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Engagment > Elitism

May 18, 2011

The more engaged you become with a field of study, the more frustrating it becomes. That’s a sign you’re doing something right … right? This is how I’ve felt for the better part of my college career towards art history and museum studies. As fascinating as these subjects are, there is so much elitism and stubbornness over traditional ways of thinking and doing that often stifles innovation and ignores what could potentially have a great impact on society at large.

And then you begin to find people to look up to.

Nina Simon’s most recent blog post “Why is ‘World Class’ so Classist?” resonated with me. Her comment on the recent discussion of the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City reflects my frustration with the art critic world and the reason why I was drawn to museum studies in the first place.

The Soumaya Museum is privately owned by Carlos Slim and holds an extensive European and Mexican art collection also from his private collection. Simon commented on a NPR story of the museum, which critiqued the museum for its more common and less expensive or rare objects that is popular only among “ordinary Mexicans.”

These critics are promoting a hierarchy of “Art” (with a capital A) that was the foundation of Western museums and the art historical canon for too many years. This narrow-minded perspective only fuels the museum world’s ignorance towards the public audience, and enhances the industry’s elitist stigma. As Simon asked (rhetorically), why is it bad to open a free museum that allows the general public to engage with arts they might otherwise never have seen? Who decides what objects are “worthy” of study, and which should be reserved for private collections?

This post reminded me of a learning moment I experienced on the #UOregonNYC trip. The advertising industry has recognized the growing power of the consumer, and is desperately trying to adapt and transition towards a more participatory environment. This is one example of how the advertising and museum fields are moving in a similar direction with the goal of consumer/visitor engagement and openness. One point that came up at an agency visit was that trust and loyalty are earned. Consumers are now inherently participatory and demand ways to connect with information, technology, and entertainment. Through engagement, you earn the right to communicate with the consumer (or engage with the museum goer).

The elitist structure of the museum experience is dead. Some, like the critics of the Soumaya Museum, may still cling to traditional hierarchies, but they will soon be outdated and cast aside. Fine/folk art boxes are dull and irrelevant. Visitors can chose what messages and experiences suit them, regardless of so-called status.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Tali P. permalink
    May 19, 2011 1:29 am

    Nicole-
    My thesis last year was on this, and I just wanted to say I love this post!
    I think Baroque, neo-classical economics will soon be reduced to a revision of practice ( not just in art history but in many fields- we are seeing the consolidation trend it in science, the music industry etc.) which is a participation-based ( think polymath, wikipedia-esque) model, rendering our ‘beloved’ canon as obsolete, as everyone becomes a creator/participant/aggregated data contributor. Its going from a sort of capitalistic, gate-keeper model to more of an information-ecology that is ever-morphing ( a more accurate model of life/reality?!?!?)

    When everyone/anyone can write/rewrite/contribute to history, history is (in a way) no longer necessary, if only just a large database (or hive mind), of records we can constantly update, change, add to, etc. I think this is incredibly optimistic for the practice of art history ( maybe not contemporary art, as its entirely based on insular elitist ‘ahistorical’ elements) but for pre-industrial art (or even pre-war art) I think its awesome, as there will always be something extra to glean from minor specs of information and perspective being contributed to any topic or interest.

    On the other side of this larger picture though, there’s actually a crisis about this in several theory publications that has been growing recently ( especially in the context of the arts) But again, I think its all good news: The canon might actually be deemed ‘worthless’ in a sense. The ‘museum as institution’ has been “officially” dead (in theory) for a while, but I think until the baby boomers wear off, and it starts to morph into something else, that our generation starts to adapt it to something that is perhaps less cannon-focused and more broader all-emcompassing record of human history ( in its worst and its finest) that’s when our “new” practice of “history” will get exciting!

    There’s lots of theory on post-history (and institutional critique) as domains of study in themselves, which is also really exciting (sometimes scary) to read about, I have tons of titles to share if you are interested in exploring it more. Its actually really cool and exciting, depending on what perspective of it all you want to entertain.

    Keep up the good work! I look forward to reading your blog posts, they are always so interesting!

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