Q: How many (art) historians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: There is a great deal of debate on this issue. Up until the mid-20th century, the accepted answer was ‘one’: and this Whiggish narrative underpinned a number of works that celebrated electrification and the march of progress in light-bulb changing. Beginning in the 1960s, however, social historians increasingly rejected the ‘Great Man’ school and produced revisionist narratives that stressed the contributions of research assistants and custodial staff. This new consensus was challenged, in turn, by women’s historians, who criticized the social interpretation for marginalizing women, and who argued that light bulbs are actually changed by department secretaries. Since the 1980s, however, postmodernist scholars have deconstructed what they characterize as a repressive hegemonic discourse of light-bulb changing, with its implicit binary opposition between ‘light’ and ‘darkness,’ and its phallogocentric privileging of the bulb over the socket, which they see as colonialist, sexist, and racist. Finally, a new generation of neo-conservative historians have concluded that the light never needed changing in the first place, and have praised political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher for bringing back the old bulb. Clearly, much additional research remains to be done.
The blog art21 has posted an interview with Richard McCoy, art conservator at the Indianapolis Art Museum, and myself, talking about the process of creating my book, and the large scale sculptures fabricated at Lippincott, Inc. We also talk about the importance of documenting the fabrication and installation of artworks.
The Museologist Reads: Who Owns Antiquity? Preface & Introduction
So because books like these tend to take 40+ pages for the Preface and Introduction, I decided to not wait until Chapter one to put up a discussion/summary of the thing. I’m going to be going a chapter or so at a time, and the final verdict will come at the end. I’ll be putting this under a cut because I know it’s going to be pretty long already.
But let me start with an anecdote- I bought a book last term that contained “Art Problems” for discussion. One of them described a scenario thusly: A Museum is presented with a beautiful representation of Pre-columbian art - a statue. The Museum is unsure if the object was obtained legally, and suspects that it was stolen. Furthermore, the Museum suspects that it they do not obtain the work of art, someone else will and will keep it for private use (out of the public eye) or it will be destroyed. Assuming it would be legal (or look legal, anyways) to purchase the piece, would you do it?
James Cuno’s Who Owns Antiquity? follows a similar trail of thought - except he’s already got an answer: “a Museum should have the right to acquire and maintain undocumented foreign antiquities under certain resonable conditions.” And judging by the Preface and the Introduction, he’s going to try to be very convincing with his answer.
Note: The Museologist is just dicussing what James Cuno thinks, not necessarily what she believes. If she does, you’ll know.