Is a Post-colonial Museum Possible?

Aug 2, 2018

TAA 0031 – C. Travis Webb, Seph Rodney, and Steven Fullwood discuss Seph’s recently completed book project. Seph has spent years studying how art museums cadre to and shape public expectations. Is it possible for the museum to be a neutral space of aesthetic engagement, or is it hopelessly bound to a political agenda?

C.T. WEBB 00:18  Good afternoon, good morning, or good evening, and welcome to The American Age podcast. Today, I’m talking to Steven and Seph once again. How are you guys doing? 
S. RODNEY 00:25  Pretty good. 
S. FULLWOOD 00:26  Hey. 
S. RODNEY 00:26  How are you? 
C.T. WEBB 00:28  Yeah. We talked about last week, so we decided this week’s topic last week. And so Seph, if the listeners don’t know, is currently in the very final stages of his book project. And Seph, correct me if I’ve gotten any of the details wrong, it’s been accepted by Routledge, and you are now on kind of the last stage of revision or additional kind of material you’re adding, is that right? 
S. RODNEY 00:57  That is correct. They sent it out to an outside reviewer who, I have to say, I deeply appreciate. He or she made comments in the text that made it seem like they even know me personally, or have read a lot of what I have written. They talk almost to– they talk to me in an almost intimate fashion. Like, “Seph, I just wish in this chapter that you’d just done this [laughter].” I kind of love it. It feels quite caring. 
C.T. WEBB 01:36  Yeah. For people that aren’t as familiar with academic publishing, or publishing in general, one of the things that happens with an academic book – certainly, with articles too – is they are more rigorously vetted by peers in what’s called a blind peer review process. So Seph doesn’t get to know who’s weighing in on his work. And ideally, the person revealing it also doesn’t get to know that it’s Seph’s work. So that process sometimes falls apart, but this is the goal. And it really is. I have mixed feelings about aspects of academia, but I really do feel that the diligent application of peer review is actually just a wonderful thing because people take that job seriously– 
S. RODNEY 02:29  I agree. 
C.T. WEBB 02:30  –in my experience. 
S. RODNEY 02:31  I agree. 
C.T. WEBB 02:31  Like you were just describing. So someone who does not know who you are and whom you most likely do not know, or you maybe you know [crosstalk]– 
S. RODNEY 02:39  Well, it seems like they’re familiar with my academic output or my [crosstalk]. 
C.T. WEBB 02:43  So, yeah. This is one of the things that– if you have a voice– if you have an area of research that’s particular, of course, that’s going to happen. But someone has given you their care, and time, and attention, for very little accolades. No money, right? Peer review does not get paid. This is just part of your obligation as a professional. So I don’t know. I just thought that kind of one of the best things about peer review. 
S. RODNEY 03:11  Yeah. And I’m glad you bought that up because it wouldn’t have occurred to me to talk about that at all. It’s really kind of a look-see into the sort of mechanisms of the machine. This is one of the ways in which we sort of keep each other honest. And I think it is worth talking about. With that, if I may, I’d like to introduce– 
C.T. WEBB 03:32  Please. Yes. It’s your show. 
S. RODNEY 03:32  –the topic today [laughter]? Right. So I started off sending out the question to you and Steven, what does it mean to say that museums are not neutral spaces? And I would actually rather hear from both of you what that phrase means to you, being a neutral space, especially when it comes to civic organizations like museums? And when I say museums, I mean all kinds of museums. I don’t necessarily mean art museums, though those are my focus. I’d like to know what that phrase means to you or how it’s resonated recently, given there’s been quite a– I think there’s been quite a bit of talk in popular culture about museums in the last couple of years. And then I’d like to weigh in on– kind of give you in very, very broad strokes what I understand the sort of dominant discourse is about museum visiting are, or, yeah, give you a sense of who the sort of big players in the field are. 
C.T. WEBB 04:46  So Steven before you and I take it, can I kick something back to Seph quickly? 
S. FULLWOOD 04:49  Oh, please do. Please do. 
C.T. WEBB 04:51  Okay. Can you locate for us and for listeners, who says that museums– I said that with a little bit too much force. I don’t mean that in that way. Who is making the argument that museums are not neutral spaces and what does that argument look like? Because I think for a lot of people, that may not be a give me. 
S. RODNEY 05:13  Right. Good question. So there are lots of people who I am not– well, I live adjacent to them in terms of our intellectual concerns. As a writer for Hyperallergic, I get associated with people who are contributors to the magazine who are really concerned about decolonizing museums. So there’s an entire community that sort of comes together around the idea that museums are, in some ways, colonialist enterprises, i.e., they are means by which a dominant– and that is usually broken down in the three classic ways. Race, class, and gender. So white, heteronormative, or some people like to say cis-hetero-patriarchal, male, middle-class. That segment of society, so the argument goes, uses museums, among other cultural organizations, as conduits by which to transmit their dominance by way of belief system and values of the rest of us. So the argument is, museums look at the kinds of stories they tell. They tend to center whiteness. They tend to center male and bourgeois privilege. This is a kind of colonialist project. 
C.T. WEBB 07:11  Can I ask you a question? And I don’t want to– I definitely don’t want to derail the conversation, but are these arguments ever more broadly historicized? Because museums didn’t start with the West. Ennigaldi-Nanna is a sixth-century BCE museum. That’s the daughter of one of the emperors in Sumer. Now, if we will just extend colonialism out to mean some sort of broader aggression by empires against other peoples, thumbs up. I get it. It makes perfect sense to me. But anyway. Sorry. 
S. RODNEY 07:50  Right. So good question. The quick answer is, people who are concerned about decolonizing the museum, and seeing museums as resolutely– what’s the word for not neutral? Not neutral spaces. Biased spaces. Are not so concerned– yes, their arguments do get historicized. And in fact, I plan to get into that. But they’re not so concerned with the museums that aren’t Western institutions. The point is the Western institutions that impinge on their lives and the ways that they live them are the ones that they are concerned with. So they would say, à la Fred Wilson, “Look at this history that we find ourselves embedded in, but look at where the–” here’s a fancy word, subaltern. Look at the characters who get ignored. Look at the ones on the margins of history. Those are the ones who actually tell you where the power structure lies. 
C.T. WEBB 08:52  Great. Okay. Thanks for that. So you had asked Steven and I a question? 
S. RODNEY 08:57  Yes, yes. 
C.T. WEBB 08:57  What does it mean to us? 
S. RODNEY 08:58  So what does that mean to you when you hear someone say museums are not neutral spaces? 
C.T. WEBB 09:05  I’m going to defer to Steven since I’ve already jumped in a bunch [laughter]. 
S. FULLWOOD 09:10  So when you asked the question, I had just responded to a friend of mine’s post. Her name is Negarra Kudumu, and she’s the manager of Public Programs at the Frye Museum in Seattle. And she just recently posted this amazing post and it is Art, Antiquities, and African Rooted Spiritual Traditions, Part One. And what she was doing was she crowd-sourced Facebook to ask people what she should write about. She’s a curator, she’s a writer, essayist, and she’s very engaged. And so what she decided to do was– they wanted her thoughts on art that depicts certain part of African traditional and African rooted religions and those materials and what they mean. She wants to be very specific. How should one think about the way in which these articles end up in museums? First, how do they end up there? And then to sort of think about the possible misuse or misnaming of what those artifacts are. And so what tripped me out was that, while I read the piece, I couldn’t help but think of the Hottentot Venus, Sarah Baartman. That the museum – what is it? The Museum of Man in Paris gave her the rest of her body back, that had been cut up when she was dead, to South Africa. And so they were returned in 2002, and she was buried on the Eastern Cape on the South African National Women’s Day. And I was wondering how Sarah would have used her body had she not been enslaved, or been buried whole? So I’m thinking about not just artifacts and museums, I’m thinking broadly about items themselves. Things themselves. And so I do think they are spaces to be contested. And I think that it’s a great place to contest how things got to where they are and how they could be framed. I’m really concerned about framing and language. This means this. No, it may not mean this. And I think that the best museums that I’ve been to are very careful about how they language and carry things. I mean, how they present things. I do think that they’re places to contest. And I do think they’re empirical monuments, at times, as well. Sometimes unconsciously so. And we are just– [inaudible] mostly accepted them as these things. And I’m like, “Well, it depends on who is looking.” So that’s kind of where I’m at with this. 
S. RODNEY 11:43  If I can kind of summarize your position, or maybe I’m kind of repackaging it so I can understand, you’re saying that in terms of knowledge, epistemologically, museums are not neutral in that they are telling a particular kind of story all the time, but that’s not the only story to be told? 
S. FULLWOOD 12:04  Absolutely. Yes. That’s why you’re the academic and I’m the DJ [laughter]. But absolutely. No. 
C.T. WEBB 12:16  I’ll try and find another opportunity for you to school me on Prince this week [laughter]. Let’s do it. 
S. FULLWOOD 12:21  Absolutely. 
C.T. WEBB 12:24  So I had a slightly different response until Steven started with his and it got me thinking about something else, which is my experience the first time I went to the British Museum. You have that giant rotunda in the center of it. And Bacon actually – Francis Bacon – has an essay about the way knowledge should be categorized. And it models that rotunda in the British Museum. 
S. FULLWOOD 12:56  Wow. Okay. 
C.T. WEBB 12:56  When you walk into the British Museum, it’s probably one of the most potent symbols of empire that I have ever seen. I mean, you are seeing the power of British colonialism manifest. 
S. RODNEY 13:22  [crosstalk]. 
C.T. WEBB 13:23  And the way that it rearranges other people’s meanings. The way that you can play other people’s systems of knowledge and reconstitute them into a new system of knowledge that is either whiggish if you sort of believe in progress and the steady march to the stiff upper lip in sort of British forms of governance around the world. And so in that way, I am very much emotionally, sympathetically responsive to Steven’s position and Seph’s position. So my response to seeing something like the British Museum, my response to hearing Steven talk about how that body would be disposed of outside, or, I mean, not disposed of, right? I mean, because that’s what it was. I have an emotional, sympathetic response to that. I feel a sense of indignation and then piqued curiosity about these other systems of knowledge. Where my brain kicks in, and where I start to push– what that starts to push up against, and where I feel like– I’m sure Seph is going to be able to flesh this out for us. In most of the criticism that I come across, it’s like it stops at the shore of Western history. And this method of reconstituting people, of reconstituting cultures, of reconstituting other people’s systems of knowledge, is not unidirectional and it’s not purely Western. It is an aspect of large-scale organizations of strangers. And it’s been going on for thousands of years. 
S. FULLWOOD 15:27  Absolutely. 
C.T. WEBB 15:28  And I don’t think that that therefore obviates our moral burden. Absolutely not. I don’t feel less responsible for the shit that I benefit from because of that. I’m just saying, how are we going to deconstruct this problem if our frame of reference is post-12th century, or the Enlightenment, or the Renaissance? The problem is much deeper and seems endemic to a type of human organization than it does just a Western metaphysics. So I kind of have a bifurcated response to it. 
S. RODNEY 16:06  Yeah. But that makes a lot of sense to me. I think what you’re– again, if I may paraphrase, what I’m getting from that is that the degree to which museums are not neutral is not necessarily a function of the pernicious nature of Western culture. But rather, it’s a function of the tendency for large groups of human beings, when they come together, and they make institutions that determine stories that explain ourselves to ourselves, the tendency when we do that is to create these overarching tales that are meant to corral us all together – politically, ideologically – in terms of values and belief systems. I think that’s kind of what you’re saying, Travis? 
C.T. WEBB 16:59  Yeah, yeah. That’s great. That was a great– that’s a great summary. And also, that it’s super violent when you do that. I mean, it’s just straight up vicious to all the people that don’t get to sit up in their perches and kind of organize these museums. But anyway. I’m sorry. Go ahead. But yeah, that was a great summary. 
S. RODNEY 17:16  Right. So just, I guess, to exercise some muscles with regards to people who have spent a lot of time researching this and writing about this, within museology, there’s a few people that are touchstones, and I want to run through them quickly to just sort of backup what we’ve been saying. So the first one, and the one who probably has the most effect on museum studies – in the 20th century, at least, and moving into the 21st – is Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote this book called The Love of Art with Alain Darbel. This is based on– which is based on a large-scale survey they did of five countries in Europe back in the ’60s. And they were trying to find out why it is that it seemed that mostly middle-class people went to art museums. Essentially, what they found– and I’m going to run through this relatively quickly because there’s a lot to get to. Essentially, what they found is that, in their own words or paraphrasing them, the visit is a kind of expression in– the museum visit is a kind of expression in cultural terms of an essentially economic set of relations. What they argue is that the museum can’t help but underwrite precisely the systems of representations. So the captions, the sort of layout, the sort of way the docents behave with visitors, affirm and encode the distinctions between social classes. So they naturalize them, essentially. According to Bourdieu, you walk in as a middle-class person, you’re like, “Oh, I’m home. I’m home. This is my world.” And you walk in as someone who’s working class or poor, and in the words of Bourdieu, you feel a kind of symbolic violence. You are pushed out. You self-select as not belonging there because you recognize your values and your values aren’t reflected back to you. So that’s his argument. 
C.T. WEBB 19:31  This got rolled into Distinction? 
S. RODNEY 19:36  Yes, yes. 
C.T. WEBB 19:35  His first big book? When he kind of looks at, why do a certain class of people think things that are aesthetically, “Ugly,” are actually more interesting? And this is Duchamp and things like that, right? 
S. RODNEY 19:48  That is– 
C.T. WEBB 19:48  Just to make sure I’m following you. 
S. RODNEY 19:50  That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. He extends his research into what he calls the habitus, which is the mechanism by which we are socialized to like what we like [laughter]. 
S. FULLWOOD 20:04  Wow. Wow. 
S. RODNEY 20:05  Right? Right. So he goes deep into that. 
S. FULLWOOD 20:08  Wow. 
S. RODNEY 20:08  There’s a couple of other models to consider. Basically, economic relations. Then, there’s Tony Bennett, Australian museum researcher, who really is looking at the museum as a structure for systematized discipline. He looked seriously at the way museums developed in the UK and how they were drawn into this reformist movement. There’s a cartoon I remember in his book, The Birth of the Museum, in which you have a kind of drunkard being sort of dragged into the museum and being enlightened by being around these beautiful objects. His argument is that you can see the museum as being a kind of civic educator where visitors are sifted into categories  – of white, non-white. Citizen, non-citizen. Male, female – as a way of sort of helping them to organize themselves socially. So he says a museum is a space of emulation for civilized conduct. So you can see how civilized people behave. It’s a space of representation of principles of order, categorization, and hierarchy. So you can see that in the way the museums laid out. And it’s a space in which to observe and regulate your own behavior because you’re having private experiences in a public space, so you are being regulated, and you allow that to happen. So that’s Tony Bennett’s argument. And then lastly, there’s– 
C.T. WEBB 21:49  Can I ask a question? 
S. RODNEY 21:50  Sure. 
C.T. WEBB 21:50  About Tony Bennett? 
S. RODNEY 21:51  Mm-hmm. 
C.T. WEBB 21:52  So is there a social space in which those same criteria are not operating? 
S. RODNEY 21:58  I don’t know what exactly Bennett would say about this. I would imagine he would say, yes. But he’s not so concerned with that. I think that, for him, the sort of universal survey museum, to an extent, always operates in the way he’s talking about, as this conduit for sort of behavioral regulation. And then finally you have Carol Duncan, who was super big in the ’80s and ’90s. Basically, looks at a museums sort of ideological effects on social relations. Has a similar argument to Bennett, but her thing is she looks not just at the museum and the layout, but at the entire architecture. So you go to a museum, and as Travis described when he talked about the British Museum, you have a structure that kind of reeks of empire. It just reeks of you have inherited the summit of human potential by being here now [laughter]. And so she’s interested in how museums offer up these sort of values and beliefs. And she comes up with the argument that basically the museums are kind of– in certain museums, there’s a kind of scripted visit. So you follow this iconographic program. And in following this program, like a pilgrim who followed the program laid out in a medieval church, you kind of internalize these values and beliefs. So those are the sort of major ones. And then coming into the 21st century you have other people like Nick Prior who basically say, no, no, no. All of that kind of goes out the window once you essentially make visitors into consumers, and now what you have is a buffet table. Now, you just have people coming in and just kind of taking what they want. 
S. FULLWOOD 23:50  Running into what they want. Knocking things over [laughter]. 
S. RODNEY 23:53  Right, right. I was at the Queens Museum– this is a good aside. I was actually at the Queens Museum the other day. I wrote about this big show, Mel Chin’s All Over The Place. The exhibitions called All Over The Place. Beautiful, great, wrenching work, in some cases. And I saw this kid and his mother, and there’s a telescope piece, it was a broken telescope and ink on a stand, and he was rubbing the thing. He was trying to rub out the ink. And I said, “You can’t touch that.” Like, “What are you doing?” Because the docent didn’t happen to be there. And they were quite stunned that somebody else spoke to them. I was shocked. I was like, “You don’t know how to behave in a museum?” See, because I’ve internalized the oppressor. 
C.T. WEBB 24:40  That’s right. 
S. FULLWOOD 24:42  You’ve internalized the rules? 
S. RODNEY 24:45  Yes. 
S. FULLWOOD 24:45  What is it, the rules of engagement? 
S. RODNEY 24:47  That’s exactly right. 
S. FULLWOOD 24:48  And when I think of what they thought, my fantasy went immediately like, “Who’s this guy?” But also, “It was pleasurable to me to touch this. I wanted to be part of this.” And that feels like some sort of line that they’re crossing to make it more familiar to them. 
S. RODNEY 25:07  Right. That’s right. Yeah. You’re right. You’re absolutely right. And so it’s not– I mean, this is one of the dilemmas too with museum work. To what extent do we allow people to become intimate with the work on their own terms? 
C.T. WEBB 25:26  Here’s the thing, I have practical questions. I don’t think that what regulates behavior is always a practical consideration. I mean, there’s issues of manners and things like that. And clearly, there’s an internalization of the rules, like Steven characterized it, which I think is exactly right. But if every eight-year-old is walking through the exhibit and rubbing the art, then it might as well be a Tibetan sand mandala because in about six months, it’s going to be gone, and no one’s going to be able to see it. 
S. RODNEY 25:57  It’s true. It’s true. 
C.T. WEBB 25:57  So if your sense of the artistic production is temporary and transitory then, yeah, have everyone going through jacking off all the art. I don’t care [laughter]. But again, this would kind of go back to– and this is where I’m very sympathetic to Bourdieu is that– so part of the training that’s being implemented is, how do we conduct ourselves in these large-scale spaces that demand we circumscribe our private desires? And we have to circumscribe our private desires– 
S. RODNEY 26:31  I actually agree. 
C.T. WEBB 26:32  –in large-scale communities like this. You have to have sort of agreements and, “Contracts,” about where you can behave in certain ways. When you had said Bennett’s liked criteria for how the museum conditions be, isn’t that how a monster truck rally conditions the people go to it also, or a basketball game? If I sat there in a uptight, three-piece suit, and was very sort of– had a banker’s demeanor while I was at a Lakers game sitting in the front row– 
S. RODNEY 27:04  It would be weird. 
C.T. WEBB 27:04  It would be weird. I’d stand out. I would not be– I would not be conducting myself in the way that is expected in that environment. 
S. FULLWOOD 27:13  I agree. 
C.T. WEBB 27:14  So isn’t that every public social space? 
S. FULLWOOD 27:17  I think there’s a difference. The difference, I think, is that you’re there to enjoy yourself, but also be a part of it in some way. So if you’re sitting sort of upright, and you’ve got a stick up your butt, and you’re just sitting there, what have you, not really enjoying it, the rules of– 
C.T. WEBB 27:34  But maybe you are? Well, maybe that’s how you– maybe that’s what pleasure looks like for you. 
S. FULLWOOD 27:39  Well, then that’s coming into another thing for me, where if we’re talking about empirical monuments versus a basketball game, those are very different spaces to me. And they’re different spaces because– I get where you’re saying about everybody must suppress and put on the back shelf their desires, but those are much looser environments to do that kind of thing. 
C.T. WEBB 28:00  Yeah. Yeah, sure. That’s true. I think you’re right, yeah. 
S. FULLWOOD 28:03  And then also I’m not really being taught basketball, I guess [laughter]. I guess you are in a way. [crosstalk]. So that’s the difference. 
C.T. WEBB 28:11  That’s true. That’s true. 
S. FULLWOOD 28:13  And the monster truck– I love the analogies, I do. They’re not problematic, but they just don’t line up for me. 
C.T. WEBB 28:22  So let me see if I can sell you on it a little bit more. I do understand that there feels like a fundamental difference between sort of a vivified– and by vivified I mean just alive. So a live performance of bodies or even machines, like driving monster trucks and stuff like that. It may be slightly different. So I understand that that feels different and that it registers – let’s just call it – on a gut level. But I would say that it’s a continuum and not a binary. And that the delicacy and refinement that goes along with policing your body and policing your conduct is not discontinuous. It’s pretty far along the spectrum. I mean, I think you’re right to call out that distinction. But that the same thrills and joy– I can say for myself, bodily pleasure, I have felt in museum spaces when I am alone is not totally dissimilar to what I have felt celebrating at a sporting event. 
S. FULLWOOD 29:39  I didn’t really think of it as a binary or something that was radically different, but I would definitely think– continuum is a great word for it. Absolutely. Because we’re not all the same people. We’re not all getting the same thing out of the space. 
S. RODNEY 29:52  That is right. [crosstalk]. 
S. FULLWOOD 29:54  Socialized to like what we like. The comments you made earlier Seph, could you talk a little bit more about that? I know we’re nearing the end, but it really excited me as an idea, yeah. 
S. RODNEY 30:07  The way I summed it up in my paper, if I remember it correctly, is I used this New Yorker cartoon to shorthand things. And I said, “Okay. Here’s the essence of what Bourdieu’s arguing with talking about the habitus.” That is, the means by which– or the sort of details of our story. How we are soclialized. Like you went to private school. You learned how to play the piano. You went to church twice a week. You went to cultural events often. Whatever. Those details of how you were brought up. I summarized with this New Yorker cartoon that shows– I think it was a caveman. He’s wearing an animal skin of some sort. And there’s a guy with a three-piece suit next to a woman who is, I guess, supposed to be a cavewoman too because she’s also in an animal print skin. I think the tagline is something like, “What kind of barbarian uses vodka for martinis,” kind of thing [laughter]? So basically in that cartoon you have this sort of expectation for middle-class values. You would know that Janice makes a proper martini, blah, blah, blah [laughter]. But you only that if you are socialized in a particular way, right? 
S. FULLWOOD 31:38  Absolutely. 
C.T. WEBB 31:38  Sure. 
S. FULLWOOD 31:39  Absolutely. 
S. RODNEY 31:39  And there’s a whole bunch of details that that sort of devolves too, again, what your zip code was. Whether you went to a public or private school– 
S. FULLWOOD 31:52  Who your people were. 
S. RODNEY 31:53  Exactly. 
S. FULLWOOD 31:55  Who your people were. Yes. 
S. RODNEY 31:54  All of those things. That’s all the habitus, according to Bourdieu. And that, he says, is actually what indicates the kinds of values and beliefs that you expect to have and you expect to have affirmed when you go to places like museums. 
C.T. WEBB 32:14  Your aesthetics are determined by your class? 
S. RODNEY 32:19  There you go. Boom. 
S. FULLWOOD 32:20  Not really, but yes [laughter]. 
C.T. WEBB 32:23  No, no. I actually– 
S. RODNEY 32:24  [crosstalk], yeah. 
C.T. WEBB 32:25  I’m with you, Steven. I really like Bourdieu, but I disagree with parts of his argument. I’m with you. I don’t think it’s fully deterministic. I mean, I think it’s demonstrably not fully deterministic. And Bourdieu, I don’t think would argue that it is either in fairness. 
S. FULLWOOD 32:43  I wouldn’t think he would either, and I don’t know who he is [laughter]. But I’m just thinking he would have to– if he’s that smart, he would know, and he would see it demonstrated that that’s not the case if he is a close reader of those kinds of situations. Yeah. 
S. RODNEY 32:56  I mean, one of the things I want to say about this whole thing about museums not being neutral spaces is maybe part of the reason why people are so invested in doing this kind of digging, and this kind of researching, and this kind of polemic making– that’s not the right verb. But why people are so interested in, I think sometimes in denouncing these spaces, or re-defining them, is that they know that the museum can be transformative. They know that it’s not just about the values that you grow up with. I mean, it happened to me. There’s nothing in my story, up until the point that I got to a museum, that would indicate or should indicate that I would have the kind of life that I have now. But I walked into a museum, and I saw a work by Louise Bourgeois, this piece called Sleeper II at MoMA, and I just could not believe it. It in some ways– there’s these great couple of lines from a poem by Mark Doty. I think it was called Ararat is the poem. I’m not sure. But, he says, “Because the golden egg gleamed in my basket once, though my childhood became an immense sheet of darkening water, I was Noah, and I was his ark, and there were two of every animal inside me.” And I feel like in some ways I walked into that museum, and I became that ark, and I was just filled with these creatures, two of every single one of them. And I kept doing that. Every time I went to the museum I took on more and more in my head, in my heart. I feel like the museum can do that for people. 
S. FULLWOOD 34:41  Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. It’s a possibility. I mean, there’s just not organized systems ways of being taught how to behave. It’s you walk into something and whatever you bring to it really has a lot to do with how you receive it. 
S. RODNEY 34:57  Amen. Amen. Yeah. 
S. FULLWOOD 35:01  And so there are class loads of kids going to museums all the time. All of the time. I mean, when you mentioned nothing in your past sort of suggested this path in your life, I think about, very briefly, someone like Francis Bacon the painter [laughter], and how much– 
C.T. WEBB 35:22  Yeah. Very different [laughter]. 
S. FULLWOOD 35:24  Very different. Very different. But how he makes– he informs my visual vocabulary in a way that I can’t– I can explain it, I guess, through a book, but he almost caught a part of human emotion in his painting in the way he tried to paint, and how he captured some really beautiful things, but terrifying things and scary things. But how useful that is to me as a thinker and as a writer about the possibilities of what you could do in that medium and then also in other mediums. He was also an amazing– he gave great interviews. Complicated, great, possibly false interviews about who he was and what he did [laughter]. But I re-read those interviews from time to time and go, “No, this man is really pushing against something really wonderful.” 
S. RODNEY 36:12  I love that, yes. 
C.T. WEBB 36:13  Yeah. Bacon hit me pretty hard too the first time I encountered any of his work also. 
S. RODNEY 36:18  That’s fantastic. 
C.T. WEBB 36:19  Okay. So we’ve got a minute. Seph, can you summarize in 45 seconds your argument? Go [laughter]. 
S. RODNEY 36:26  I think what we– I think where we came to – and I really don’t want to have the last word – in this podcast, I think where we came to essentially is understanding that museums are not neutral spaces, but that’s not necessarily a function of them being sort of Western, hegemonic– 
S. FULLWOOD 36:47  Empirical? 
S. RODNEY 36:48  –institutions. Right, right. It’s not necessarily about that. And that to an extent, while we accept that they aren’t, we also want to preserve a sense of– and I’m just going to use this word. A sense of the magic that they can still do. The magic that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with your socioeconomic situation. I think it’s precisely because of that magic that I value museums as much as I do. 
C.T. WEBB 37:23  Yeah. The thing that it made me think of is that I always– it feels like in some concrete way that museums capture time. Because no matter what they are exhibiting, I mean, this is how some human spent his or her life. Even if it’s Duchamp’s toilet, I mean, think of the amount of man hours and human hours that went into the manufacturing of that. I don’t know. They’re meaningful to me. I appreciate the critiques, but it’s still a meaningful space for me. 
S. RODNEY 38:01  Exactly. 
S. FULLWOOD 38:02  Oh, yeah. And I would say I appreciate all the critiques. It’s a meaningful place [laughter]. I love the but. The but is like everything before that [laughter]. But yes, completely, I’m in agreement. 
C.T. WEBB 38:18  Steven and Seph, thanks very much for the conversation, as always. It’s been a pleasure. Seph won’t be with us next week, so it’ll just be Steven and I. Thanks for listening. 
S. RODNEY 38:28  Bye. [music] 


First referenced at 07:50

Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader

This publication focuses on the artist’s pivotal exhibitions and projects, and includes a wide range of significant texts that mark the critical reception of Wilson’s work over the last two decades.

First referenced at 12:25

Francis Bacon: The New Organon

Francis Bacon’s New Organon, published in 1620, was revolutionary in its attempt to give formal philosophical shape to a new and rapidly emerging experimental science.

First referenced at 17:16

Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste by Pierre Bourdieu

No judgment of taste is innocent – we are all snobs. Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction brilliantly illuminates the social pretensions of the middle classes in the modern world, focusing on the tastes and preferences of the French bourgeoisie.


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