Culture and Power

By Platt, Susan | Art Journal, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview
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Culture and Power

Platt, Susan, Art Journal

Carol Duncan. Civilizing Rituals inside Public Art Museums. New York: Routledge, 1995. 178 pp.; 51 b/w ills. $49.95, $16.95 paper

Jonathan Harris. Federal Art and National Culture: The Politics of Identity in New Deal America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 236 pp.; 8 b/w ills. $54.95

Mary Jane Jacob with Michael Brenson and Eva M. Olson. Culture in Action: A Public Art Program of Sculpture Chicago, exh. cat. Seattle: Bay Press, 1995. 144 pp.; 120 color ills. $20.00

In 1996 funding for culture is being rapidly dismantled by national and local politicians who see artists and their work as an opportunity for bad jokes that give them political capital. This attack on culture is far more dangerous and widespread than the accusations of pornography against Robert Mapplethorpe that galvanized the art world a few years ago. Now, in a spirit that resembles the McCarthy era, the entire arena of culture is being discredited and denigrated.

All three of these books provide helpful perspectives on our current crises and culture wars. All chronicle the role of culture as a means of political and social change, but they look at sharply contrasting positions for culture in relationship to the structures of power. Carol Duncan's book primarily focuses on the Gilded era, when capitalists who wanted to clean up their reputations turned to culture as a wonderfully effective detergent. Duncan considers culture as an elitist, highly controlled production confined to the top echelons of society. Jonathan Harris looks at culture as an ideological vehicle for the government during the New Deal. Finally, Culture in Action chronicles how in 1992 a partnership of government, corporate, and private donors sanctioned a highly disparate engagement of socially concerned artists in non-elitist communities. The power of culture here was negotiated equally by sponsors, artists, and the public. In many ways it presents a benchmark of the ideal that is possible-but rarely achieved.

Duncan states that she is concerned with the museum as an ideological site. The book consists of five concise chapters. The first sets up the conjunction of ritual space, morality, and transcendent or liminal experience. She sees the museum space as "one of those sites in which politically organized and socially organized institutionalized power most avidly seeks to realize its desire to appear as beautiful, natural, and legitimate" (p. 6). Such a sentence reveals the real motive in writing the book. Duncan claims that by controlling the spaces in which the cultural artifacts are displayed, the museum also controls the "representation of a community and its highest values and truths" (p. 8). It even has the power to define the "relative standing of individuals within that community" (p. 8).

She then elaborates on this analysis in terms of designated prestigious spaces that include the Louvre, National Gallery in London, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Art Institute of Chicago. Another chapter looks at the donor memorial including the Huntington Art Gallery, Frick Collection, Pierpont Morgan Library, Getty, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (briefly), Lehman wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The last chapter, "The Modern Art Museum," shifts the emphasis to an analysis the author has widely published on the gendered narrative of the permanent collection there.

The entire book is essentially about the museum as a capitalist ritual. But, oddly, after over a hundred pages that convince us of this idea, she declares: "art museums . . . are spaces in which communities can work out the values that identify them as communities. Whatever their limitations, however large or small and however peripheral they often seem, art museum space is space worth fighting for" (p. 134). These comments set up a new book, rather than concluding the present one, by first suggesting that the ritual has an active public with its own ideas that can itself define the museum space, and by second stating that museum "space" should be "fought for.

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