In reading Pablo Helguera’s Education for Socially Engaged Art, I kept thinking back to Michael Warner and especially his argument that a public does not exist until discourse creates it: “A public sets its boundaries and its organization by its own discourse rather than by external frameworks only if it openly addresses people who are identified primarily through their participation in the discourse and who therefore cannot be known in advance” (56).
In contrast, Helguera writes, “Most curators and artists…have expressed wariness about the notion of a preconceived audience. To them, it sounds reductive and prone to mistakes…I usually turn the question the other way around: is it possible to not conceive of an audience for your work, to create an experience that is intended to be public without the slightest bias toward a particular kind of interlocutor?” (24).
I’m interested in this tension between preconceived audiences and publics that cannot be known in advance. While Warner’s work remains useful, I feel a stronger resonance with Helguera, perhaps because he more explicitly addresses what it means for a particular individual to organize or hail a public, and how this individual is part of the audience. He writes, “What is usually not questioned, however, is how one’s notion of one’s self is created. It is the construct of a vast collectivity of people who have influenced one’s thoughts and one’s values, and to speak to one’s self is more than a solipsistic exercise—it is rather, a silent way of speaking to the portion of civilization that is summarized in our minds” (24-25).
How do we, as cultural workers and members of publics, more honestly recognize how our selves are created and the ways in which our values overlap with audiences we work with? At what point does the “civilization summarized in our minds” get replaced with actual individuals?
Thinking through our conversation last week about publics and museums and the interrelationship between the two, I found Hilde Hein’s Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently thought provoking in its argument that museums can learn from public art methods. Hein explains that public art is created with the intended purpose of instigating discourse about important social issues among the public (64, 89). In this sense, the art itself is not an aesthetic product, but rather a process in which public reaction and discussion is embodied within the art itself (90). Recognizing public art’s positive impact on the public, Hein argues that as museums attempt to distance themselves from their paternalistic, top-down tradition, they should embrace the public art model (18). In fact, she posits, museums in of themselves are public art in so far as they are public places that spark public discourse (17). Like the ephemeral nature of public art, Hein writes that museums should not offer undeniable truths, but rather should present less rigid and more fluid narratives that promote exchange between visitors and the institution (18).
While Hein provides a convincing viewpoint, I was left wondering if it is practically possible for museums to embrace this methodology. Public art, according to Hein, is mobile and temporary, while museums are bureaucratic institutions with expenses and responsibilities to their donors, board members, and invaluable collections. Therefore, while public art may be a jumping off point for thinking through how to improve the museum experience, I think it is also necessary to highlight and recognize their fundamental differences.
In talking about public humanities, our first question is always how do we make humanities public? And the question, as identified in these readings, is always a structural one. Especially in the Bandelli and Williams article, the shifts occurring in the museological sphere emphasize changing the hierarchical structures and levels of authority in museum staffing. The article identifies giving a public a voice within the decision-making process, while still upholding reliability and trustworthiness – as key to making museums democratic spaces.
Hein’s identification of the museum as an artifact, “a product of collective human design,” uses language of private, non-private, public to negotiate similar structural issues to viewing art. In discussing critical public art, Hein starts to address the idea of how engagement in the artistic discourse as a form of self-discovery strengthens contemporary memorial art. While Hein’s focus is also more structural than I care for, the mediation of an everyday perception of the world seems to me the most important aspect of our work as public humans.
My central question: Are we talking about making museums public, or is this a discussion about making museum publics? Are we still focused on getting “the public” in the door, or getting them to come back? Thinking of Warner’s idea that anyone coming in contact with “the discourse” and chooses to engage becomes a part of a public, I think only Hein’s approach starts to deconstruct this notion. (Even then, I’m not sure it’s going far enough.) We can make these structural changes in which “the public” is incorporated into the engagement structures of the museum, but in what ways can we use other disciplines to improve upon the discourse we’re presenting? This is where Bandelli’s point re: valuing different knowledge formations (cognitive, experiential, and social) comes into play. Similarly, this is what Canclini starts to address in Chapter 4 around the opposition of sacred/profaned past. In what ways can we shape the existing publics of a museum to look beyond these ideas of conservation, preservation, or temporal culture? Is that even really what’s at stake? How do we center the negotiation of making culture as the role of museums in a different way? Are the structural issues really the ones that need work – how does content factor into all of this?