How and why have artists since the 1960s criticised the museum?

The post-world War II era witnessed the emergence of a counter-cultural movement, which started in the 1960s in the United Kingdom and then spread to the United States and the whole of the Western world by the mid-1970s. Among the socio-political and economic issues which fuelled the development of the anti-establishment movement, racial segregation, war, decolonisation, sexuality, and human rights played key roles. In the world of art, this desire to challenge established authority took the form of institutional critique, which was born out of the artists’ struggle to break down the barriers of race, gender and class and to expose the relationship between the art object and the artistic institution. This article focuses on the social, political, economic, and historical reasons behind the institutional critique movement, and the aesthetical and theoretical media through which it was expressed in the work of Hans Haacke, Fred Wilson and Mierle Landerman Ukeles.

As a public institution, the primordial function of museums is the proliferation of public culture. They are places of neutral and autonomous nature, and therefore these labels are attached to what the museum produces and promotes. However, the 1960s witnessed the work of artists like the German artist Hans Haacke who started to question the neutrality and autonomy of museums. His work and written pieces focused on the relationship between museums and their sponsors in particular, and the reason behind it was the exposure of the interest which motivated the sponsorship of cultural institutions. He criticised the mechanism behind the museum in “Museums, managers of consciousness” of 1984, when he used the term ‘industry’ to shatter the ‘romantic clouds’ which cover the distribution, production and consumption of art. The bohemian image of art leaves no space for business interest and economic profit, which is the focus of Haacke’s criticism. In 1974, he took part in museum Wallraf-Richartz’s anniversary project PROJEKT ’74 with his solo piece entitled Manet-PROJEKT ’74 which was later rejected by the directorial board of the museum.

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Hans Haacke, Manet-PROJEKT ‚74, 1974. Ten black and white panels and framed colour reproduction of Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus of 1880, 83 x 94 cm, Private Collection of Dr. Roger Matthys

The work followed the history of owners of Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus of 1880 and exposed the lack of transparency with regards to the process of ownership and sponsorship. Manet’s painting was donated to the Wallraf -Rrichartz Museum in 1968 by a member of the Directorial panel and a Friend of the Museum, Herman J. Abs, and Haacke’s ten-panel piece exposed the patron’s previous collaboration with Hitler during the Reich. By 1974, the wealthy banker had managed to completely cover up his previous Nazi involvement, and regain power following the fall of Nazism in Germany. Haacke thus revealed Herman’s true political identity in the panel dedicated to Abs, who had essentially turned from a prominent Nazi economic advisor into a generous patron of an important German museum. By doing so, Haacke criticised the immaculate façade put on by museums behind which the corrupt rich “cleanse” their wealth and reputation by doing public deeds such as cultural patronage and donations. This was nothing new in the world of art, as it can be observed both in the patronage of the Medici during the Renaissance for instance, and even back in the ancient world, in a society dominated by the rich. The corruption within the industry wasn’t novelty, but the artists’ interest in exposing it was new, and Haacke does so within the walls of the institution he criticises itself.

Whilst Germany and Europe were going through a political awakening materialised in projects like Haacke’s Manet-PROJEKT ’74, America had just abolished legally enforced public segregation in 1964 in the Civil Rights Act. However, de facto segregation still persists nowadays, in the form of social and geographical segregation, and it was as relevant in the 1990s, when the African American artist Fred Wilson installed his “Mining the Museum” exhibition in the Museum of Maryland Historical Society. Wilson’s exhibition was critical of the institutional racial oppression which had been taken place for centuries in America, by creating a juxtaposition between objects which would normally be exhibited in a museum and others which would not. For instance, his “Metalwork 1793-1880” piece is made up of silver pieces presented next to iron slave shackles, which would not have been presented side-by-side traditionally.

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Fred Wilson, Metalwork 1793-1880, 1992. Ten silver pieces and iron slave shackles, The Contemporary & Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, MD

Wilson makes the viewer aware that the existence of the silver pieces was made possible through the suffering and inhumane treatment of black people, which is a perspective rarely depicted in museums. Whilst Haacke’s criticism takes a political and economic stance, Wilson criticises the museum because of its lack of awareness and historical bias. Unlike Haacke, he doesn’t create new objects but uses objects from the collection of the Maryland Historical Society, which are rearranged and portrayed from a new perspective. Even though the media Wilson and Haacke use are different, their criticism is essentially the same, as Frazer Ward argues in his paper on “Institutional Critique and Publicity” of 1995. He argues that one of the two main strands of institutional critique practices were the direct critique of the museum as the site for the “production of critical publicity”, whilst Haacke and Wilson were both instrumental in criticising it. Haacke places information which is completely excluded from the museum within its own space, whilst Wilson puts existing objects into the right context. In doing so, they both attempt to reclaim the public cultural space represented by the museum, and free it from its tendency to oppress and overlook the artefacts of racism and corruption.

Ward’s second strand of institutional critique practice refers to the “protocols” through which art becomes art, and the criteria employed by museums in the naturalization process which is in fact the “historical bourgeois subject”. Whilst the earliest attempt to challenge these ‘protocols’ dates back to Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917, the 1970s witnessed work such as Mierle Landerman Ukeles’, whose criticism of museums had socio-economic implications and undertones related to gender-discrimination. The American feminist artist’s performance of 1973 consisted of cleaning the public spaces of Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art in Connecticut, in an attempt to shatter the boundaries between what is considered art and what is labour.

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Mierle Landerman Ukeles, Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Outside (detail), 1973. From a performance at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Connecticut

By doing so she reassigned a role stereotypically given to socio-economically disadvantaged women, a category which has been completely absent from the art scene throughout history, to the artist herself. Sally Price discusses the issue of connoisseurship in the history of art, and the legitimacy granted to those who claim to master it. She argues that “the difference between seeing a given engraving in a junk shop or on a wall of the Louvre may condition our evaluation of aesthetic worth”. This aesthetic worth is dictated by the elite and bourgeoisie, and so museums become instruments of publicity with little interest in naturalizing anything but this aesthetic. Landerman attempts to change the label of what our society would normally call ‘work’ to ‘artwork’ and in doing so she shatters the ‘protocols’ through which art becomes art. The artist sheds light on what lies behind the scenes of the museum, something to which the audience is completely oblivious, but which is essential to the upkeeping of a museum. Therefore, Ukeles’ intentions differ from Wilson and Haacke’s in the sense that instead of addressing the publicity function of the museum, it criticises criteria used in the process through which museums decide what is art and what is ‘work’. Her performance references social, cultural, and economic inequalities and resemble Haacke’s work because they both highlight a process which would otherwise be invisible to the audience. However, whilst Haacke’s Manet-PROJEKT ’74 provided the public with an insight into history and context which previously had been unavailable to them, Ukeles’ Maintenance only sheds light onto a process common in everyday life, but which is usually overlooked and taken for granted.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the institutional criticism which took off in the 1960s had roots in the avant-garde of the beginning of the 20th century, but only flourished during the socio-political awakening of the late 20th century. The museum was criticised within its own walls, outside its walls, through literally means and using its own objects as a form of protest against its subjectivity and lack of