January 24, 2010

A Manifesto for Monsters in Museums

I have previously expressed exasperation about the pronouncements of the bloody woman who runs the organisation “Kids in Museums” http://www.kidsinmuseums.org.uk/about/
She is at it again – this time an article in Arts Industry magazine www.artsindustry.co.uk – talking about the Kids in Museums Manifesto
Her main agenda obviously is to promote the manifesto, but in the article she does this by attacking the ‘arts sector’ over how bad it is at writing manifestos. Her article and her manifesto manifest to me someone who actually fundamentally dislikes the arts; there is always the subtext of her residual anger that she and her noisy brood were ‘thrown out’ of the Royal Academy.

Her article basically argues:
Galleries, museums and arts campaigns are bad at writing manifestos – they create documents that are either too long or, conversely, if short, too loose – “It’s no good having a manifesto with aims that boil down to nothing more than ‘enabling more people to have access to the arts’”. The Monsters in Museums woman tells ‘us’ that manifestos should be brief and clear. Amusingly, she says if your manifesto is one page long everyone will read it, if it is two pages long, hardly anyone even reads the first page. The Kids in Museums manifesto is two pages long.

Being a journalist and mother, it looks like she only had time to look up a quick dictionary definition for her article: “a public written declaration of the intentions or motives of a party”. As I have written before I have a real problem with this organisation and with its art-destroying agenda; in this article though, I find that I have a problem with their attack on manifestos too! Putting aside that the definition she uses misses reference to the manifesto’s requirement to call to action or that “all manifestos are best at denunciation” (Eric Hobsbawm); it also fails because “almost all manifestos in the past, which took the form of a group statement - assume the voice of some collective ‘we’” (Hans Ulrich Obrist). When you actually look at the KIM/MIM Manifesto you find that it doesn’t even fulfil the bloody woman’s own stated definition as it is not a declaration of the intentions of KIM/MIM, it is a list of patronising hectoring, and, sometimes plain stupid, demands of galleries and museums that have nothing to do with art.

On the face of it, the manifesto point that I have the biggest problem with would seem the most innocuous, Point 11: “Be height aware. Display objects, art and labels low enough for a child to see.” In hierarchical order of importance the people who should define the height of a work are the artist, then, if not specified as intrinsic to the work, the curator, and then no-one else. How old is the child who is supposed to see the work? One of the KIM/MIM suggestions (not in the manifesto) apparently is that museums should have pram-parking areas to make them more welcoming to mothers; does that mean that work should be displayed at eye-level of a toddler? As a 6-foot adult why do I have to sacrifice my back so that a toddler can see an artwork which it is unlikely to understand anyway? The government’s (equally stupid) performance indicators for Galleries measure success by the number of adult visitors. Can the forces of idiocy have it both ways?

She is right that the word ‘manifesto’ has been devalued, as much by sloppy use and by political parties which omit the originating impetus to revolution, but manifestos are written by practitioners not institutions; her attack is misconceived because the ‘arts sector’, the institutional examples she quotes, and the KIM/MIM manifesto are not actually manifestos.

Having a ‘manifesto’ that tells museums to have somewhere to sit down, tells me that the writer doesn’t actually go into many museums. It’s also odd that the 2nd point on the manifesto is that museums should have flexible family tickets. Though this may sound unusual to my foreign readers, in the UK virtually all museums are free to enter, certainly I can’t think of a museum in greater Manchester where you need a ticket. It hardly inspires interest in the manifesto shopping list if the 1st item is to be welcoming and the 2nd recommends something you don’t need.

For the first Text Festival (2005), I wrote a manifesto about the future of language art called simply “Text”. It was modelled on John Cage’s “Credo for the Future of Music”
http://transelectronic.net/v2/?p=302 . I wrote it as a poet not an art director. Text was 19 pages long; it was written with ideas, form and vocabulary beyond the reading age of children. It is of no interest if children can not read it. The opening shows were driven by curatorial rigour commensurate with the importance of the project – as Art Monthly reviewed at the time: “According to Foucault, the singularities that serve to rupture and renew normative discourse always emerge from the interstices – in other words, where nobody is looking. Almost certainly nobody was looking in the direction of Bury for the emergence of this significant project…” What’s a Foucault, Mummy?

Don’t get me wrong, the festival and other Bury Art Gallery programmes are supported by a full range of activities and projects aimed at children and young people but how is the cultural experience for them or for any other visitor enhanced by a gallery offering “big open spaces for children to let off steam” (point 15)? O, this relates to point 4 – don’t let galleries be places where people can experience displays without the noise of screaming running children. It is implied that the freedom to make noise in a gallery is related to galleries ‘being places for debate and new ideas’. That is exactly what they are – so how does children ‘letting off steam’ contribute to that? Of course there is the government fantasy that (point 10) ‘older and younger children … bring fresh ideas and insights’. This is plain nonsense. It has never been true and after 20 years of militarization (to paraphrase John Cage) of UK art and music education it is even further from possible. It can be argued that galleries and museums are the avenue through which young people can access and achieve their creative potential; this is true but only if galleries are allowed to be galleries that are places of ideas and not by dragging them down to the dumbness of the UK national curriculum and the chagrin of a mother with a chip on her shoulder.

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