As I have argued in Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically1Chantal Mouffe, Agonistica. Pensar el mundo politicamente, Fondo de Cultura Economica, 2014the hegemonic approach is particularly fruitful for apprehending the relations between art and politics. By bringing to the fore the discursive character of the social, and the multiplicity of discursive practices through which ‘our world’ is constructed it highlights the fact that the construction of an hegemony is not limited to the traditional political institutions but that it also takes place in the multiplicity of places of what is usually called ‘civil society’. This is where, as Antonio Gramsci has shown, a particular conception of the world is established and a specific understanding of reality is defined, what he refers to as the ‘common sense’, providing the terrain in which specific forms of subjectivity are constructed. And Gramsci indicated that the domain of culture plays a crucial role because it is one of the terrains where the ‘common sense’ is built and subjectivities are constructed.
When we envisage the role of the museums within such a framework, we begin to understand how museums and art institutions could be part of a progressive counter- hegemonic struggle. To be sure, the history of the museum has been linked since its beginning to the construction of bourgeois hegemony, but this function can be altered. As Wittgenstein has taught us, signification is always dependent on context and it is use which determines meaning. This is also true for institutions and we should discard the essentialist idea that some institutions are by essence destined to fulfill one immutable function. In fact we have already witnessed how, following the neo-liberal trend, many museums have abandoned their original function of educating citizens into the dominant culture and have been reduced to sites of entertainment for a public of consumers. The main objective of those ‘post-modern’ museums is to make money through blockbusters exhibitions and the sale of a manifold of products for tourists. The type of ‘participation’ that they promote is based on consumerism and they are actively contributing to the commercialization and depoliticization of the cultural field.
However this neo-liberal turn is not the only possible form of evolution and another one can be envisaged, leading in a progressive direction. Indeed far from being seen as conservative institutions, impervious to change and dedicated to the maintenance and reproduction of the existing hegemony museums can contribute to undermining the imaginary environment of the consumer society. There might have been a time when it made sense to abandon the museums to open new avenues for artistic practices. But in the present conditions, with the art world almost totally colonized by the markets, museums could be seen as privileged places for escaping from the dominance of the market. Boris Groys for instance has argued that the museum, which has been stripped of its normative role, could provide a privileged place for art works to be presented in a context that allows them to be distinguished from commercial products.2Boris Groys,, ‘The Logic of Aesthetic Rights’ in Art Power, MIT Press, 2008 Visualized in such a way, the museum could offer a place for resisting the effects of the growing commercialization of art and for countering the dictatorship of the global media market.
Following the hegemonic perspective we could also rethink the function of the museum in an agonistic way. According to such an approach the task for radical politics is not to desert institutions, celebrating their destruction as a move towards liberation, but to engage with them, developing their progressive potential. To envisage the museum in an agonistic way, it is necessary to acknowledge that what is at stake in cultural institutions is an hegemonic struggle about the definition of the common sense and the construction of the social imaginary. Museums and public institutions are places where a struggle takes place between conflicting representations of history and the way society should be organized. Instead of being denied on the ground that the public space is the place where one should search for consensus, this conflictual dimension needs to be recognized and activated. The purpose of this agonistic model of the museum is to bring about a democratic culture that will empower the citizens by creating a public space capable of fostering a variety of practices to develop their critical capacities .As Manuel Borja Villel has argued, (See for instance , Marcelo Exposito, Conversacion con Manuel Borja-Villel, Turpial, 2015) this requires establishing a dynamic relation with the territory where the museum is located and its particular memory, grasping the power relations through which this territory is structured. This is according to him the precondition for creating a relation with the public that will activate their critical capacities, providing citizens with the tools that will allow them to exercise those capacities.
Transformed into agonistic public spaces, museums would facilitate the expression of dissent, helping people to better understand the contradictions of the world in which they are living and allowing them to see things from different points of view. By providing people with a different kind of experience than the one they find in their role as consumers, and making them aware that aesthetic experience cannot be reduced to the mere act of consuming, museums and cultural institutions can become spaces of resistance to the process of commodification of culture brought about by the development of cultural industries. Converted into sites of opposition to neo-liberal hegemony and conceived as agonistic public spaces where this hegemony is openly contested museums and cultural institutions could play a decisive role the struggle for the radicalization of democracy.
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|1.||↑||Chantal Mouffe, Agonistica. Pensar el mundo politicamente, Fondo de Cultura Economica, 2014|
|2.||↑||Boris Groys,, ‘The Logic of Aesthetic Rights’ in Art Power, MIT Press, 2008|