architecture, art

This is a fantastically interesting article about the Barnes gallery in Philadelphia, which is apparently being picked apart and its pedigreed works rehoused. I never visited it and I’m kicking myself now, because the gallery sounds like a really interesting gesamtwerk – an arrangement of artworks that was itself an artwork, and that has now been destroyed.

Or, at least, I consider pages 3 and 10-12 to be a fascinating story of conflicts between personal vision and public access, of stewardship and the ownership of original intentions and the fragility of both the gesamtwerk and the architectural experience as forms of communication. Most of the rest is ecstatic ekphrasis, which I don’t personally need. Pages 13-14, which come to the point of the philippic – that museums no longer contribute to the values that built them – are also provocative and might point to fundamental truths about public life, but I’m not going to comment on them today.

There’s a lot of places I could go from here. I could explain why I prefer to study architectural (or art) history as a subdiscipline of history, rather than as an aspect of art appreciation. I could discuss the changing nature of the museum and what I think it means, or I could write in a personal way about gesamtwerks and weltanschauung and philosophers’ gardens or rocks. But I think I’d better restrict myself to a small point, that if you’re building something unique, which you intend to stand for the ages, then you’d better be careful about the help you accept. Because the lesson I take away from all this is the Maussian one about the poison in the gift: the day Barnes accepted public money he lost the ownership of his artwork. He handed the keys – figuratively at the time, literally later, to whoever might come along in the skin of The Public Interest. And the irony is that he knew exactly what would happen – that if his work was to survive it would have to be protected from the public – but he had no method for handling succession, to the next proper gardener of his sacred grove.


2 Comments to “architecture, art”

  1. It is an interesting problematic that you point to and perhaps speaks to the shifting meanings of “public” (or, more precisely, the separation of “public good” from the public itself). I recently visited this place ( and was struck by two things: 1. the mediocrity of the collection 2. the totality of the site’s design. She had apparently stipulated in her will the ways in which the museum was to be shown to the public. One has to join a tour and one is forbidden from driving up to the grounds by oneself. While touring the place, one has the unmistakable feeling that even though everything is on display, it’s not necessarily for YOUR benefit.
    Anyway, I was inspired by one of the tangents you didn’t take in this entry: why you prefer to study architectural (or art) history as a subdiscipline of history and not as an aspect of art appreciation. It seems to me this is worth exploring at greater length early on in the dissertation. I wonder whether it is possible to do both: to do a serious political history while being attentive to the development of aesthetic value.

  2. When I wrote that I had a sense that I knew exactly why I consider myself a historian first – I’m not as confident in that sense today. I guess it’s mostly because I have no interest in being a praise-singer or reading about how great things are (my first response to such writing is always (a) “define greatness” and (b) “who does or should share this view of greatness?” And then I start to wonder about the social history of the idea and the people who’ve held it). Or to put it another way, I’m OK with making value judgments about a thing’s “importance” (how it affected the lives of numbers of people) but I don’t much like propagating value judgments about whether something is good.

    Regarding Shangri-La and creations like it, I feel rather divided: on the one hand I love the museum as artwork (I’m even a sucker for the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Teatro-Museo Gala-Dali), on the other, maybe I love it even more when it’s not declared as such, but in a certain sense the critical literature on museums seems to depend on this perpetual discovery that museums are always artworks – never putatively “neutral presentations of knowledge,” always statements on the part of some agency or other, and without this discovery, without the spectre of the neutral, the critical literature loses a lot of its point.
    I’d love to see the suzanis in the Doris Duke collection. Were they disappointing too, or was it more the overall level that was disappointing?

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