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Hein and Edelman

Hein and Edelman

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Published by Anna Ghublikian

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Published by: Anna Ghublikian on Oct 25, 2011
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Anna Ghublikian October 24, 2011 Hein Response In Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently, author Hilde Hein makes

poignant observations about the current conceptions and embodiments of publics and public spaces. Out of these observations grow some very thought provoking ideas, such as her somewhat radical rethinking of museum as public art. This suggestion calls for a motion, on the part of museums, to incorporate the paradigm of public art into their overall aims and executions. While she is right to assign this task to the museums, this motion could also change the nature and perception of public art in unintentional yet insidious ways. If we were to model experiential museums after public art (how this would manifest, I’m not entirely sure, given that a model for public art is so elusive, maybe even nonexistent, to begin with), we may inadvertently neutralize the volatile aspects of public art that Hein finds appealing and useful.1 Going a step further, I would even say that aside from its neutralizing and potentially normalizing effects, Hein’s proposition may even divest some forms of public art of its power to disrupt and fracture. It is these powers of public art that I am most intrigued by, and which I believe need to be preserved. As I was reading Hein I was reminded of a particular notion of queer oppositional politics that takes as its vocation the responsibility of rupturing and fracturing traditional, normal, dominant culture. At the risk of straying as far as seemingly possible away from this week’s topic, I would like to attempt to trace some kind of thread between Hein’s book and the other reading I’ve been doing lately. To do this, I’ll extract one idea from the esteemed but occasionally challenging theorist Lee Edelman from his 1998 essay: “The Future is Kid Stuff: Queer Theory, Disidentification, and the Death Drive.” While the overall aim of this work is quite unrelated to public art, it is, in many ways, related to Hein’s idea that public art may be, at times, jarring, oppositional and perhaps even offensive. I have admittedly provided a larger citation than is necessary, but the textual background may prove helpful. Edelman writes:


Hein, xxiii.


The right once again knows the answer, knows that the true oppositional politics implicit in the practice of queer sexualities lies not in the liberal discourse, the patent negotiation, of tolerances and rights, important as these undoubtedly are to all of us still denied them, but rather in the capacity of queer sexualities to figure the radical dissolution of the contract, I every sense social and symbolic, on which the future as guarantee against the return of the real, and so against the insistence of the death drive, depends. 2

Death drive aside, it is the particular relationship between queer sexualities and the contract, the particular extract, “the true oppositional politics in the practice of queer sexualities lies…in the capacity of queer sexualities to figure the radical dissolution of the contract,” that interests me. This named “contract” stands for that which is acceptable, allowed, normal by social and juridical standards, and—perhaps most of all—expected. The dissolution of the contract is the breach of the expected. Instead of attempting to normalize queer perspectives through actions such as embracing more acceptable sexual behaviors and living situations, for example, queer oppositional politics should occupy this position of deviance and immorality precisely because the “dissolution of the contract” is so important. Its importance is in its ability to act as a catalyst for change, discussion, thought, or, at the very least, engagement. Dissolution can also manifest as a confrontation, intervention, or rupture that encourages and occasionally even forces engagement. In Hein’s words:
The new public art is mobile and practical. It exposes the ordinary, provokes criticism, and subjects itself to question as it probes outward and inward, releasing fresh ideas. Such volatility is a fertile model for the museum…. 3

Her positioning of public art as volatile, probing, provoking, and exposing mechanisms for deploying new ideas and perspectives is strikingly similar to Edelman’s conception of queer oppositional politics as essential for rupturing the contract. Furthermore, they are essential elements of public art that, I believe, need to be encouraged and might not be were the paradigm of public art to be employed by the museum. Aside from its personal properties and energies, physical location is another form of rupture that public art can make. The geographical presence that public art can have on


Lee Edelman, “The Future Is Kid Stuff: Queer Theory, Disidentification, and the Death Drive” Narrative, Vol. 6, No. 1 (January, 1998), 23 3 Hein, xxiii.


pedestrian audiences, if we may call them that, is, in some instances, jarring and confrontational:
…encountering art is not entire elective. We enter museums voluntarily, but crossing city streets and using public facilities are not easily avoided. We go to private art, but public art is come upon. Feeling oneself a captive audience, one may well resent…the intrusion of unwanted art….4

While the statement continues to address the other factors by which the public judges public art, the involuntary interaction that public art compels is both a position and a movement similar to the Edelman’s ruptured contract. If art is presented by institutions and comes upon us in such a way, then the thrust, the particularities in approached that public art can take, may appear to be less obvious, less jarring, less subtle, less provoking. Of course not all public art is offensive, disruptive, inconvenient, or even noticeable. Some public art can merge seamlessly into our everyday movements. Still, its situation—both physical and abstract—outside a particular institution are often the grounds on which discussions and contestations can be negotiated. That art can exist not only outside of, but perhaps in opposition to institutionalized space is an obvious benefit, yet perhaps so simple that we risk taking it for granted. Hein’s proposition might be untenable on other juridical and financial grounds as she, herself, concedes in her conclusion, but her suggestions could (and should) be challenged from an ideological perspective as well. Even the most quotidian forms of public art, such as park benches, refuse the kind of interpretation and programming in museums. I believe this is good, and that museums should not seek to mimic these refusals. And even if they could, what would they refuse? Past models? Perhaps, for museums, the road to experiential engagement is not through the paradigm of public art.
Note: Another one of the reasons I take issue with Hein’s suggestion for museums is rooted in her (weak, in my estimation) definition of public. She makes certain assumptions and sometimes contradictory statements about public space, public bodies, public art, art in public, etc. More specifically, her discussions around such terms make certain assumptions about publics that I find problematic. I think this is a, perhaps, more valid discussion however not coverable within the constraints (both time-wise and length-wise) of this paper.


Hein, 55.


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