The Right Balance

September 29, 2015

At a very basic level, any museum professional tries to balance the audience’s right to access and the institution’s need to preserve the artwork. In this particular moment in which we find ourselves, I believe everyone has been concerned with looting (as it is going on in the Middle East, for example), and vandalism (as important artworks have become the background for selfies). So, when we affirm that the public has a right to culture, there seems to be the need to be more specific about who exactly “the public” is, and how far the “right” to culture must be extended.

I also think we must apply the same kind of discretion in regard to archives and estates. I have nothing but respect for folks who represent and take care of estates (whether an artist’s relative or anyone designated as the executor), and understand that some kind of control must be exerted. The issue of “financial exploitation” really does not concern me. I have always been granted access to the materials I needed for my research, and often times I have had the fees waived because of the nature of the project. But if I am doing an exhibition and I have a budget to pay for licenses and such, I have no problem with that, since books and catalogs generate some revenue, and they also help increase the value of works in private collections. What many see as a hurdle, I see merely as a protocol that needs to be followed.

The Goebbels example is of course loaded with associations to the Nazi era, and our response inevitably becomes emotionally compromised. So I don’t think it helps us understand all the stakes of the problem we are trying to address. I would bring up, for instance, cases in which the artist him/herself stipulated guidelines for how their work or archive should be handled. Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, withdrew a number of his later films from circulation because he felt that his contemporaries did not fully appreciate those films. On the extreme side, I think of writers like Mallarmé and Kafka, who specifically instructed that their papers be destroyed. Clearly there is quite a lot that we can glean from episodes such as these, especially in what concerns the artist’s right to control the reception of his/her work. But what strikes me the most is the way in which art (and poetry) manages to survive public mishandling or the author’s express wishes, and reappear fresh to new audiences in entirely new contexts. If you think about it, this process is very mysterious (for lack of a better word) and on a deeper level it eludes the market and any kind of legal oversight.