Art in the Time of Midterms: Museum as Democracy and the MCA's New Show

Public museums have historically been places where the social order is revealed, for better or worse, in their terms of power and knowledge--and in many ways art museums increasingly reflect positive changes: larger, more diverse audiences, and better representation of artists from all backgrounds in the work displayed broadening and strengthening collections. But there's another related sea change that might be potentially more insidious; museums are also changing en masse their approach to presenting art so that where they once appealed to education about and appreciation of the art, they're now also positioning themselves more than ever as spaces focused on audience participation that involve real action of social transformation and democracy. While I can imagine some serious negative ramifications of museums privileging this way of presenting art, the MCA's new show "Without You I'm Nothing: Art and its Audience" manages to avoid any of these potential pitfalls in its rigorous, comprehensive exhibition of audience-activated art.

It's a brave new world for art museums. With a globalized art market so huge that it's feels at the threshold of being ungraspable, and where fairs and biennales have proliferated, becoming primary instead of secondary art markets, art museums seem to be losing some footing as arbiters of the art world. Doubly so for modern and contemporary art museums--with the modern now a past historical period, and the contemporary museum something of a contradiction in terms, what is the role of these museums with the emergence of institutions like ubergalleries seeming to take their place? Increasingly, museums' answer involves what Nicholas Bourriaud famously called "relational aesthetics"; the modern/contemporary museum's self-professed job now often includes reconfiguring social relationships, emphasizing performance and participation of the audience. Where the privileged white cube of the gallery is estranging and alienating to most of us, providing only pseudo-access into the art world, museums are recasting themselves as machines of democracy, in an uncanny but decidedly more benign parallel to the spread of world-wide democracy that Western globalization claims to bring with it.

Bourriaud considers the relational form of artwork as social "interstice," a place to learn to inhabit the world in a better way, where art "tightens the space of relations" between spectators so that art becomes a glue of social relations. In other words, art spaces aren't just public spheres anymore (if they ever were, but more on that later), but they're now necessary to our societal relationships--our politics.

"At its most serious, the artist/audience relation can be seen as the testing of the social order," Brian O'Doherty famously argued in his book on the ideology of art galleries, Inside the White Cube. The logical next step might then seem to be cultural institutions acting as democratic machines. But can art museums be viable spaces for spectators to act as citizens? What are the implications of this sea change? The most obvious danger is that the art gets dumbed down in this appeal to democracy, resulting in condescension to "the people." We've probably all been to a show like this; I call it the Disneyland-ing of art, where museums become interactive theme park, where the real confrontations are lost in bright lights and flashy colors; these shows are boring at best and insulting at worst. Less likely is the possibility that we'll be tricked by this somewhat artificial democracy, imagining that we're participating in real political change, when what happens in a museum can't have real policy changes outside (no matter what arguments you can make about art's power to transform, it's not going to give us better representation or fix our socio-economic rights). But what I see as the most insidious of all this is the gaps and lacks in the "real world" that museums are supposed to be filling in. In line with the general global trend of privatization, are museums now stepping in where government lets us down in letting us feel politically active and satisfied? And where does this leave the art itself?

Ultimately, of course, that depends on the art, and my approach is somewhat hysterical and unfair in speaking so generally, but I'm not alone in worrying about the implications of this; Artforum's summer issue this year was on the role of the museum as public sphere, highlighting its relational turn as a self-proclaimed political place for the individual to interface with the world. Artist Tino Seghal argued that "the museum is a place of self-government, governmentality, or liberal government--a place... in other words, where categories that constitute the basis of our society are enacted and exercised." Political theorist Chantal Mouffe called the museums "a crucial site of political contestation." But the most useful comment regarding the changing role of the museum came from then-editor Tim Griffin pointing out that democracy is used more than ever as a result of the increasing diversity of audiences and the increase of museum art that involves active engagement from audiences; but, he wonders "beyond this welcome air of inclusivity: how are these words--democracy, democratization, participation--actually being used? What dynamics do they truly portray?"

All this is a windup to show some of the cultural pressure and potential problems for the MCA's new show "Without You I'm Nothing: Art and its Audience." The show, however, is a triumph and a candy convention for those of us who care about art we have to engage to make meaning. It manages both to make democratic, relational appeals with art that's activated by the audience to various degrees--but without losing any of its aesthetic or pedagogical rigor in the process. Culled almost entirely from the MCA's permanent collection, it ultimately provides a surprisingly comprehensive history of audience-activated art from the 1960's to the present. The show takes up the two major galleries on the first floor of the museum, tracing history of how artists have accounted for both physical and engendered/philosophical engagement/presence. As curator Tricia Van Eck explains, one room examines physical presence felt in body of viewer or "seeing yourself seeing"; the other room contains pieces that need literal interactive action by the audience to be engaged.

The first room concentrates on sculpture (that you have to walk around as an active participant--the show more generally focuses on the effects of sculpture and architecture on the viewer) with iconic work by Serra, Gillick, Koons, and some evocative granite blocks by Bruce Nauman carved with spatial epithets: "Behind Yourself," "Above Yourself," "Before Yourself." The self-consciousness of watching yourself watching as a spectator is matched by the thoughtful choice of pieces, such as a cage containing an almost-human figure by Abakanowicz that articulates what Fried calls the near-anthropomorphism of minimalism.

The second room appeals far more strongly to rhetoric of democracy; the wall text declares that "Works are activated and therefore competed, through the viewer's participation with the art object... some... allow for an open-ended exchange and provide a forum for dialogue, social interaction, or performance. These works--and by extension, the gallery--function as a platform for a more democratic form of communication, a cultural production site within the public space." But while I found the interactive art--all of which you can touch, climb on, and play with--stimulating, the mere fact that it was in the MCA kept me from feeling I was truly participating in any kind of democracy. I crawled around inside Andrea Zittel's bunker community, sat on a chair on a Burton bench and an Acconci ladder, and crawled into an oversized clam designed by the same artist. Most of the pieces in the second room are architectural or furniture-like, though the most fun pieces are rubber stamps you're invited to use (my school notebooks now declare "Duchamp is a jerk"). Felix Gonzalez-Torres' stack of black sheets of paper (Untitled/ "The End") are as moving as his statement that "I was... interested in giving back the viewer... something that was never really mine to start with."

But in Adrian Piper's video installation, which confronts racial identity through a brilliant and provocative installation of video and birth certificates, the problems of the show's utopian view of the MCA as a public sphere become apparent. When speaking of the show, Van Eck expressed a wish that the show would be, in addition to an "artist-activated, audience-energized" experience, also a space for a truly transactional public dialogue--so that Piper's installation, which includes chairs for viewing, would become a place to "sit and discuss issues of race and social distinction with your neighbors," just as in the architectural spaces you might sit and "have a conversation about democracy with people you don't know... I don't know if it will happen, but it's open-ended and empowering."

In my experience, the show falls short of its desire here--but it's no fault of the show, but rather of the museum space itself. In the white-walled hush of the MCA, with guards watching you, and the self-conscious way that even the most confident art-goers among us act in museums, there's very little chance that a group of visitors who don't know each other will gather together and activate the museum as a space to enact a public dialogue about art--at least on our own. While Van Eck sees the museum as a place where "one individual can still come into contact with an artist's idea on a total equal field"--and this show pushes that level of engagement to the highest degree--the contemporary art museum can't be a true public sphere for either politics or art. That doesn't mean they shouldn't keep trying, but it raises questions about what kinds of public spaces are available to us for the kind of work the museum now sees itself having a duty to do.

"Without You I'm Nothing: Art and Its Audience" at the MCA from November 20, 2010 until May 1, 2011. In January there will be a series of activations and performances by a number of artists in the gallery space.