Does the Younger Generation Have a New Attitude Toward Museums?

Pipilotti Rist's “Pour Your Body Out” (2008) at MoMA (image from picasaweb user Emilio)

In an essay for Paper Monument‘s third issue, Timothy Aubry writes on his view of youngsters’ behavior in museums, temples of art that were previously bastions of quiet respect and contemplation. Now, they may as well be amusement parks! Aubry points to the pajama-party vibe of Pipolotti Rist’s “Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters)” (2008), installed in MoMA’s atrium, to speak on our cultural lack of reverence for museum spaces. No longer content to be in awe, we now argue with our museum experiences and adapt them to our own ends. Does a younger generation have a different attitude towards museum-going?

In Aubry’s eyes, museums sadly aren’t seen as culturally or aesthetically “elevating” any more; rather, they exist as spaces to show off cultural capital and demonstrate that one already has an understanding of this “high art,” a venue for bragging rather than understanding:

Very few people leave college these days with the kind of well-developed reverence for high culture that would make it easy to know how to behave in a museum… And those few who do end up majoring in English or art history will likely learn that reverence toward high culture is no longer so fashionable.

It’s apparently not cool to stand agape in front of an artwork, taken aback and humbled by its sheer presence. What’s cool is to prove you’re better than the work on view, that you win the contest. But maybe, through all our bombardment by faulty mainstream media and advertising and the relative liberation of the internet and social media, our younger generation has grown up with a different view of established institutions like museums than an older age has, viewing them as an arena to argue and discuss and debate rather than to sit down and be taught, reverently observing problematic curatorial practices and content to be shown that women need not be represented in our august cultural institutions as we would have 40 years ago.

Tino Sehgal's "The Kiss" at the Guggenheim. Relational aesthetics and institutional critique artists have also taught us to look twice at museums and institutions. (image from NYTimes.com)

The overwhelming experience my generation (how to define this is still very sticky) with online media and the atomization of editorial and curatorial practices and content has given us the independence to not look to any one source for an infallible voice. We’ve learned that we don’t need to be awed or passively taught to learn; we can learn through our own conflicts and conversations and missteps. The internet has shown us that we actually can argue with a curatorial label, and taught us the importance of not taking something at its face value fairly early in life.

If that sounds like a silly anti-establishment punk ethos, it’s not, really. It’s just the critical lens that we have grown up with. Relentlessly DIY media naturally creates an atmosphere of competition where if you don’t like something, it’s not hard to make an alternative. If I don’t like MoMA’s display, I can create a new one on my Tumblr and look at that instead. I can mix and match, remixing institutional voices into the exact combination that I like.

Sure, this means that I lose an easy trust in authoritativeness and lack utter faith in a single voice or platform. But is that really a bad thing? Is it bad that I can run around in barefeet in Rist’s video installation/playground? Is it bad that I can challenge the art to respond to me, rather than speak from on high? I don’t think so.


  • At Art Fag City, Paddy Johnson extends Aubry’s arguments on how we make ourselves seem smart, valuing volume of knowledge over quality or depth. Does shouting the most, the loudest make you the smartest?
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