July 30, 2011

The Onion’s art museum joke is worth taking seriously

I know, there’s nothing more deadly than dissecting a joke. But last week’s Onion article about a new “art jail” in San Francisco suggests that those sophomoric editors remember their Foucault. It also suggests that Americans still see art museums, deep down, as authoritarian and heavy-handed. Otherwise, we wouldn’t get the joke.

Michel Foucault and other cultural theorists of the late 20th century viewed museums as “disciplinary” institutions, along with prisons, hospitals, schools and the like: places that represent and enforce political power, usually of the capitalist and imperialist variety.

The Onion’s clever twist is that it’s the artworks that are being punished, not the visitors. The new “detention facility” is designed to “imprison a large population of high-profile paintings and sculptures,” with “particularly prominent or notorious” works held in “solitary confinement”—that is, in “rooms all by themselves, where they hang on otherwise bare walls and are kept under close scrutiny by guards.” Which isn’t a bad description of how museums do treat well-known masterpieces.

The Onion's caption: "An art jail guard watches over three prisoners."

The art jail’s “warden and distinguished Rembrandt scholar” evinces both a fetish for organization —

“If you want to maintain order, you have to put each piece in its proper place,” said Paulson, explaining that inmates were strictly divided by genre, artist, and form.

— and a vague, do-gooder’s confidence about his institution’s value to society:

“By keeping these masterpieces within our walls…we hope to do a great service to our city and to society as a whole.”

It’s a sharp, Hollywood-style parody of the museum director. And the whole piece raises some surprisingly rich questions about where art belongs, whether its creativity is inherently subversive and therefore on some level a threat, and what the purpose of art museums really is. 

For Foucault, museums were one of the ways that society “exercises its controlling systems of power and knowledge.” But they were also (as a terrific paper [pdf] in a museum journal points out) places based on, and designed to promulgate, the Enlightenment values of critique, freedom, and progress, which are exactly what can help us overcome those controlling systems. They’re simultaneously stabilizing and destabilizing, conservative and progressive. 

But next time you visit an art museum, look around and ask yourself which impulse predominates.

The punch line was that, a few days after the Onion satire appeared, the New York Times profiled a contemporary art museum that opened last year in Uruguay in…you guessed it, an abandoned prison. “Cells allow viewers to see modern art and installations…in isolation,” the writer observes, sounding an awful lot like the Onion.

Of course, the Uruguay museum isn’t the first, even in South America. The National Museum of Colombia resides in a former fortress-prison built in the 19th century called the Panóptico. The design of that building was based on the Panopticon prison laid out in the 18th century by the English social reformer Jeremy Bentham, whose work Foucault had a lot to say about.

What do you think? Is the Onion article funny? Is the jail metaphor just flippant reverse-snobbery, or is it apt?


maxine — September 29, 2011

In response to your last questions. Can't the answer be yes to all three? Why can't something be both funny, apt and reverse-snobbery?

Amanda Krantz — October 14, 2011

I am so glad you posted this because I missed this Onion article. I have long been interested in security guards in art museums and the odd similarity between jails and museums. Also, there are several art museums that I have felt are Panopticon-like (specifically the Guggenheim, although I know that wasn't Wright's intention), but I didn't realize that there was a museum that actually inhabited such a building. Thanks for the enlightenment!

Marjorie Schwarzer — October 14, 2011

Hi Peter,
Amanda sent me this link and I wanted to let you know that Museums & Social Issues is in the final stages of an issue about the links between Museums and Prisons, due out by the end of the year. There are several reviews of prisons that have been re-purposed as museums, as well as some rather serious analysis by both former inmates and educators of museum programs in prisons and how our culture glorifies crime & punishment. Are museums complicit in the culture of incarceration? Read the issue to decide what you think.

Best to you, Marjorie

Cat — November 13, 2011

Is it just me or does the link to the "terrific paper [pdf] in a museum journal" not link to anything buy the Museum Studies page of the University of Leicester. I am really interested, could you relink to the PDF?

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