The Principle of Hope


The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

I have resisted the temptation to turn this blog into “all John Berger all the time,” as he is a constant source of inspiration, but once in a while I give in. His last book of all-new material, Confabulations, will be reviewed in the future, and the second volume of a career-spanning “best-of” collection, entitled Landscapes” will also appear. But until then…

“From time to time I have been invited by institutions – mostly American – to speak about aesthetics. On one occasion I considered accepting and I thought of taking with me a bird made of white wood. But I didn’t go. The problem is that you can’t talk about aesthetics without talking about the principle of hope and the existence of evil.”

John Berger, “The White Bird,” from The Sense of Sight, 1985

Today’s statement from Thomas Campbell, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, is a welcome if slightly dull step in the right direction. Dull in that Campbell is not a great writer, and takes a great many words to say a simple thing; important in that he is acknowledging that museums are not isolated ivory towers outside the stream of daily life. Politics is everywhere, and should not be ignored.

I quote John Berger above to disagree with him, and to contrast his thoughts with Campbell’s. Berger’s attitude reflects old museum thinking, the ivory tower approach. Campbell’s statement, “The citizens who founded The Met envisioned it first and foremost as an educational entity, along the lines of the great European museums, that would help teach these merging populations about their origins and about one another” is accurate to an extent, though it is unlikely that many of the founders thought much about the “merging populations.” Museums were genteel places for the gentry to contemplate the objects owned by the gentry of past centuries. Education has rightly grown in importance decade by decade, until it is the central focus of museums. Not a moment too soon, as the story of migration, forced or voluntary, has profoundly shaped art history. So many great “American” artists were born elsewhere, yet their art is integral to the creative history of the country. We are immigrants, and museums are one place to savor how great a thing that can be.

Compare today’s attitude to Berger’s, from “The Historical Function of the Museum,” included in his book The Moment of Cubism (1969):

The art museum curators of the world (with perhaps three or four exceptions) are simply not with us….We, the public, have our hours of admission and are accepted as a diurnal necessity; but no curator dreams of considering that his work actually begins with us.

That dream has come, and today it is firmly in the waking world as well. Berger’s cynicism (even he admitted that he sounded “jaundiced”) has been swept aside by the increasing focus on the audience for the art, and ways to further educate and engage that audience. Now prejudice is being codified in government policy (yes, I know – it’s not the first time that has happened; what’s important is that it is happening now and we have the ability to do something about it) the function of the museum is even more important. This may require that collections be re-assessed, galleries rehung, but this can be done without harm; quite the contrary, artists of quality who were overlooked for years due to their nationality, gender, sexuality, and so on, can now take their proper places in the historical narrative.

I would have liked a more forthright declaration from Campbell, but the Met is the “grey lady” of museums (a nickname given to The New York Times, which itself is becoming more forthright.) and is likely to be stately where other are raucous.

So I would say to John Berger’s ghost, the time has come. Speak of the principle of hope and the existence of evil. They are part of what makes us alive, and part of what makes our art. Museums are home to both through that history. Museums were castles set apart; now they have the chance to be in the thick of it.

Postscript: I had planned to include another Berger quote, only to find that this essay by Scott Esposito included it centrally.


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