Care for Some ‘Narrative’? The New Museum Buzzword

What are our major museums of modern art going to look like in the century ahead? That they are going to be a lot bigger is a certainty. That they are likely to be a lot better is less certain, but they will undoubtedly be different–different, that is, from what they have been in the past but not, perhaps, very different from each other. For it looks as if a new orthodoxy is about to descend upon our museums of modern art–an orthodoxy that is now being touted for its radical break with past practice. In other words, a radical departure that already sounds a lot like a new institutional orthodoxy.

It was in the hope of acquiring a preview of this radical change–or new orthodoxy–and the ideas governing it that I ventured out on the unpleasant evening of Jan. 25, in the snow and sleet of the new century’s first winter storm, to attend a panel discussion at the Museum of Modern Art. The subject was billed as The New Modern Museum: New York, Paris, London , and the three speakers were to be Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s current director; Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery in London; and Werner Spies, director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Owing to the nasty weather, Mr. Spies didn’t make it to New York. His place on the panel was taken by John Elderfield, chief curator-at-large at MoMA and principal organizer of its current, much-admired Modern Starts exhibition. Mr. Elderfield read Mr. Spies’ prepared statement and showed slides of the Pompidou’s modern collections. Mr. Serota also showed slides and spoke at length about the Tate’s mammoth new modern museum that is scheduled to open in May, and about the fate of the old Tate, which is now, apparently, to be devoted to revisionist presentations of premodern and contemporary British art.

Mr. Lowry similarly delivered a homily on the new and bigger MoMA that is in the process of expanding the museum’s facilities in its recently acquired West 54th Street addition, and on the new “narratives” that will govern its future programs and exhibitions not only in Manhattan but also at MoMA’s newly affiliated venue at P.S. 1 in Long Island City, Queens.

These fervently embraced but vaguely defined new “narratives” turned out to be the central topic of the evening, so allow me to explain–or attempt to explain–the current meaning of the word “narrative,” which has lately acquired an almost mystical significance in museum circles, especially those most concerned with what we used to call the history of modern art.

Traditionally, of course, a narrative was taken to mean a story, a written or spoken account of events that had either actually occurred or, in the case of fictional narrative, been imagined–as, say, in a novel or short story or verse epic. As a consequence of the vogue of academic literary theory, however, the meaning of “narrative” has been greatly altered. In its current museological usage, it has been appropriated to serve as a euphemism for any nonchronological, ahistorical program or conception or organizing principle on the basis of which an exhibition or a collection or a study is presented to the public.

Ingenious “narratives” thus pre-empt history as the principal means of acquiring an understanding of modern art. History, with its emphasis on time and place and material circumstance, is now to be banished as too restrictive–too “linear,” it is said–in favor of “narratives” derived from a variety of nonchronological conceptual conceits, some of them highly political, some merely fanciful. Whereas history inevitably favors the past as a prerequisite to comprehending the present, the new museum “narratives” give to the present a sovereign priority over the past. It is therefore from the perspective of contemporary artistic practice and contemporary critical theory that we are now to be given not a history of modern art but a series of interpretative fables designed to deconstruct that history.

In the service of this deconstructivist agenda, museums of modern art will henceforth abandon their traditional practice of acknowledging the existence of specific “schools,” movements and isms, which are now to be consigned to the ash heap of history. Mr. Serota was very firm on this point, and Mr. Lowry sounded positively euphoric at the happy prospect of discarding the way MoMA had presented what he called the “narrative” of modernism in the past. Both were eager to mount their own “counternarratives,” which in the case of MoMA obviously meant that the ghost of Alfred H. Barr Jr., author of the historical “narrative” that has governed the museum since its founding in 1929, might at long last be triumphantly exorcised.

In theory at least, the approach to this problem favored by Mr. Spies at the Pompidou in Paris was, if not more original, certainly more piquant. In his prepared statement, Mr. Spies cited the methods of what he called the Surrealist “revolution” as the conceptual basis for his revisionist installation of the modern art collections over which he presides. Did this mean that he was not yet prepared to abandon the concept of “schools,” movements and isms, for Surrealism was certainly both a movement and an ism? From the slides that were shown of his installations in Paris, however, all that he seems to have derived from Surrealism is a penchant for the unexpected–or at least, untraditional–juxtapositions of dissimilar works of art. But as this, too, is part of the new orthodoxy for our museums of modern art, Mr. Spies’ ideas hardly constituted a counternarrative to those of Mr. Lowry or Mr. Serota. On both sides of the Atlantic the fix is in. The era of “narratives” and “counternarratives” is upon us, and neither have anything to do with artistic standards.

All of which is a melancholy reminder that museums of modern art, which for much of this century have constituted a vital component of cultural life, have now entered upon an Alexandrian period in which the theoretical endeavors of the curators rather than the creative talents of great artists will henceforth be dominant. In the absence of great talents, it will now be the role of the curators to be “creative,” but only in the ways they package and market and otherwise recycle the collections they have inherited from the past.

This is what the new orthodoxy in our museums of modern art is really about–packaging and marketing–and my prediction is that it will be a huge popular success. The media will adore the novelty and controversy, and where the media lead, the public follows. The loss, of course, will be in the ability to make aesthetic distinctions, but that very disability will create a more and more favorable climate for the many extra-esthetic “narratives” that a real ready swamping the contemporary art scene.

It will no doubt take a while for the implications of all this to be fully grasped. History, after all, is a form of intelligence for which the “narratives” currently on offer are no substitute. To live without a sense of history, in art as in life, is to live an impaired existence. Why our museums should now be so eager to embrace this impairment is a development worth thinking about. Care for Some ‘Narrative’? The New Museum Buzzword