Polemic: GO BACK You Are Going the Wrong Way

Brook breaks this argument down into sub categories: The rationale of the art history museum, The cabinet of curiosities, Evolution, Cultural evolution, Art as the source of memetic variation and The cultural museum.

Despite the precedent of St Paul, who was understandably flogged for his temerity in the main cultural centres of his age, I say to the art history museum lovers among you - and not only to citizens of the Athens of the South - GO BACK: you are going the wrong way! Do not covet a Kunsthistorisches Museum on the Torrens. Do not lust after a Gawler Guggenheim.

I do not insist that the Art Gallery of South Australia be razed to the ground. This is partly out of deference to local sensitivity, but mainly because it is not exclusively an art history museum. It serves an innocent - indeed, a creditable - purpose as a gallery.
Plainly stated, this is the indictment. There are no principles of selection - good or bad - on which items can be assembled in a museum to tell the history of art. By contrast, the fact that there are no art-historical principles is pure liberation for the gallery: there are no art-historical principles upon which anything can be excluded. As a corollary, successful exhibition in the art gallery must not be conceived as a qualification for admission to the art history museum.

Just as I was committing those words to paper I overheard on the radio that a man had been struck by lightning at the entrance to the Louvre. The report did not specify which of his conceptual errors had offended the Almighty.

The rationale of the art history museum
The rationale of the art history museum was not at first challenged on the question of what should be collected, but on the question of what should not be collected. It once seemed beyond dispute that dead fish - whether or not preserved in formaldehyde - must be inadmissible. This confidence was shaken around the end of the nineteenth century when troublemakers in the artworld demanded, progressively more stridently, to have its principled basis explained to them.

It is fair to say that the art history museum has not responded convincingly. Many curators have simply capitulated; occasionally in the spirit of the high-rolling gambler who is unfairly advantaged by the fact that the bets placed by the art history museum tend to be self-confirming.

The challenge over what should be excluded was not initiated by modernist abstraction, nor even by the found object, but by exotic cultural artefacture; and particularly by the heathen idols of Africa. The aesthetic opinion was that this material, pillaged from the cradle of mankind, did not belong in the art history museum because it was not beautiful. The scholarly opinion was that it did not belong in the art history museum because it was not historical. The philosophical opinion - arriving (as is often the case) too late to be influential - was that it did not belong in the art history museum because it was not made under the concept of art.

In Australia the question of what is admissible to the art history museum has always been regarded either as academic - and therefore of no real significance - or else as political in a rather personal way. The important question has always been: Who shall be the next Director?

I urge upon you the opinion that what is really at stake does not turn upon distinctions between the beautiful and the ugly, or between the old and the new, or between the familiar and the exotic. It turns upon the point that there is absolutely nothing that properly belongs in the art history museum. Moreover, the reason for this can be very easily stated. Art does not have a history. Only species, and cultures, have histories.
Unfortunately, although it can easily be stated this reason can not easily be explained.

The cabinet of curiosities
To make a start, we must distinguish between the cabinet of curiosities and the natural history museum. I take the natural history museum to set the standard of intellectual probity, research and scholarship, with which the art history museum impudently claims affinity.

The transformation of the cabinet of curiosities into the natural history museum was motivated by the idea that apparently singular freaks of nature can be made intelligible by a persuasive explanatory story about their relationships. In this way wonder and curiosity are supplemented by understanding and, in the end, to understand all is to forgive all; even including animals and foreigners.

Explanatory stories are profoundly historical, and the most powerful of them all is the scientific story of the way in which the items assembled in the natural history museum are related. The nature of this explanation has not yet been thoroughly grasped. The principles of historical explanation continue to be understood - by scientists and by historians alike - in terms of the pushing and shoving of events down a one-way corridor of time. The past, open to public scrutiny, has been thought of as coercive upon an as-yet unexamined - but in-principle-predictable - future. This happened (so the causal explainers say) because that happened, from the moment of creation to the end of time.

Since Darwin, however, recognition has spread that only an evolutionary story is properly explanatory, and therefore historical, as contrasted with being merely descriptive. Stories about what diligent investigators will find in the world must run intentionally (one is tempted to say simultaneously) backward and forward. What we are collectively able to see, hear, smell, and touch in the publicly accessible past is very much a function of what we are able to see (hear, etc) in the publicly accessible present; and the present is the past's future. It is not only a contingent point that a perceiver must have moved on, in order to look back.

For an example popularised by Dawkins: because we are familiar with the functioning eye we are able to perceive a concave formation in the photosensitive tissues of a transitional creature as a significantly organised unit. We can pick out a pattern from chaos. We can see an emergent retina. If the item that is structured in this way had not found replicable regularity and useful employment as an eye, then it - the entity recognisable under the description 'emergent retina' - would have remained non-perceptible: not just in one, but in two, senses.

In general, whatever can be encountered in the world as pointed or directed - including the pointedness of speech itself - derives its intentionality from (so to put it) what is regularly encounterable before it, and what is regularly encounterable after it. If no eye had emerged from the evolutionary process, then the 'emergent eye' would vanish from the perceptible record. Hindsight does not serve only to better illuminate the perceptible past: there is a clear sense in which hindsight generates the perceptible past.
It is crucial to the explanatory success of the story we tell about the evolution of species that individuals shall not be considered to evolve. Temporally ordered stories about individuals can be told, but they are only descriptive and not explanatory, and they are therefore not histories. It is not the individual but the species that evolves and has a history; and in the construction of the history of a species its future is as influential upon its past as its past is influential upon its future.

Some realists have difficulty with this. They say that even if the future is coercive upon the past in determining what can be said about the past, there must be a real past (and perhaps a real future) independently of what is - or is not - said about either of them. Or almost independently of what is said about them, if it is supposed that just one among all possible stories must be true. Graduates of the Art Theory Department have no sympathy with such talk. 'How could there be a true story,' they say, if there are no story-uncontaminated topics of conversation?'

It is my own conviction that we must defer to a past and a future that are not contaminated by story-telling, or else we shall be unable to converse about them; in which case we must be saying - absurdly - that we can not speak. But I expect very little trouble from the Art Theory Department over the metaphysical implications of this point because the principle of temporal bivalency alone - on which we are agreed - will be sufficient for my purpose. This is the principle that the past and the future, as topics of conversation, are more closely and reciprocally related than Isaac Newton supposed.
We must agree that the fossilised individuals in the natural history museum are not displayed in explanation of their own evolution, but in explanation of the evolution of their species. Moreover, this evolutionary story derives its power from the concept of the self-replicating gene, that makes use of individuals in a feed-back loop mediated by the fortunes of the continuously emergent species.

Cultural evolution
This, then, is the question for those of us whose concern is with culture rather than with nature: what historical account shall we give of the evolution of cultures, that will be as fully explanatory as the evolutionary story we tell about species?

Cultures are neither identical to nor coextensive with species, despite the preoccupation of classical humanism with the cultures of just one species. But the fact of animals and the possibility of aliens, and of the so-called 'artificial' intelligences that may be incarnated in quite different bodies from our own, should alert us to the need for a general account of cultural evolution. The exhibition Post-human Species at the Casula Power House, clearly testifies to this intuition; and technology moves in step. A recent report, for example, assures us that a primitive robot has been successfully generated by a more sophisticated robot, without deceitful human prompting.

It is often theorised that the key to the evolution of cultures is language; but the idea that culture may be explained by language is question-begging, or circular. How shall we understand the evolution of language, other than culturally? In search of a credible account of cultural evolution we have been urged by such pioneering enthusiasts as Dawkins and Dennett toward a conception of the meme as the replicable unit of cultural transmission, that is appropriately analogous to the gene.

Manifestly, the meme and its mode of replication can not be materially the same as that of the gene; for if it were, then indeed species would be identifiable with cultures. The contrast between nature and nurture would vanish. We have by now a reasonably good intellectual grasp of gene-replication and variation, but we have not yet seriously engaged with the ideas of meme-replication and meme-variation. The significance of meme-variation, especially, has been neglected. We lack a story that is comparably persuasive to the story of the unwinding double-helix template of DNA and of the natural - or contrived - mutations of genetic structures.

Like many others I have some ideas about the replication of memes, but it will be sufficient for the moment to say that - whether I am right or others are right about representational mimesis - a story of some kind about the replication of memes must be correct. If memes can not be said to replicate, then cultures can not be said to evolve. Their dance to the music of time may be described, but not explained: they will have no history.

The main question of this paper is not that of memetic replication, but of variation. Popular accounts of culture take replication for granted, as the perpetuation of types of artefacture such the stone axe, the language game, the mouse-trap and the oil painting. They do not address the fundamental issue of the origin and mutability of replicable types of artefacture, except to remark, mysteriously, that they are 'invented'.

Art as the source of memetic variation
It is my suggestion that the idea of art finds its secure intellectual foundation only when it is conceived as the ongoing emergence of memetic variation. As such, art has no history: it is now what it always was. Memetic replication - its working partner - should be moved across to the adjacent, but distinct, domain of skilful artefacture. The parable of Oscar Wilde's lament that he had not himself uttered another speaker's insight, only to be consoled by the reassurance 'Don't worry, Oscar; you will' intuitively - and rightly - marks the under-theorised distinction between art and artefacture.

It may seem that I am only making yet again a ritual obeisance to originality, or 'creativity,' as an alleged component of art that is generally - although not universally - cherished. But this is not so; or it is not culpably so. My purpose is to make good the unfamiliar and distasteful claim with which I began: that unlike species, and unlike cultures - both of which have histories - art does not have a history. So-called 'art objects,' or 'works of art,' are no more distinctively the embodiments of newly emergent memetic possibility within a culture than objects or works of 'non-art' (or 'ordinary things') are such embodiments. Objects and works can not be made as art objects, or as art works, except in the trivial classificatory sense that they can be purposefully made as paintings, plays, songs, and so on.

The art gallery (as contrasted with the art history museum) is a place in which objects and works of all kinds (originally, only paintings) can be interrogated for their value as instantiations of new and variant memes. Such an interrogation is, in practice, unsystematic, unreliable, and mainly unproductive; but it is not for such reasons beneath contempt. On the contrary: the intuition expressed by our attraction to the art gallery and its contents is fundamentally correct. Art, properly conceived as the memetic well-spring, is our source of life. We should not be deterred by a logically constrained inability to say with certainty, on sight, that this or that object on display in the art gallery is an embodied form of a new and viable meme. One can but hope - or fear - that it is so; and recognise that no mode or manner of persuasion adopted by appreciators is, in principle, futile.
In fact, the success of a new meme declares itself irresistibly within a culture, whether its viability was first suspected in an art gallery or in some other place. When a new and viable memetic resource is found to be culturally replicable, the existing and residual resources go to work with it. It feeds immediately, and inevitably, into science and technology.

The cultural museum
So the conceptual analogue of the natural history museum is not the art history museum: it is the cultural history museum. We already recognise this, although unsystematically. We have developed our cultural history museum ad hoc, not yet assembling its elements around an articulate spine of theory. The National Portrait Gallery; the Stockman's Hall of Fame; the War Memorial; Uluru: these are the unstrung beads of the cultural museum. So-called (or so mis-called) 'works of art' have a role in such places, but it is not the role conventionally assigned to them as the triumphal products of art-purposeful endeavour.
The art history museum can not be rationalised even as a department of the cultural museum. It should rather be conceived as a single, rampant, mutant meme that is replicating fearfully in the institutional bodies of the new global culture. When cultural historians are called upon to account for the success of this monstrous self-replicator they will need to look for suitable analogies with the miscegenations of natural history, genetic engineering and eugenics.

The art gallery, despite its many other uses - or perhaps one had better say because of its many other uses, is the most radically open source of memetic possibility. It enjoys a freedom from narrow, purposefully directed, memetically well-funded endeavour that has been granted to it mainly for the wrong reason. It is widely believed that what goes on in the art gallery does not really matter, in the way in which the purposeful activities of the board room, the factory and the laboratory, matter. Whether these timid libertarians are right or wrong - not to argue the question now - the art history museum is certainly not a site of such generous unconstraint. The art history museum is besotted with the idea of art-purposeful action and success. The art history museum is culturally triumphalist, but alas with only the puny intellectual force of the flower show, relative to the natural history museum's inexhaustibly rich botanical gardens.

A cultural history, in which the variation of memes plays a crucial explanatory role, can not be expounded in a narrow context of arbitrarily attributed success. It must be done in the wider context of those ongoing failures against which the very idea of success is made intelligible. More than half of the cultural record - analogous to the fossil record presented in the natural history museum - is excluded from the art history museum, by essentially unprincipled curatorial fiat.

So, to summarise: the art history museum institutionalises an error of reason and a lapse of taste. The first is seen in the supposition that art has a history. The second is seen in the celebration of 'success,' arbitrarily so-designated without reference to the nature of the contest.

Finally, I have not forgotten the celebration of Artlink's twentieth birthday. Whoever is concerned with the history of cultures will turn for part of the evidence to the back-numbers of the art magazines. Here is a record in which one finds not merely a list of winners but the full spectacle of what was won, and of what was lost, and - occasionally - how, and why. There is no triumphalist obligation upon the cultural historian to celebrate conspicuous survivors, just as there is no triumphalist obligation upon the student of natural history to celebrate the malaria mosquito or the alligator. I put it to you that, as contrasted with the instruction available in the archives of the art magazine, the basement of the art history museum is an obscenely fortified and intellectually frivolous Disney theme park.

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.