The Museum of the Future
What I shall talk about in this article defined itself in my mind after visiting the museum in Pasadena to see once more the Huntington collection, and after visits to the National Gallery in Washington—first to see the paintings from the Berlin galleries, and then to see the crowds of people who were climbing over one another to see the paintings from the Berlin galleries.
There in California were collections of fine pictures, precious books, and unique manuscripts, which had come finally to rest in a sanctuary as perfect and as secure as the ingenuity and good will of man can provide. They are in a building which is fireproof, earthquakeproof, air conditioned. They are guarded like the children of a king by a corps of doctors, nurses, courtiers, and secretaries. They live in a place so happily of no importance to any military strategist that no general staff would waste an atomic bomb on them.
And by contrast, there in Washington were the pictures from the Berlin galleries, refugees from the retribution Hitler had brought down upon Berlin, dug up from the salt mine in which they were buried, and now homeless wanderers—destined to return to the land which could become the vortex of the most terrible cataclysm in all history.
The contrast is dramatic; and meditating on it, I said to myself that if all goes well in the best of all possible worlds, the unique and irreplaceable possessions of civilized men—at least all those that can be moved—will be preserved against the vicissitudes of nature, and the destructiveness of men, in sanctuaries like that in California.
And then a disturbing thought occurred to me. The experience of man, and the creations, inventions, discoveries of men throughout the ages and in an infinite variety of circumstances, transcend our personal lives and our immediate interests. This inheritance is worth collecting and preserving and using—whatever our transient hopes and fears. Without it the life of man would, as Hobbes said in another connection, be empty, nasty brutish, and short.
For if there were nothing for the spirit to work upon except its own reactions to musings upon the immediate moment of time and a small spot of space, the freedom of the human spirit would be vagrant and trivial. Without the accumulated achievements of the past to work upon, the freedom of men would be limited by the necessity of rediscovering and of repeating endlessly that which has already been discovered and experienced. And since life is short and art is long, not much would be discovered, and little would be created.
Yet the supply of masterpieces of art and unique objects of great value is limited, whereas all over the world, in every nation and in every city there is a rising demand by greater and greater masses of people for access to these masterpieces and unique objects.
It is evident that there are not enough of them to stock the younger and newer museums. The epoch of the great private collectors, which began in the sixteenth century, is quite evidently nearing its end in the twentieth century The masterpieces of the past which were once owned by private individuals are passing into the hands of governments and corporate foundations. Except by military conquest, there is less and less likelihood that they will be redistributed. They are not for sale, as once they were, because the heirs of the original collector were not interested in keeping them or were forced to dispose of them. Broadly speaking, it may be said, therefore, that once masterpieces and unique objects pass into the possession of existing museums, they have reached their final resting place and are removed forever from the market.
Except against the furious destructiveness of modern war, the vandalism of mobs, and the risks of natural catastrophes, the works which are movable will have been deposited in museums which are sanctuaries for the preservation of the relics.
But how, then, are the great masses to be given access to their cultural inheritance? A few, but only a few, can travel about the world visiting all the museums making their pilgrimages to the sanctuaries. Only a few museums, here and there, can have collections which are remotely representative even of the elements of the great cultural traditions. In the nature of things, the works they possess are bound to be accidental and arbitrary—to be collections of bits and pieces—a portrait head from Egypt in Berlin, the Elgin marbles in London, a Rubens in Cleveland, two dozen English paintings from the eighteenth century in southern California.
The problem becomes clearer if we compare the visual arts with literature. Suppose that a lover of literature had to go to London to read Hamlet, to Paris to read Macbeth, to Rome to read The Tempest, to Boston for some of the Sonnets, to Chicago for others; suppose he had to go back to London, or Paris, or Rome, or Boston, every time he wanted to read a work by Shakespeare The enjoyment and the appreciation of literature would be a problem like that of the enjoyment and appreciation of the fine arts.
To put the matter this way is to pose the obvious question, which has occurred to everyone who has thought about the problem. That is whether the unique objects can be made generally accessible through reproductions. My friend John Walker, Curator of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, states that nearly sixty years ago there was a proposal by one F. W. Smith, which was seriously considered at the time, to build within the District of Columbia on an area of sixty-two acres “a wonderful agglomeration of magnificent edifices…full size models of various monuments of all countries throughout the ages… and filled with casts and copies of historic objects.”
Mr. Walker says that this curious and fantastic project was very nearly undertaken. No doubt we may be thankful that it was not. But the basic idea cannot be dismissed: it is one we are compelled to entertain when we face the fact that the supply of unique objects is so limited and the public demand for access to them so unlimited.
Only recently Andre Malraux, who probably has never heard of F. W. Smith, said that “the idea of a democratic culture which seemed vague and suspect in the nineteenth century has grown clear and valid in the twentieth century because of the development of the techniques for reproducing works of art.”…”Painting and music,” he said, “have at last discovered their printing press.”
I wonder whether the directors of museums will not have to come to grips with the whole complicated question of copies of works of fine art. One can imagine, I venture to think, that the museum of the future will have two departments—one the sanctuary where the unique objects, the irreplaceable relics, are preserved and exhibited for the veneration and the enjoyment of those who make the pilgrimage; the other department in effect a library for the student, the scholar, and the amateur, where they can find, as in any library, collected in one place and readily accessible to them various editions of the unique objects which are scattered in the sanctuaries all over the world.
It is interesting in this connection to remember that the most famous museum of ancient times, the Museum of Alexandria, was, so the Encyclopaedia Britannica says, a great library and home for scholars and that the conception of a museum as a collection of antiquities is quite modern.
A crucial question, obviously, is how far the technique of reproduction has been perfected, and in what measure indeed it could be perfected. Any edition of Shakespeare’s plays which has been proofread accurately gives a reader as good access to Shakespeare’s art as if he owned one of the first folios now deposited in the Folger Library. Is there something about a work of fine art which can never even in theory be copied? Is the work which the master himself put his hand to unique in its essence? And if it is, is this uniqueness in fact aesthetic? Or is it—assuming that an indistinguishable copy could be made—sentimental and historical?
I suspect that questions like these cannot be answered dogmatically, and that probably no one should attempt to answer them dogmatically. When Malraux says that painting has found its printing press, the answer surely is—not yet. Even an untrained eye can see that the color and texture of paintings are not now faithfully reproduced. But can one say that if the effort were made to reproduce them faithfully, that if the research were promoted and endowed, eventually modern technology could not arrive at the equivalent of the printing press?
In the meantime, and as an inducement to remain open-minded, it may be useful to analyze the idea of the unique object, attempting to isolate that which is aesthetic from that which is sentimental, historical, and, if I may say so, monopolistic.
It is an interesting exercise in criticism to inquire into the purely aesthetic reaction which the one and only original is uniquely able to produce. I think anyone who visited the National Gallery in London last season and saw Philip Hendy’s exhibit of cleaned and uncleaned pictures must have come away from it not quite so clear as he once was; no longer naively certain that he had been reacting aesthetically to the original work of the master rather than to a joint and changing product in which the first artist had collaborated with time and circumstances across the centuries.
But of all the many facets of this problem of the work of art as a unique object, there is one which bears especially upon the theme that I have been discussing. Not all the paintings which are exhibited in museums are indubitably the original work of a surely identified artist. This fact has given rise to a fascinating profession—that of the connoisseurs who determine the attributions and perform in the world of art the functions of Sherlock Holmes and J. Edgar Hoover.
Theirs is, I have always thought, an enviable profession, full of mystery and romance. The innocent child who has been disowned and forgotten is recognized at last as the true prince of the realm, and the villainous pretender is cast into outer darkness and stored in the cellar. I look upon the great man-hunts of the connoisseurs as a preview of how we shall pass the time in the brave new world of the future when all the problems of war and poverty and class and caste have been solved, and we need thrillers—not as now to put us to sleep but to keep us awake.
The existence among us of these aesthetic sleuths is good evidence, I think, that the enjoyment of art is not altogether a simple, intuitive reaction in the presence of a masterpiece. If it were, what difference did it make that the alleged Vermeer in Rotterdam, which was so greatly enjoyed by lovers of Vermeer, was proved to have been the work of a modern forger? If all that matters is the purely aesthetic effect, then what is the purpose of the whole apparatus of scholarship, the search of the documents, the X-rays, and the chemical tests?
Does not our concern with attribution indicate that for modern men aesthetic enjoyment is almost inseparable from knowledge, that feeling alone does not satisfy us, but needs the support of understanding—so that if I may take the liberty of paraphrasing Plotinus, our passions may be intellectual and our intellects passionate? I think it does, and that is one more reason, and perhaps the most conclusive of all, why modern museums can no longer be, as they were a generation ago, places where original works are preserved and exhibited—why they are becoming also libraries and laboratories of research and education.
For the unique objects which any one museum can possess, however fine each of them may be, are incapable of satisfying the need to understand, the need to see not only the unique object, as such, in isolation, but to see it in the context of the whole work of the artist and of his school and of his period and of his culture. Without the context, which depends on the apparatus of knowledge, aesthetic enjoyment—because of the arbitrary and random scattering of works of art all over the world—would be mere eclecticism, the expenditure of emotion on a series of disconnected, unrelated, and inherently meaningless objects. For only knowledge can impose order and intelligibility upon the feelings and passions, which, if they are excited capriciously can never be satisfied, and become diseased. Thus it is only by the cultivation of the knowledge of the comparative history of art that modern men, exposed as they are to odd collections of bits and pieces of the creative world of all the ages, can begin to cope with the flux and the chaos of modernity.