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Museum: Conservator of Egos

The symposium at The Guggenheim Museum

I attended a symposium at The Guggenheim Museum titled “Echoes of Art: Emulation As a Preservation Strategy.” The panel consisted of well-known figures of the digital art world, half of it being artists and the other half critics and curators. They shared their concerns about conservation of digital art. One of the most poignant “problems” discussed was the fate of hardware-dependent artworks. The artist John F. Simon, Jr. presented a slide of his work which was constructed from a laptop computer, and told us a story of one of his collectors asking him to fix the broken hard drive. He was able to fix it only because the replacement drive was still available. He was not sure what he would do in the future when the parts are no longer available.

Other examples were more subtle. Should a video-based work created in the 80s be presented with an 80s television set, or would it be acceptable to use a brand new TV set? Would it be a compromise to use an emulator for a work originally created using a now-obsolete operating system? What do we do with a decade-old software-based work that now runs ten times faster with today’s computer? The answer that came out of the discussion was rather predictable: Deal with them on a case-by-case basis. After all, what else can we do? I doubt anyone would expect the end-all solution to such problems.

What interested me more than the solution was why conservation is perceived by all the attendees of the symposium to be a “problem” in the first place. At one point in the discussion, in speaking of a restored artwork in comparison to its original, one of the panelists drew an analogy to a printed reproduction, implying that it is necessarily inferior to the original. In my analysis, this hierarchy appears to be the source of their “problems”.

The hierarchy

Western thought is predicated on a belief that their system of representation correlates with the “external” reality (the Truth), which necessitates a particular dualistic view of the world. What is represented (the original/the truth) is always superior to its representation (reproduction). For instance, writing is a representation of speech. Speech is a representation of thought. Thought is a representation of consciousness. And so on... Everything is a representation of something else, and the original is always thought as superior to its representation.

In a museum, conservators trace history of an artwork in order to restore its original state as closely as possible. They often find this process inadequate, so they further trace it back to the artist’s “intention” where the ultimate origin presumably lies. What this assumes is that the artist’s intention is superior to the artwork itself. The job of a conservator is to get as close to the absolute origin as possible.

The trouble with this conception of origin is that the tracing could never stop. Even “intention” could be further traced back to artist’s ego, unconscious, intellect, or emotion. Given the fact that no artists are entirely original, it is impossible to determine what aspects of their works were truly intended by them. Many conceptual artists, for instance, create artworks based on their interpretations of various cultural theorists and philosophers. In interpreting the intentions of such artists, where do we draw the lines in terms of the ultimate origins? Moreover, the philosophers who influenced the artists have their own influences as well. In this fashion, the origins of their intentions could be forever traced synchronically and diachronically.

We trace an origin, because we feel it is superior to its representation, but part of what constitutes an origin is its possibility of being represented. It then follows that we could reverse this hierarchy and still be logically consistent. That is, I could construct a logically consistent theory which is predicated on representation being superior to its origin. In doing so, we would see the panelists’ “problems” vanish.

In fact, to see the problem vanish, one need not go as far as reversing the hierarchy; one could simply eliminate it. Buddhism, for instance, dismisses its origin. The Buddha himself refused to appoint his successor in order to prevent his disciples from attaching themselves to the origin. In Zen Buddhism, he is rarely even discussed. Mandala sand painting, an art form introduced by the Buddha, is destroyed almost as soon as it is finished. John Cage, who was influenced by Zen Buddhism, spent most of his artistic life removing intentions from his work. In comparison, Christianity is predicated on the belief that the Bible is the ultimate truth. Christians, therefore, must constantly refer back to the Bible as the ultimate origin.

Knowledge of origins is the primary motivating factor for studying history in the West where history is perceived as a linear progression in time. One of the panelists at the symposium repeatedly asserted, “History is important.” This blanket statement is accepted universally in the West. To challenge it is to challenge the edifice of the entire Western civilization. If history is not important, then nothing is. However, history is all but a series of interpretations. Whose interpretations they are, is still debatable, but it is impossible for history to transcend the realm of interpretation and to assert itself as the truth.

History can be “important”, especially for practical purposes, but history as such could never be proven so as a justification to build a system. History, like science, could contribute to both good and evil. It could prevent mistakes and pains, but it could also cause them. History can make our lives more efficient, but there is no definitive proof that our historical knowledge is making positive contributions to the humanity as a whole. The perceived linear progression of history in the West, could very well be heading towards global destruction. History is like a tool; it can be used positively or negatively. History as such is neither important nor unimportant.

Naturally, history is important for museums because they are founded on that blind faith. To question it would be self-defeating. There is nothing wrong with building a system based on a belief as long as it is aware of the fact that its grounds are hypothetical, but in the West, these grounds have always been assumed as truths. A system based on beliefs has great practical value. Newton’s mechanical physics, for instance, has been invaluable for modern science and technologies even though its foundation has been called into question by quantum mechanics. To deal with practical matters, there is no need to have absolute grounds. However, the question I want to ask is: Is art a practical matter like science?

Museum as a Cartesian system

Since Descartes established a method of advancing scientific knowledge, the West has indiscriminately applied it to all forms of knowledge, even to something as unscientific as art. The Cartesian method requires establishing of a fixed ground. For this purpose, the notion of origin is of the utmost significance for museums. That is, authorship is the fixed ground on which the presumed advancement of art is built. Conservation thus plays an essential role in maintaining the authority of museums as institutions.

The interest in conservation comes not only from within museums but also from the rest of the art world. A museum plays a role equivalent to a stock exchange or a court. It is an enforcer of a system that gives confidence and assurance to its participants such as investors, brokers, producers of goods and services, stock analysts, collectors, galleries, artists, critics, defendants, lawyers, prosecutors, juries, etc.. In the same way our legal system keeps records of all the past cases, museums preserve art in order to systematize and stabilize the valuation of it. If your artwork (whether you are an artist or a collector) is preserved in a museum, the case is settled. You have received your judgment, and your work is protected from wild fluctuations of values caused by speculations. If local courts or museums are not good enough, you can appeal the case to the Supreme Court or to the Metropolitan Museum to receive the final judgment.

This system works quite well for most forms of Western art, but there are some unfortunate exceptions. Ironically, digital artworks, many of which allow creation of an infinite number of identical copies, pose great difficulties when it comes to preservation in time, because they rely on a network of mutually dependent technologies. As the various aspects of technologies evolve independently, it becomes impossible to recreate or conserve those intricate dependencies (e.g. hard disk, RAM, CPU, monitor, operating system, programming language, storage medium, network protocol, Internet standard, host application, input device, etc..). This type of lack of fixed ground is a threat to any Cartesian systems, and it is thus seen as a “problem”. In fact, any looseness that escapes the grounding power of rationality is an enemy of Western institutions.

Cartesian system works by setting up hierarchical oppositions such as original/reproduction, certainty/uncertainty, rational/emotional, immortal/mortal, and mind/body. It is a way of looking at the world from the rational side of ourselves. A rational mind has a natural inclination towards stability, absolutes, permanence, and immortality, for nothing can be built without them. It, however, conflicts with the reality of our unstable emotions and mortal bodies. It wants order and to live forever. To realize its ambitions, it needs to be institutionalized and to be immortalized in history. This manifests in every human pursuit of the West. Both emotion and body are systematically subordinated to reason, for they escape the grasp of a rational mind. Rather than admitting to its failure to comprehend, a rational mind proceeds to suppress them by establishing and maintaining its supremacy. This hierarchy is so much part of the norm that it is never questioned at occasions like the symposium I attended. I agree with many feminists who argue that this is a result of male chauvinism that persisted since the dawn of the Western civilization.

In contrast, Eastern philosophers classify themselves as Ying, feminine, and passive, and the West as Yang, masculine, and active. To a Western mind, this may be puzzling: Why would they characterize themselves with qualities that are inherently negative? To an Eastern mind, this makes sense because it does not see any hierarchies in these oppositions; so they see no problem in characterizing themselves as passive and feminine.

In this sense, it can be said that a museum is a male preoccupation. That is, it is an institution built to exalt the status of men, to be superior to that of women, for it is designed to accommodate the value perceived by a rational mind, the value that can be judged and established as in science. Without exalting history, a masculine, rational mind would have no other way of achieving its immortality. The institution of history must therefore be protected at all cost for the great men of the past to live forever. A museum, in this sense, is a collective penis whose supporters work obsessively to maintain its erection forever.

The consequences of suppression

Every systematic suppression has its victims. In the case of museums, it is the beauty of mortality (ephemerality) and instability (constant change). This is the focus of Eastern art, and to some degree feminine art, both of which are dismissed in the West as “hobby” or “craft”. The contemporary art world readily embraces artistic practices like Conceptual Art where only the rational aspect of ourselves is expressed, but it is quick to reject, by labeling them “wall decorations”, artworks that are solely about our emotions or physicality without a conceptual (rational) basis. They marginalize art that expresses our understanding of physical and emotional worlds, and worship rationality so much to the point that artists no longer need to touch their artworks.

This leads us to question what “self” is in art as self-expression. In the West, self is decidedly more about the rational aspect of ourselves. A rational mind constructs a rational self-image, i.e., ego, which fundamentally conflicts with the natures of body and emotion. It builds a version of self that is unchanging regardless of contexts, is immortal in history, and has logical integrity. This is the self most Westerners refer to by the word “I”. Western art, therefore, is largely about this “I”. In this tradition, both body as the “I” and emotion as the “I” are suppressed.

Body and emotion, as they are naturally, go against the notions of immortality and stability. They need to be free to live and die, and to fluctuate. Mandala sand paintings or fireworks, therefore, appeal to these aspects of who we are. The urge to take pictures of or somehow document these works comes only from our egos. From the perspectives of body and emotion, such gestures would only invite misunderstandings of what they are about.

The role the “I” plays in art has been much discussed in the West under the term “disinterested contemplation”. There has been much disagreement about what it is. I personally define it as an aesthetic experience free of the bounds of our rational self-image. For instance, when a woman looks at a female nude painting, she must put aside her rational self-image as a feminist in order to achieve the state of disinterested contemplation. It is the ego that triggers a self-interested contemplation (sexual arousal) in men. And it is also the ego that triggers a feeling of displeasure (offence) in women, which is also a form of self-interested contemplation.

This rational self-image is often quite different from what you really are physically and emotionally. It could even be different intellectually. For instance, your image of your own logical capacity may be different from your actual capacity when put to test. Detaching your self-image (ego) in the process of making art allows you to see who you really are. It allows you to let yourself be. Some aspects of yourself may be similar to others, while other aspects may be very different. This egoless attitude towards making or viewing art, therefore, does not lead to universalism.

Self-interested attitude towards art leads to consistency, immortality, and rationalism. Its primary concern is, therefore, with history. And, to support this concern, museums become preoccupied with conservation. The necessary side effect of such cultural forces is that people who have a disinterested attitude towards art, who practice art to discover and transform themselves, are suppressed as inferior. A disinterested attitude usually produces artworks that are inferior by the Western standards, because they are not necessarily original, and often are outright redundant. In Eastern art, some artists do achieve originality, but they never strive to achieve originality for its own sake, only as unintentional results of their pursuits. The value of an artwork is measured by how honestly it reflects the disinterested self. As long as this is achieved, whether the disinterested self is similar to or different from others is secondary. From an Eastern perspective, originality is a preoccupation of a rational mind which relies on difference as the very foundation of its existence. Eastern artists do use the rational aspect of themselves in the process of making art, but, to them, it is only a tool. They therefore prevent their rational selves to achieve metaphysical existence such as living forever in history.

In the East, the virtue of art lies in its process and practice, not in the resulting objects. The aim of art is transformation of self, not of the object. Art is a ladder you throw away after you have climbed it. In the West, this aspect of art has been suppressed by rationalism and male-chauvinism. Such activities have been labeled “hobbies” or “popular art” as opposed to “high art”. Artists who do not pursue art as a career are “hobbyists” who lack commitment, seriousness, and talent. This perception discourages people from practicing art, and they see art as a specialized field. The result is the current art world full of self-interested art, a showcase of shrewdness and marketing skills.

Such cultural attitude has grave influences on how our senses of value are formed. Here is an interesting experiment cited in “The Geography of Thought” by Richard E. Nisbett:

“An experiment by Steven Heine and his colleagues captures the difference between the Western push to feel good about the self and the Asian drive for self-improvement. The experimenters asked Canadian and Japanese students to take a bogus ‘creativity’ test and then gave the students ‘feedback’ indicating that they had done very well or very badly. The experimenters then secretly observed how long the participants worked on a similar task. The Canadians worked longer on the task if they had succeeded; the Japanese worked longer if they failed.”

We can interpret this as a manifestation of Japanese conformism, but we can also look at this as the difference in perception of what is significant in any given task. To Westerners, it is the result; to Easterners, it is the process. The Western students who were commended saw it as an opportunity to differentiate themselves from the rest, a rational definition of existence, a potential for immortality. The Eastern students who were deemed inferior, saw it as an opportunity to transform themselves through the process. Once they reached the goal, they threw away the ladder and pursued it no further.

The future possibilities

Museums should not entirely reject the rationalistic (male) conception of art, nor should they blindly embrace Eastern (female) conception of art. However, I would propose that they achieve a better balance between the two approaches of art. Look at so called “craft” in a different light. Evaluate not the objects but the process, not the originality, but the self-transformation. Museums as cultural institutions could focus less in conservation and more in teaching ordinary citizens the virtues of practicing art themselves. Instinctive resistance to such ideas as promoting so called “craft” is already a manifestation of rationalism and male-chauvinism at work.

Today the concerns of the world are becoming increasingly global. Countries around the world are becoming more multi-cultural. Especially in the US where many cultures from around the world have contributed to its evolution, there is no excuse in saying, “This is a Western museum, so we operate according to Western values.” It is about time the Western institutions of art get over their worshiping of immortality, originality, and rationality, and realize the value of ephemerality, self-transformation, and spirituality.

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