Can Cultural Institutions Operate Beyond Capitalist Realism?
In “After the White Cube”, Hal Foster argues the role of art museums is to be ‘a space-time machine’ where ‘different constellations of past and present are crystallised’, to ‘transport us to different periods and culture’, and in return, transforming our own perspective on the present condition. Foster’s main criticism of art museums constructed post-1960s is their excessive investment into creating ‘spectacle’ in formal architecture, which subsequently defined the art practices to follow — to place entertainment experience above historical and aesthetic contemplations. Foster points out the urge for museums to ‘activate’ not only the visitors, but also the institutions themselves is bona fide attempt at reaching out to a wider audience, who seem to consider pure historical and aesthetic contemplations either boring and/or elitist. Perhaps twenty years ago, before the YBAs stormed the art world, one could still argue that museums, as non-profit organizations, are stand-alone entities relatively ‘unadulterated’ by the market forces of capitalist operations. Yet museums today are inseparable parts of capitalism as much as anything and everything else as most developed societies today rely heavily on ‘hyper-mediation’ to operate. Communication and connectivity are no longer just means to serve a function but are given value to their own ends’ (needless to say such occurrence is further accelerated by the pandemic, the final push towards digitalisation enforced even on the most formerly reluctant players). This essay follows up the discourse raised by Foster — to what degree do museums need ‘activation’, or in other words, to be ‘resuscitated’ by means of entertainment experience? The initial step is to answer the question whether museums and artefacts are ‘dead’ in the first place. This is followed by an analysis on how and why entertainment and ‘spectacles’ have become such prized part of culture after the Second World War with reference to theoretical works by Guy Debord and Mark Fisher. And finally, to assess museums’ future possibility of surpassing late capitalist ‘spectacle’ and establish themselves as cultural vanguard in provoking meaningful contemplations beyond ‘capitalist realism’.
Are museums so boring to the visitors they try to capture that they need ‘activation’ to begin with? In his 1967 essay “Valéry Proust Museum”, Adorno drew the uncomfortable connection between museum and mausoleum. Adorno shares the same feeling of fatigue and disconnection as Valéry did when he visited the Louvre:
[t]he more marvellous the treasures which are preserved in them, the more all delight disappears… One does not know why one has come — in search of culture or enjoyment, in fulfilment of an obligation, in obedience to a convention. Fatigue and barbarism converge. (Adorno 1997)
Surely this is not an experience unfamiliar to visitors of the British Museum or National Gallery in London, or any other major art museums around the world. Visitors are often overwhelmed and confused by the abundance of objects removed from their original environment and intended purpose, and needing technical aids such as audio guide or mobile apps like SMARTIFY to provide explanation and context. From Valéry’s cultural conservatism viewpoint, the excessive accumulation of unusable capital in fact impoverishes mankind and lead to destruction of art’s heritage. He argues that ‘when art becomes a matter of education and information… we put the art of the past to death.’ (Adorno 1997) This can be understood in the sense that when museum curators place too much emphasis on the context and historical significance of the objects, there is little room left for the viewers for the objects themselves to be enjoyed. Both Adorn and Valéry share the view that works of art should be left to speak for themselves, however, this has become increasingly difficult due to the vast numbers of objects displayed in museums as well as the flocks of visitors on guided tours. It is not difficult to understand then, from this aspect, why in recent decades museums and artists alike have become ardent to put on some form of ‘spectacle’ in order to bridge the gap of this disconnection of the museum experience.
If, as Valéry proclaimed, museum has become a place of ‘reification’ and ‘chaos’, then the only way to ‘enliven’ is perhaps to provide amusement and engagement, such as performance or all-consuming site-specific installations that demand the full attention from visitors. The best examples here would of course be Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall commissions. A vast industrial space set between the Natalie Bell and Blavatnik Buildings, the Turbine Hall plays a crucial role in shaping the public perceptions of contemporary art in the twenty-first century. Tate has invited numerous internationally acclaimed artists to interpret the space since its opening in 2000 with Louise Bourgeois. One of the most loved and unforgettable commission is likely to be Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project from October 2003 to March 2004, when the artist suspended 200 low-sodium mono-frequency lamps at the end of the hall, rendering all colours invisible besides darkness of shadows and the warm tone of yellow. Visitors either wandered around or lounged on their backs under the fine mist, awe-struck by the illusion of being so close to the ‘sun’ and staring at their reflections on the ceiling. The installation was a true spectacle in the sense that it drew the public’s undivided attention to itself — it was not possible for anyone to walk into the Turbine Hall and ignore the work. In fact, the public responded so well to the work, Olafur Eliasson was invited back to Tate Modern for a solo exhibition in 2019, and tickets were sold out almost instantaneously. Although well-received by the public, one popular critique of Eliasson’s works is that they have deflected the function of art to public entertainment and ‘Instagram-worthy’ spectacles. Similar criticism is to be said regarding the works of Yayoi Kusama. And perhaps it is no coincident that Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room was scheduled to be opening in Tate Modern in March 2021. Have large-scale post-medium installations that are also highly ‘Instagrammable’ become the future for art exhibitions to engage its audience? Cultural conservatists might disagree with this trend, but considering all the other socio-economic and techno-political changes that had begun since the 1960s, the museums are hardly to blame for trying so hard to get their visitors wired.
I chose to use ‘socio-economic’ and ‘techno-political’ because I would like to draw attention to two major changes that has occurred in post-war US and Europe: (1) the naturalisation of ‘capitalist realism’ in all cultural spheres such as leisure and sentimental education, and (2) the escalated use of technology as measures of surveillance and political promotion. In his seminal theoretical work, Society of the Spectacle, published in 1967, Guy Debord had already predicted that ‘[a]s culture becomes completely commodified it tends to become the star commodity of spectacular society.’ Today, such prediction is affirmed by the growing global art market and cultural sector, that account all labours going into the production, distribution, and consumption of art and culture. The over-saturation of the market necessitates the condition that for any work of art to be recognised, it must be capable of provoking a strong reaction from the viewers instantaneously, as well as make possible the multiplicity of its own reification. As Fredric Jameson famously claimed, ‘postmodernism is the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’ and thus ‘the failure of the future was constitutive of a postmodern cultural scene would become dominated by pastiche and revivalism.’ (Fisher 2009) The works by Eliasson and Kusama are not necessarily disruptive, but they are successful in today’s cultural sphere precisely because they invite the viewers to partake in their virtual reproduction.
Fisher argues in Capitalist Realism that if ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a pathology; it is a pathology of late capitalism — a consequence of being wired into the entertainment-control circuits of hypermediated consumer culture.’ (Fisher 2009) To be bored today simply means to be denied for ma moment the constant instant gratification of looking at social media or eating fast food. Perhaps the reason why visitors are easily bored by looking at paintings and sculptures and need spectacular performances to stay engaged in their museum experience is not because that paintings and sculptures are boring, but the cultural condition of instant gratification and all the technical/technological assistances have infantilised our population and especially the youth. Communicative stimuli are already so pervasive in every sphere of society to the extent of inescapable, shouldn’t it be the museums’ role to provide a sanctuary and leave room for certain aspects of life to remain indigestible and difficult?
If to ‘activate’ and to entertain means to reinforce the existing conditions of capitalist realism, museums must remain as the last spaces of resistance to not infantilise its visitors by means of sensationalism and emotional, rather than moral guidance. For if museums also subscribe to the business ontology of hyper-mediation, PR marketisation, and bureaucratic anti-production, where else can we turn to any spiritual reflection?
 Foster, Hal. 2015. “After the White Cube”. London Review of Books 37 (6). https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v37/n06/hal-foster/after-the-white-cube.
 The term is coined by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009) denoting the present status of capitalism as the only political option — albeit imperfect and conceivably ‘evil’, it has become so pervasive naturalised today, causing what Fisher argues to be the current ‘cultural and political sterility’
 A point made by Tiqqun in Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl (2012)
Adorno, Theodor W. 1997. “Valéry Proust Museum”. Prisms. 9th ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Debord, Guy. 1967. Society of The Spectacle. London: Rebel Press.
Fisher, Mark. 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. Hampshire, UK: Zero Books.
Foster, Hal. 2015. “After the White Cube”. London Review of Books 37 (6). https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v37/n06/hal-foster/after-the-white-cube.
Fisher, Mark. 2016. Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures. London: Repeater Books.
Tiqqun. 2012. Preliminary Materials for A Theory of The Young-Girl. South Pasadena, California: Semiotext(e).
“Turbine Hall at Tate Modern | Tate”. 2021. Tate. Accessed February 10. https://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-modern/turbine-hall.
Powell, Amy Knight. 2012. Depositions: Scenes from The Late Medieval Church and The Modern Museum. New York: Zone Books.