To see and be seen: notes on the exhibitionary complex

September 4, 2011

In the exhibitionary complex Tony Bennett locates a shift in the relationship between the western state and its populace 1. He sees, alongside Foucault 2, a move from the state’s domination of the unruly mob through the display of punishment, to the management of a self-regulating public through ideological education. This transformation of the masses, Bennett suggests, began with the rise of the museum and with it the myopic and nationalised meta-narratives of history that they displayed.

As the carceral system withdrew from the public’s gaze, taking the didactic, mutilated bodies of the criminal down from the scaffold and placing them behind the concealing walls of the prison, the exhibitionary complex began the reverse process of shifting private collections of objects and bodies out from behind closed doors and into the public domain. This exposition of collected items had the ultimate effect of shifting the public’s gaze from those that had fallen from society, onto society itself, and running behind this new public ‘self awareness’ was the incessant message that, hand in hand, the state and the public were working together towards a greater good, and that greater good was progress.

With this apparent personal stake in the fortunes of the state along with the rise of the great expositions and a growing retail, consumer culture (and with them the introduction of Benjamin’s Flaneur 3), the increasingly self aware public transforms into a self regulating body, controlled now by its own narcissistic gaze, thriving in the ever-increasing opportunity to see or be seen.

The notion of this new cosmopolitan society, shining in the spirit of progress atop the great summit of human enlightenment was dependant on the reinforcement through the great expositions, in the idea of the other; the less successful and inferior societies that had somehow found themselves stunted upon their evolutionary journey and unable then to be seen as equals in a modern society. Thus was the modern project was built upon the back of a prejudiced and racist outlook, demanding the arrested development (and incidentally the labour) of inferior societies in the pursuit of its own vanity.

Seeing the institution of art itself as a means of control and coercion by the state is discouraging, but perhaps now we can se the true value of using our accumulated accursed share 4 in practicing art for its own value, outside of any economic system; celebrating the viral heterotopias of our roaming ships of fools lest we remain the parliament of monsters that we’ve become 5.

Kim Bridgland

1. Tony Bennett, ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’, in The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, London: Routledge, 1995.

2. Ibid.

3. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge: Belknap Harvard, 2002.

4, Georges Bataille, The accursed share, vol 1: consumption, Trans. Robert Hurley, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1991.

5. Tony Bennett, ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’, in The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, London: Routledge, 1995. P.59, p86.

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