Stephen Willats

The Containment of Art Practice, 1986

It is an implicit and seemingly unquestioned fact of contemporary culture that art practice is dependent upon, and contained within, ‘art institutions’ and in particular, the ‘art museum’. Yet this is despite the almost continual debate amongst artist, theoreticians, the public, and museum curators, for an art beyond the walls of the museum. Notwithstanding this periodic call for an art practice that exists within the fabric of everyday life, art in general is still confined to the rarefied interior of the art museum and, perhaps, therefore it is not surprising that it has evolved as a form that fits the physical and social conditions prevailing within the gallery.

The power of the art museum has grown considerably in the last decade and, recently, the concept has become fashionable amongst curators that the art museum is a kind of ‘mausoleum’. In this state the art museum separates itself, and the art objects it contains, from the world outside, reflecting a higher order; a purity that is timeless, untouchable and unchallengeable. The internal referencing of the art museum is reflected in the internal referencing of its artworks, both are abstract, and this reflects the modernist movement in art since the 1960s. The obscurity of ‘conceptual art’ and the blankness of ‘minimal art’ meant that they could well exist within a club-like atmosphere of pre-knowledge, that their hidden codes for audience behaviour, the specialisation of the visual languages used by the artist, elevated the possessor of that special knowledge: the museum curator.


Printed in Society Through Art, Stephen Willats, Haags Centrum voor Aktuele Kunst, Den Haag, 1990