

Therefore, we can say that instead of the spectral power that was attributed to the museum in the ’70s, when the idea of the revolution of the museum arose and the museum had to face a symbolical destruction that imprinted a kind of spectral power-indestructible also in the case of its potential destruction—the museum of 2000 is, in its constant assertion of its real power, definitely vulgar, cold, manipulative and almost deprived of any aura.

The museum today is well aware of its own financial, economic, and symbolic power, at least the museums of modern art in the Western world, such as North America, and in Japan, if we think only of the millions of dollars invested in the developed Western world toward reorganizing the museums, toward building and rebuilding them.

In the ’70s, the museum was perceived as a threat to the art community because of its historical and chronological time classifications and the developing idea of constant progress in art and culture through styles and trends.

The museum was seen as a place of restriction and power, an institution that dominated the field and violently provoked the conceptual and neo-avant-garde art world only to undermine it.

The new situation in the ’90s, when the museum visibly and transparently asserted its power and its connection to money, capital, and architecture, can be described as a process of bringing to light and acting out the underlying fantasy of the ’70s.

That situation was much more effective, and threatening, for the social and symbolic sphere of art perceived as “the Institution” than the spectral power of the museum of the ’70s.

We should not forget that this new museum structure threatens art precisely by acting out, directly and brutally, the reality of the art and social institution.

In a way, this directness is also a cynical gesture: as if the museum, as an institution, is giving directly to the art world what this world has hallucinated over for decades, and it seems today that this is the most effective way to distort the art world.

Constructive diversion, or a sabotage of the museum as an institution of power, is simply not possible because a coordinated international action, based on solidarity against Art seen as an Institution, is not possible either.

It is commonly known that as a consequence of the readymade, the system of galleries and museums changed the modalities of the artistic function in the beginning of the past century.

Before the readymade, all the elements of artwork were inherent or internal to the material with which the work was realized. Although the artists could have some ideas about norms and values, these external elements were not part of the work of art.

This is why an artwork that was designed as an artwork could be recognized as such out of the art context. On the contrary, the content of a readymade is not the concrete object, but its context—i.e., the art gallery or museum.

It is possible to say that the context is the content of a readymade, and, therefore, the object of the readymade is the gallery system in itself (Goran Djordevic in Grzinic).

What is more important is that the appearance, the birth of a readymade, allowed galleries and museums to take the monopoly of evaluating the work of art in society.

In fact, that a readymade was accepted as a work of art openly demonstrates the arbitrariness of the definition of the artwork by the gallery system and museums. We can say that the purest sign of the real power of the system of galleries and museums in society is that the readymade was accepted as a work of art. From that moment on, this relation is unchanged.

The next point to grasp is that in this displacement from reality to a fantasized universe, the status of the obstacle changes: In the ’70s, the obstacle, the failure, was inherent (the relation between the museum and the neo-avant-garde movement in art simply did not work).

In the second half of the ’90s, this inherent impossibility was externalized into the positive obstacle that from the outside prevents its actualization: History, progress, and chronological time are now seen through antihistorical views.

And this move, from inherent impossibility to external obstacle, is the very definition of fantasy, of the phantasmic objective position in which the inherent deadlock acquires positive existence.

Ahistorical exhibitions, ruptures in styles, trends, and classifications, all work under the implication that with these obstacles cancelled, the relationship will run smoothly. The museum is presented as an institution, a self-reflecting historical phenomenon that uses its own means to examine its functions and possibilities in the context of today’s multimedia society.

When all the chronology and history concepts come down to earth, then the reordering of the museum and gallery space is based on the curator’s geniality and taste; the spaces are seen as a possibility for objective random collective memory (a relative term) in images and space.

This museum structure is no less hallucinatory and no less a spectralization of the phantasmic scenario of the power of the art institution from the past.

In contrast to the traditional actions of the museum masking its power structure, such as in the ’70s when it was sustained only as the phantasmic spectral entity, the museum today does exactly the opposite: It destroys not itself, but its phantasmic image/support.

As opposed to the ’70s, when the museum was segregated and survived as spectral entity, it seems that in the ’80s and ’90s the museum survives in reality by sacrificing, by destroying its phantasmic support.

The museum openly assumes the role of what is possible to call the devil of transparency, but the paradox of self-exposure, self-transparency, tells us that this transparency makes it even more enigmatic. The art community thinks—not wanting to accept this—that behind the cold manipulative surface, there must be something else. Perhaps not.

In the ’70s, Harald Szeemann insisted and formulated the idea of the open museum; attempts were made to make social contradictions visible in the museum and, consequently, to free art from being sentenced to the museum by connecting it once more with the world outside. The formula phrase is simply: Art must awaken; museums are prisons.

In the ’80s, Harald Szeemann stated: The museum is a house for art (in Archis, 1988, in a conversation with Rob de Graaf and Antje von Graevenitz ), and, moreover, that art is “fragile, an alternative to everything in our society that is geared to consumption and reproduction … that is why art needs to be protected, and the museum is the proper place for this.”

The museum is not what it seemed to be—and, therefore, is not a prison (in Debora Meijer’s paper/lecture from 1991).

In the ’90s and in the beginning of the millennium, the catchphrase is: Does modern art need museums anymore? This question announces rhetorically the potential death of the obscene paternal figure—namely the museum—in art.

In short, this circularity is based on the inability of the museum to encounter itself, its proper position. At first the institution is troubled by some insistent message (the symptom), which bombards it from outside, but then, at the conclusion of the analysis, the museum could be able to assume this message as its own.

“Does modern art need the museum anymore?” can be read as the assertion of the castration: The “father” is always already dead—castrated. There is no enjoying of the Other; the promise of the fantasy is a lure.

This is why the figure of the castrated father is the figure of an excessively exuberant father, similar to the figure of the present-day museum. Museums are so empowered on the surface with exuberant, excessive architecture, that it is almost not necessary to go inside; it is enough to view it from the outside.

Let us return to the starting point from another perspective: the ’80s museum was a house for art, and the ’90s museum is the obscene one that reveals, rather than masks, all its power.

These two poles can be seen as, first, the “protective museum” and, second, the obscene, authoritarian, and empowered museum.

The two poles can be reformulated as appearance versus reality, the protective institution against the Real of the overempowered museum of today that becomes so transparent—obscene—in its visibility.

Nevertheless, although such polarization tells a lot about the museum spectral figure and its completely artificial character, in the end it rings false.

It is crucial to understand that we are not dealing here with the opposition between the appearance of the protective museum and, on the other hand, the cruel reality of the powerful’90s institution of modern art that becomes visible once we demystify its appearance.

The overpowered museum, far from being the Real beneath the protective appearance, is rather itself a fantasy formation, a protective shield. Both institutions, museums from the ’80s and ’90s, suspend the agency of the symbolic law/prohibition, whose function is to introduce art into the universe of social reality.

The two eras are the opposition between the Imaginary and the Real; the ’80s museum is the protector of an imaginary safety and the ’90s museum (just refer back to Moderna Galerija) is the sign of almost lawless violence.

The two museum conditions, the imaginary and real, are what are left once the paternal symbolic authority disintegrates. (What is missing is the museum as the carrier of the symbolic authority, the name of the father).

What we get, instead, are strangely derealized museums, blind museum mechanisms that en/act immediately, with no delay.

Multiculturalism is the cultural logic of global capitalism, as new spiritualism is its ideology; multiculturalism is not about novelization (as I believed in the past), but about multiplication; this is why global capitalism needs particular identities.

In this triangle of global-multicultural-spiritual, the postpolitical must be seen not as the conflict between global and national ideological visions that are represented by competitive parties, but as a kind of abstract collaboration.

Both the old and new museum—and the “new” museum in the postsocialist context—are caught in an ideological trap. The museum defense against the true threat is actually to stage a bloody, aggressive, and destructive threat in order to protect the abstract, sanitized situation.

See also Allan Siegel’s response to this article here.

Marina Grzinic Mauhler works as researcher of aesthetics and philosopher of new technologies (virtual reality, internet) at the Ljubljana Institute of Philosophy at the Scientific and Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts. She also works as a freelance critic and curator, especially in media art and is herself involved in videoart and media installations for 20 years.


  1. Marina Grzinic, Fiction reconstructed: Eastern Europe, Post-socialism and the Retro-avant-garde, Vienna: Edition selene, 2000.
  2. Debora Meijers, “The Museum and The A-Historical Exhibition: the latest gimmick by the arbiters of taste, or an important cultural phenomenon?” in Place, Position, Presentation, Public, ed. Ine Gevers (Maastricht and Amsterdam: Jan van Eyck Akademie and De Balie, 1993).
  3. Peter Weibel, “Ways of Contextualisation,” in Place, Position, Presentation, Public, ed. Ine Gevers (Maastricht and Amsterdam: Jan van Eyck Akademie and De Balie, 1993).
  4. SlavojŽižek, The Plague of Fantasies, London: Verso, 1997.
  5. Slavoj Žižek, The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Seattle: The Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities, 2000.

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