Masterpiece Theater

Herbert Distel's Museum of Drawers (1970-77).Photo: Kunsthaus Zurich, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

In 1919, Marcel Duchamp scribbled a mustache and goatee on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and called it L.H.O.O.Q., a French pun for “She’s got a hot ass” (Elle a chaud au cul). He intended something more than a bawdy joke about gender; he was ridiculing the worshipful treatment of art in museums. The Mona Lisa was the world’s most famous painting by the world’s most famous artist in the world’s most famous museum. The holiness was enough to kill a pope. This fresh mustache – it would become the most celebrated one-liner in twentieth-century art – shook the old certainties. Museums were suddenly strange, presumptuous places that provided questions rather than answers.

“The Museum As Muse: Artists Reflect,” which Kynaston McShine has organized for the Museum of Modern Art, presents the response of artists to such institutions. Although the exhibit begins in the early nineteenth century – the museum in its modern form is arguably about two centuries old – McShine naturally concentrates upon twentieth-century artists. He sets up the show with a quote from Georges Bataille: “The museum is the colossal mirror in which man, finally contemplating himself from all sides, and finding himself literally an object of wonder, abandons himself to the ecstasy expressed in art journalism.” (In art journalism? There must be better ecstasies.) In any case, most artists in this exhibit have a more jaded view. Some particularly distrust the social and ideological power of museums, but the essential problem is deeper than that. Museums, for all the pleasure they provide, are embodiments of modern alienation – from both art and the past. They isolate what artists know should suffuse life. They are secondhand, bloodless, and compensatory, especially when they try to shake, rattle, and roll. It is gruesome to send works of art, born of inspired moments and playful explorations, into such stony, pedantic places.

Many artists seem to regard museums as boxes. Boxes within boxes. The desire to pigeonhole is one such box. Duchamp parodied the mania to classify art by making a valise that con-tained – tidily arranged – reproductions of most of his own work. He included one “original.” (Duchamp always traveled light.) Other artists invented imaginary museums. In Museum of Drawers, Herbert Distel arranged tiny examples of work from well-known artists of his period into a chest of drawers, in order to create a miniaturist survey of art history. Marcel Broodthaers devised a fictional museum that satirized many forms of museum behavior, organizing, for example, an absurdist exhibition of more than 300 works that depicted eagles. Susan Hiller’s From the Freud Museum contains numerous mysterious objects placed in a series of boxes – a classification of the unknowable.

The desire to collect – and put one’s prizes into boxes – is often fetishistic. In museums, it can become a modern form of relic worship. The boxiness of museums also suggests coffins, crypts, and mausoleums; museums are places of mourning as well as ecstatic communion. Joseph Cornell’s sublime boxes are certainly a form of, among other things, shrine-making. Christian Boltanski’s Archives – a large collection of old photographs of nameless people hanging on racks in what looks like a darkened museum storage room – conveys a powerful sensation of loss. The personal seems forced into the coldly abstract, much as museums strip art of its context.

Still another form of box is the imprisoning self-consciousness that museums foster. The photographer Thomas Struth makes art of people staring at art. Sherrie Levine takes photographs of famous works of art and hangs them on the wall. “The Museum As Muse” is itself an example of placing people inside a box of mirrors: The museum is looking at artists looking at museums looking at art.

Not surprisingly, some artists dream of liberating themselves from such constraints. Edward Ruscha’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire is a celebrated contemporary example, but the dream itself is very old. McShine has included a picture by Hubert Robert – a painter who died in 1808 – that shows the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in ruins. And many modernist visionaries have tried to transcend the usual form of museums. Frank Lloyd Wright hoped to spin free of the box when he designed the Guggenheim.

Most of the artists represented in this exhibit are the intellectual heirs of Duchamp. What a great provocateur he was! But that was many years ago, and museums today are entirely untroubled by the observations of his successors. With some important exceptions, the work in the show does not have Duchamp’s panache. Nor does it offer, in the main, a powerful visual experience. Duchamp himself dismissed visual values as merely “retinal,” and artists have too often taken him at his word. The weakest such work is simply deduced from some a priori perception about museums. It becomes an idea clothed in art. In fact, the written statements by artists that McShine includes in the catalogue are often more interesting than the art itself. Cornell stands out in this exhibition – startlingly so – precisely because his work appears so visually rich and emotionally necessary, coming to us without the cool ironies and seminar talk of the postmodern tradition.

Duchamp’s preeminence among museum-watchers leads to one inevitable oversight. You would never know from the work here that a museum can also be a great and inspiring muse, embodying tradition in a positive, not just a restraining, manner and serving artists by demanding that they measure their achievement against time-tested standards – including the visual power of the old masters. This now sounds embarrassingly quaint, but many modernists have sought such authority from museums. Think of Degas haunting the Louvre or Arshile Gorky sending himself to school at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, submitting to the old masters until he understood the great tradition from the inside out. Tradition, T. S. Eliot famously wrote, cannot be inherited but must be obtained “by great labor.” That is a labor most artists are today unwilling to undertake. Still, “The Museum As Muse” vividly makes the essential point, which is that art must be continually saved and awakened. Concerned that his mustachioed Mona had become an iconoclastic icon, Duchamp in 1965 “restored” a reproduction in its original form – a telling paradox – by giving her a “shave.” The new work was called L.H.O.O.Q./Rasée.

Masterpiece Theater