The Triumph of Culture

If we look back over the last years of the last century, we can recognise that beginning in the 1980s, two somewhat startling and interrelated phenomena occurred which have great significance for the world we live in today; namely, the emergence of the Museum as Celebrity and the corresponding Triumph of Culture.

It should be obvious to everyone by now that the primary function of 'the Museum' today is to legitimise Tourism as a cultural activity. Of course those whose lifestyles depend on the success of the Culture Industries would argue that, far from being a primary function, this is merely an unfortunate side effect of the Triumph of Culture.

Two actual side effects however, are the much-noted increase in property values in the surrounding areas of Celebrity Museums, along with the 'beneficial' effects on a depressed local economy. Secondly, and much less acknowledged, is the presentation of art/culture as merely another form of consumerism.

At the beginning of the end of Modernity, French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, commenting on the emergence of post-modernity in relation to the concept of progress, from a perspective rooted firmly in heroic Modernity however, pointed out regarding science and technology that: "All of us can see that development takes place without leading to the realisation of any of these dreams of emancipation."

Whilst all of the historic 'unfinished' utopian impulses and movements of Modernity lie in ruins, the language of the 'grand narratives' now merely the slogans of advertising, it is deeply ironic that it is the 'subversive' strategies of modernity which have come to fruition through this Triumph of Culture.

For instance: the contamination of High Art by Popular Culture; the infiltration of the Mainstream by marginal Subcultures; the interruption of Theatrical/Literary Illusion by 'random' Reality; the challenge to the domination of 'conventional' Reality by the contamination of Illusion, by the subconscious drive, the Surreal; the visionary Romantic ethos as a challenge to the Protestant work ethic; Poor Art, poor materials as Anti-Spectacle; faux Populism and the 'ironic' celebration of cliché and all the rest.

All co-opted, celebrated and packaged side by side in the eternal present of the Museum, and inhabiting the same space as Big Brother and Little Britain, Hello magazine and mass Attention Deficiency Disorder; in a dystopian world where everyone is a celebrity (including artists) and everyone is a critic (excepting artists); both absolutely essential and totally disposable, both subversive and mainstream at the same time. The Triumph of Culture as the emancipation of banality.

Today as the structural problematics, both theoretical and operational, of the New Millennium make themselves clearer, and we can begin to view more accurately the 'triumph' of Post-Modernity, perhaps we should paraphrase Lyotard to say that: All of us can see that Emancipation through techno-science and consumerism takes place without leading to the realisation of any of these dreams of social justice.

As the misunderstood and much maligned Jean Baudrillard theorised towards the end, from a perspective firmly rooted in the Post-Modern: it is Emancipation and not Repression which has emerged as a primary threat to human survival.

Definition: Emancipation: To set free from control, to release from civil, moral, or intellectual restraint.

Emancipation then, along with the problem of Legitimation, and the Triumph of Culture as entertainment (of which the Museum as Celebrity is but a symptom) reveal themselves as three of the structural defining characteristics of the 21st Century.

In the Post-Modern dystopia of today, the Museum, by utilising spectacle (of itself and its contents); by mobilising arguments of accessibility and by appropriating (like Post-Modern society itself) all the subversive movements for its overthrow, has become an icon -- the success story of the New Millennium -- Here the 'democratisation' of culture as commodity has emerged triumphant over politics; and critical distance, critical discourse and the reading of culture (as allegory) have disappeared into promotion.

The Museum as Celebrity -- Art, Architecture and Culture perfectly at home in a society of hysterical consumption where Repression has been banished and Emancipation has been achieved. Take your desires for reality. Live your dreams.


Perhaps it is no coincidence that the 'grand narratives' of Modernity were being dismantled at around the same time as the actually-existing Communist Utopia disintegrated. So today, living in a triumphant 'post-ideological' era, perhaps some of us are demanding too much of museums.

After all, it could be that the very concept of 'the Museum' is flawed from the beginning. As either a collection arranged to demonstrate a linear history supporting an inevitable present, or a collection of all that is 'good, beautiful and true' in human thought and action, saved (by religious men) from inevitable apocalypse, the museum (like Spectacle) always fails.

This means, of course, that the Museum -- full of ruins (decontextualised ruined intentions) -- is always already discursive, despite all the best worst intentions of everyone involved.

Tracing the complicity of the Culture Industries with this glorious 'failure' of the Museum is another story. However, historically, many avant-garde artists have attempted to undermine the death of art in the museum, not only by working outside the museum but also by entering into it and attempting to subvert it from within.

One such attempt can be illustrated by the following story. At the centre of the museum at Monchengladbach, designed by Hans Hollein, there was a sculpture by German artist Joseph Beuys (whose involvement with Fluxus, the Free University and the Green Party tended to point to a political concern with the life of art in the world), which consists mainly of huge lumps of fat. Because of the temperature in the museum, the fat threatens to explode and has had to be strapped up with metal bands.

Every day, the temperature of this alien monster in the heart of the smoothly functioning machine has to be taken. This is done by drilling a hole into the fat large enough to take a thermometer, and this accounts for the (dis)appearance of the work (like a lump of Swiss cheese).

The Museum as Celebrity in Ruins and the Triumph of Culture as Ruins then, and it is upon these ruins that the foundations of social change are being constructed.

Hannah Vowles and Glyn Banks founded collaborative critical art practice, Art in Ruins, in 1984. They have exhibited their work, written for art and architecture journals, curated exhibitions, and taught in art and architecture schools in the UK and Germany. Art in Ruins has been in limbo since 2001.