Book Reviews

By Serchuk, Camille | Transformations, March 31, 1998 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews


Serchuk, Camille, Transformations


Book Reviews

Duncan, Carol. Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. New York: Routledge, 1995. Paperback. 178 pages. $16.95.

Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997. Hardcover. 264 pages. $29.95.

In these thought-provoking works, two distinguished feminist scholars turn their attention to problems and issues that seem at first only vaguely related to feminist art history. In fact, they do so to investigate the marginalization and exclusion of women from two distinct realms: the modern art museum and Neoclassical painting.

Carol Duncan's book is a rich resource for museum history and lore. Duncan's writing and argumentation are clear and accessible and refreshingly free of obscure language. The intriguing premise of Civilizing Rituals is that the art museum is a ritual space. Yet despite Duncan's repeated assertion of the nature of the museum as such a space, and her use of anthropological conceptions of ritual and liminality, the premise sometimes seems more imposed than integral to her discussion. Her chapters cast the museum not so much as the site for the ritual enactment of certain behaviors, but more as a politically charged, classist, and gendered repository of the values of elite high culture. Forces of good and evil struggle in every chapter: the former include educational programs, democratic governance over resources, and accessibility; the latter feature aristocratic and elitist board members, sexist curators, and egomaniacal donors. For the most part, good triumphs over evil until the last chapter, where her reading of the installations at the Museum of Modern Art makes it clear that the battle still rages.

Each of Duncan's five chapters sheds new light on different types of art museums and issues pertaining to their formation and focus. In the first chapter, she establishes the basic principles of her investigation. She lays the groundwork for her assertion that the museum is a ritual space by pointing out constraints on behavior within it. In the spare installations favored by many galleries she sees the implication of an "aesthetic temple." Perhaps most importantly, Duncan establishes the museum and its contents as a field in which public and private interests compete.

In her second chapter, "From the Princely Gallery to the Public Art Museum: The Louvre Museum and the National Gallery, London," Duncan looks at the political underpinnings of the foundations of these two collections. The Louvre was nationalized after the French Revolution and was opened to the public free of charge. The transformation of the former royal palace into a public institution was obviously politically motivated. In England, where there was no strong republican movement, let alone a political cataclysm, the need for a national collection arose out of what Duncan calls "museum envy." Reformists took pleasure in exposing the ignorance of aristocratic connoisseurs who had installed as keeper of the newly established gallery a man who knew nothing of lighting or installation, and perhaps more gravely in the view of the time, had never been to Italy. Eventually, after considerable struggle and consultations with learned experts, the National Gallery embarked on a rationalized program of collection and installation.

In the next chapter, "Public Spaces, Private Interests: Municipal Art Museums in New York and Chicago," Duncan examines the establishment of municipal museums on this side of the Atlantic, notably New York and Chicago. She is particularly concerned with the way these collections balance their public mission with the wishes of their powerful private donors. In her discussion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Duncan's rich description of this struggle explains how the entry fee and the museum's Sunday closing minimized the access of the working poor to the collection. Her thorough account includes quotes from trustees who felt that the Met was "a private affair and . …

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