Museums and Other Beasts

May 2, 2012

Douglas Crimp’s “On the Museums Ruins” is a criticism of modern art and literary and artistic institutions. He centers on the museum as focus for his critique, and by way of Theodor W. Adorno, introduces this structure of ‘confinement’ as having etymological grounding in the word museal, referencing the mausoleum. Metaphors of the process of dying, burial and decay illustrate a vivid view of the museum as a place preserving relics of the past rather than respecting the needs of the present: “Museums are the family sepulchres of works of art.”

Foucault is quoted discussing the logic of libraries and museums using painter Édouard Manet and novelist Gustave Flaubert as vehicles to exemplify the departure in the mid-late 19th century of these institutions contents from artistic achievements to manifestations of ‘the existence of museums’ with new relationships to themselves. Foucault’s consideration of The Temptation as a work which comprehends  “the greenish institutions where books are accumulated and where the slow and incontrovertible vegetation of learning quietly proliferates” [47] is oriented towards a more positive future than Adorno’s morbid comparisons, but it still holds an underlying narrative of decomposition. Foucault likens Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet as “the grotesque shadow” of the earlier Temptations of Saint Anthony. “If The Temptation points to the library as the generator of modem literature, then Bouvard and Pecuchet fingers it as the dumping grounds of an irredeemable classical culture.” [47]

Gustave Flaubert’s satire from 1881, Bouvard and Pecuchet is a novel that systematically parodies the inconsistencies, irrelevancies, the massive foolishness of received ideas in the mid-19th century. It follows two “loony Parisian bachelors” who upon a chance meeting, find that they share an utter distaste for their desk-ridden city lives and promptly relocate to the countryside to commence a life of intellectual stimulation. After failed attempts at almost every branch of knowledge, they realize their endeavors are futile and resume their initial task as copy-clerks. Having accumulated a large and heterogeneous collection of items, they design a taxonomy, and they effectively constitute for themselves a private museum.

Eugenio Donato remarks that the series of heterogeneous activities of Bouvard and Pecuchet is not the library-encyclopedia, but in fact the museum. “The museum contains everything the library contains and it contains the library as well.” [48] Then we could say that the novel is indeed another scale of museum. “It is thus through the Museum that questions of origin, causality, representation, and symbolization are most clearly stated.”

But beyond the evident presence of the museum in these texts, I want to reflect on the characters of Flaubert’s novel. The narrative of exploration and collection as well as the relationship dynamics are ripe with opportunity for a revisionist ficto-critisism, especially as the novel is unfinished. In the adjacent diagram I have imagined the two bachelors as woman: Frankie & Justine, as part of my own study of gender and minoritarian identity in the context of the institution.



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