More on relevance

Some further thoughts on 'relevance' and why chasing it is trouble for museums. March 2, 2015

Camille Corot: Honfleur: Calvary, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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You are viewing a post that’s more than three years old. There’s a good chance that a lot of the following is seriously out-of-date (or at least not reflective of my current thinking on this topic). Proceed with caution.

Another day, another remarkably uninformed, poorly-sourced, my-perspective-is-universal op-ed about museums , this one from “pop-culture correspondent” Joe Wos in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (hat tip to the ever-vigilant Jeffrey Inscho for pointing me to this). Sure, this article is intended to be provocative (it’s titled “Death of the Art Museum?” fer Chrissakes), but the arrogance, self-absorption, and short-sightedness of it are worth responding to, if for no other reason than that it’s kind of fun to do so. We’re usually assaulted by people telling us museums suck because they’re no longer the pristine temples of contemplation of art critics’ faulty memories; it’s fun to have someone telling us that museums suck because they’re excessively pristine and contemplative.

So it goes. I’ll leave it to others to fact-check the article—Jo Ellen Parker’s response is particularly pointed—while I focus in on the one bit that always gets me. It is this idea of museums’ so-called “irrelevance” in these carayzee technology-addled times in which we live. Bah. I’ve said this before, but relevance is a terrible measure of importance and/or impact. It means nothing without further definition.

The best take-down of the “relevance” argument comes from Chuck Klosterman, who I quote liberally here so I don’t have to try to re-write that which is already perfect. Here Klosterman is talking about bands, but just substitute “museums” and it all holds together:

“As a rule, people who classify art as ‘irrelevant’ are trying to position themselves above the entity; it’s a way of pretending they’re more in step with contemporary culture than the artist himself, which is mostly a way of saying they can’t find a tangible reason for disliking what something intends to embody. Moreover, the whole argument is self-defeating: If you classify something as “irrelevant,” you’re (obviously) using it as a unit of comparison agains whatever is “relevant,” so it (obviously) does have meaning and merit. Truly irrelevant art wouldn’t even be part of the conversation.”

“Judging the value of any band against the ephemeral tastes of the hyper-present tense always misinterprets its actual significance. Moreover, any act lauded as “especially relevant” (and any critic preoccupied with hunting whomever that’s supposed to be) is almost guaranteed to have a limited career, simply because so much of their alleged value is tied to an ephemeral modernity they only embody by chance.”

–Chuck Klosterman, “ABBA 1, World 0” in Eating the Dinosaur (Simon & Schuster, 2009).

Beautiful. Look, there are few people as critical of accepted museum practice as I, so I’m not going so far as to say that museums will always be valued by their communities regardless of what they do. But what Klosterman is saying here, and what I think we all should always keep in mind, is that as museums we have to play the long game, reaching for adjacent possibilities  rather than just going all in on whatever the latest thing is.