Should museums mix departments?

In a recent article in The Guardian, The School of Life founder Alain de Botton questions the role of the modern art museum, positing since “museums of art our are new churches,” they may better serve the public by reorganizing themselves to take on the inspirational, instructional and other duties previously performed by actual churches.

De Botton writes:

The problem is that modern museums of art fail to tell people directly why art matters, because modernist aesthetics (in which curators are trained) is so deeply suspicious of any hint of an instrumental approach to culture. To have an answer anyone could grasp as to the question of why art matters is too quickly viewed as “reductive”. We have too easily swallowed the modernist idea that art that aims to change or help or console its audience must by definition be “bad art” – Soviet art is routinely trotted out here as an example – and that only art that wants nothing of us can be good. Hence the all-too-frequent question with which we leave the modern museum of art: what did that mean?

Why should this veneration of ambiguity continue? Why should confusion be a central aesthetic emotion? Is an emptiness of intent on the part of an artwork really a sign of its importance?

He continues by suggesting that museums can better influence viewers by changing their exhibitions:

Modern art museums typically lead us into galleries set out under headings such as “the 19th century” and “the Northern Italian School”, which reflect the academic traditions in which their curators have been educated. A more fertile indexing system might group together artworks from across genres and eras according to our inner needs. A walk through a museum of art should amount to a structured encounter with a few of the things that are easiest for us to forget and most essential and life-enhancing to remember.

Is de Botton’s argument valid? Is his proposed mixing of genres and eras according to viewers’ inner needs a sound art historical practice? Is genre mixing–for other reasons–the future of the art museum? Has any museum done this successfully?

Please post your thoughts in the comments.


One thought on “Should museums mix departments?

  1. I don’t see de Botton’s argument as valid (or particularly new), What are these “inner needs” he speaks of, the things that are so “life-enhancing” and in his words “essential”? Does he mean pornographic images? Images of cats with funny expressions? Pretty moonlit landscapes? What?

    Ambiguity and confusion are central to modernist practice because modernist practice is interested in the ambiguity and confusion of daily life. It is difficult to discuss “inner needs” when, for example, the unconscious (or even the possibility of its existence) makes our needs only partially intelligible and confusing to ourselves. The focus on the ambiguous over the “essential” is not some conspiracy of modernist aesthetics, but the result of the inevitable rational conclusion that positing an “essential” answer makes for a circular argument.

    As I follow the argument it goes: since museums are now the new churches, they might carry on the unpleasantness we’ve come to expect from churches–pedantically pushing their own improbable view of what is really important. Such a unified world view (thankfully) doesn’t exist, in art or elsewhere, so we are safe from de Botton’s attempts to reinvent the wheel of art-as-educating-and-enlightening

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