Jean-Louis Déotte

The museum, a universal apparatus

, par Jean-Louis Déotte

It was my intention to show, in Le musée, l’origine de l’esthétique, that the question of art is only possible due to the existence of the institution of that special apparatus we call a museum, because it suspends, or puts in parentheses, the cult destination of the works, that is to say their aesthetic capacity to create a community and create a world. Thus, for the first time, the works, becoming suspens, can be contemplated aesthetically for themselves, on the condition, as Benjamin indicates, that I remain three metres away from them.

From whence the Kantian idea of a necessarily contemplative and disinterested aesthetic judgement, because my existence is no longer a problem of the work (so art is not for man from the outset !), because my existence does not depend on that of the work, which would have been the case, on the contrary, if it had been a cult object, cosmetic in the true sense, theologically or politically speaking : a point of analysis which remains that of M. Heidegger (The Origin of the Work of Art).

The museum, then, is the apparatus which invents art in the modern sense of the aesthetic. But let’s first consider the question of art. It was only from the end of the eighteenth century, as a result of the Jena Romanticism of the Schlegel brothers, of Schleiermacher, of Novalis, and so on, that the question of art was posed as such. Previously, in Kant, for example, the aesthetic judgement did not concern a work of art, but an object of nature (an object presented in a collection, and The Critique of the Faculty of Judgement begins an ensemble of collections which are so many series of objects exemplifying this or that notion) and the aesthetic section of the Critique concludes with the relatively academic reprise of a hierarchised fine arts system according to the traditional Form/Matter opposition.

A little earlier, Lessing, in his Laocoön, wrote an introduction to aesthetics in the sense that we understand it today. In emancipating the spatial arts (essentially painting and sculpture) from their traditional subjection to poetry, the text became itself the paradigm of the arts of the time. Lessing thus marked the end of the former cosmetics, the former cult functions of the arts, insofar as he introduces the distinction between a work destined for cult and that same work delivered over to aesthetic judgement through the simple fact of its suspension in a museum. All German aesthetics from the middle of the eighteenth century are in fact a museum aesthetics, from Winckelmann to the Lectures on Aesthetics of Hegel, passing through Hölderlin, etc. The same is true in France for the art criticism of a Diderot or for the history writing of a Michelet.

When we question ourselves, as does the American modernist critic Greenberg amongst many others, about the essence of painting, sculpture, music, and so on, we should never forget to isolate a sort of « transcendental impurity » (Adorno), which is necessarily technical and institutional, and which opens up the field of the question of art and is thus at the heart of the “aesthetic regime” of art in Rancière’s sense of the term. We can characterise the apparatus of the museum by saying not that it invents art from no matter what, which would be a fatuity constantly contradicted by experience (art does not depend on a consensus of experts in the discipline), but that it isolates the “materials”, if we conserve this term over impressed-upon by the Aristotelian hylomorphism, as cited by Simondon.

Let’s take an example of the invention of a “material” outside the plastic arts, in contemporary music. If the “sound” is the minimal element of this music since post-war “musique concrete”, and no longer the “note”, we see clearly that it is indivisible from the contemporary invention of devices : of the tape recorder and the technical devices of recording and of electro-acoustic studio production, the disc, the CD, and so on.

In addition to the museum for plastic arts, the “aesthetic regime” would not have been possible without the invention of patrimony by Quatremère de Quincy, without another rapport with the ruin (Riegl), without the romantic idea of a Symlitterarur that implies the library, which Flaubert would demonstrate brilliantly, first with the Temptation and above all with Bouvard and Pecuchet.

Before being a new relationship between the sayable and the visible, as Rancière writes, the “aesthetic regime of art” implies a revolution of the common sensibility, of the distribution of the sensible in the eighteenth century : the implication of a recognition, of the equality of the faculty of judgement. Which presumes in everyone the same faculty of judgement : everyone can judge without the distinction of belonging, whether it be artworks (the expositions at the Salon Carré of the Louvre in the mid eighteenth century), or political events (the French Revolution). Our modern apparatus, like the museum, did not invent equality, but, in a more paradoxical manner, they discovered/invented it. They shaped the common sensibility. In this sense, one must turn to them to unearth the creation of a world and the creation of an epoch.

Of course, people did not wait until the end of the eighteenth century to talk about art. It existed in the seventeenth-century, and even beforehand in Italy, with the so-called fine arts academies, as evinced for example by the debate around colourism in France. But these debates around techniques, the relationship of drawing/colour, around content, etc., are made possible by the fact that the academicians share the same certainties, which make up the epoch, that of representation in the largest sense : that the arts should convince and persuade men one should persuade, and entertain the others (the common man, the people). Besides this social and political necessity which Rancière indeed analyses as the “representative regime of the arts”, these academicians share the same imperative : that one must represent according to the canons of the apparatus of perspective. Their programme was established, generally speaking, from the Della Pictura of Alberti : the apparatus of perspective establishes the rules of the legitimate construction of the scene of representation. It is this that is ontologically and technically primary and not l’istoria through which the appearance is rendered possible.

Artisans, and the artists they became from the fifteenth century onwards, could, as the lives of Vasari tell us, stage debates, but they all shared the same belief in the destination of their art because they equipped it in the same way. In sharing therefore the same cosmetic (in the true sense of an ordonnance according to the principles and order of the cosmos), that is to say sharing the conviction that one same technique of appearance must be at the heart of their savoir-faire in order to generate a community of which they know the expectations, they could not stage debates relevant to what we, us, call aesthetic. Because as soon as art enters the era of the aesthetic, its destinatory public is unknown. Each new work is as if laid down at the feet of a public which does not exist, whom it must sensitise to recognise it as a work of art. Here we have a loop. The question of art involves that of the public, from whence a permanent crisis surrounding the equation of art and public. If there were no risk of being misunderstood, one could say that the debates of the “classical” artists were “academic”, because these debates, ideally, could be settled by a tribunal, whence the necessity of the Academies to intervene in the litigations between artists ! As a result, the different “quarrels of the images” (disputes in Byzantium between iconoclasts and iconodules, disputes between Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation), do not result from the aesthetic in our own sense, but rather from the onto-theo-cosmetic which is a mode of metaphysics and of technique in the broad sense. What they have in common is to presume a norm for the image : incarnation or incorporation, whereas since the Renaissance, the legitimate norm is that of representation, where representation is separated from that which it renders legitimate or visible as object. Consequently, only cosmetic differends, in the sense of the Differend of Lyotard, can exist between these norms : no tribunal can settle the argument, from whence the fights to the death and the destruction of works in Byzantium like in the wars of religion. This has nothing to do with the aesthetic debates provoked by the “avant-gardes” in modernity. Questions about the effective existence of God in the image, or of God as image or as representation, or his absence or his withdrawal from the sensible, etc., involve radical divisions at the heart of communities. These divisions bring into play the theoretical and practical devices, the institutions, because every time it is the definition of the being-together which is at stake, the definition of the common sensibility and thus as a consequence, of the ordinary being (the singularity). The norm of the incarnation (and for the genres of discourse, of the revelation) can only conceive this being-together as body, that of representation (and for the genres of deliberative discourse), only as ideally rational object (deliberative politics). The error of certain contemporary iconophiles is to fold back the incarnation onto representation or to criticise representation in the name of the incarnation (a certain Levinas), to desire politically that the societies which stand legitimately as proof of division (democracy) be incarnated in a body (totalitarianism).

It is apparatus like the museum which give their balance to the arts and which impose on them their temporality, their definition of the common sensibility, like that of the ordinary singularity. Let us give some other examples of apparatus and limit ourselves to modernity, which is indivisible from perspective projection : perspective itself, the camera obscura, the museum, photography, cinema, video, etc. It is these apparatus which create an epoch and not the arts. This destroys the pretension of establishing a knowledge of the image, a general semiology of the image for example, as if one could compare the paintings of Lascaux and the drawings of Magritte. What matters is the study of the image and its support or surface of inscription (Lyotard : Discours, Figure, 1971). A Byzantine icon results from a destinatory programme which is necessarily technical : one does not produce an icon as one paints an ideal city in Italy in the fifteenth-century ! But, in the middle of the list of these apparatus, the museum has a special place : it is the museum which prevents the other devices from accomplishing their task which is to configure a world and define an existence. Consequently, pieces from an absolutely different origin can cohabit in a sort of “peace of the braves” aesthetic, all the cosmetic differends being removed, the museum will have been the only one to realise the universal concord. One should recover its imprint in all the universal peace projects since the end of the eighteenth-century.

But let us return to the apparatus-system [appareillage] of the arts : in doing so, we do not reduce the arts to materials (line, colour, etc.) which take form thanks to the epoch-making devices. One should be particularly sensitive to this when one writes that the arts always exist as apparatused [appareillés]. Let us take the example of drawing the way it was made into an apparatus by the destinal imposition of perspective from fifteenth-century Italy onwards. At that moment, drawing became indivisible from this device. The emergence of the notion of disegno in Italy is proof of this, a notion which through its dissemination, its polysemy, shows us that the drawing was not only subjected to geometry as Lyotard wrote. Indeed, with the authors of the Treatises, from Alberti onwards, passing via Vasari to Leonardo, disegno would open up a semantic field irreducible to the concept. The field of disegno is that of the sketch, of the trace on a sheet of paper, of the layout shaping a figure, of the contour becoming a shadow, almost a colour, to the figure realised, to the archive, passing through the quasi-linguistic sign of nomination, to the design [dess(e)in] - that is to say the project - then to the a priori idea of the work aimed at by the artistic genius from a quasi-Platonist perspective. One can clearly see that it is not a matter of a graphic material, as opposed to colour, brutally invading the whole pictorial field. Conversely, the apparatus of perspective cannot legitimately be employed, displayed, theorised to give the maximum of its constructive power, unless it is traced on a wall for a fresco and above all on a piece of paper which will retain all that is unrealised, all that is regretted, working thus for cultural memory and transmission in the atelier. We cannot therefore distinguish design from apparatus purely for reasons of analysis. The disegno was even the condition for the demonstration of the apparatus as, for example, for any exposition of a problem in geometry. Being a matter of the apparatus of perspective, the disegno is thus the realisation of this apparatus and necessary production of this act using an indispensable support : paper. We cannot imagine the disegno without paper, which also breaks away from the condition of a simple material. Paper retains its supremacy more from the apparatus of perspective than from printing. The disegno is between the apparatus and the oeuvre : its temporality can be nothing other than complex.

The apparatus that we have analysed have their being projective in common, and it is for this reason that we can say they are “modern”. They distinguish themselves from the apparatus submitted to the norm of the incarnation, and from the more archaic apparatus, like those submitted to the norm of markings on the body and the Earth (and for the genres of discourse, of narration or the story). These “modern” apparatus are perhaps the apparatus par excellence : we can analyse them by representing them, because we can place them, concretely, before us. They have an aspect of prosthesis, that those which succeed them (numerical devices) will no longer have, by perfectly innervating the mind, thus becoming invisible.
The very principle of the apparatus is the function of “rendering similar”, of “coupling” [« apparier »] : of equating that which was hitherto heterogeneous. This principle is of course at the heart of a museum collection, but it is the same for all apparatus. It is for this reason that for the “moderns”, since the Renaissance, phenomena are only known because they are objectifiable (representable) by the apparatus of perspective that introduces a space of reception which is quantifiable, homogenous, isotopic : rational. From whence the new physics from Galileo onwards and the principle of reason according to Leibniz. The same goes for artists (painters, sculptors, architects, etc.), who would only be able to represent the world and invent new apparatus on this basis. Hence, as we said above, the privileging of the design [dess(e)in] as project, sketch, layout and completed delineation of a figure. And the subordination of colour, above all in Florence (which would be less so in Venice).

The museum is often constituted from private collections. There are different two modes of collecting objects, if we must believe G. Salles’ book, Le regard, that fine text on collecting and collectors. Salles describes the look of a collector in front of a group of objects laid out in no particular order : his practised eye is capable of picking out empirical likenesses where the museum curator, who is no more than a university-educated art historian, would be subjected to a principle of analytic recognition according to the schema of sameness. With the collector, as Salles lets it be understood, it is a principle of texture that wins : the reason behind his collection is not analytic. His objects, which can belong to very different artefactual registers (furnishing, engraving, painting, sculpture) have the same texture, whilst the pieces acquired by the curator are such due to analytic, historiographic criteria : same producer, same period, same school, etc. In making this distinction between the similar and the same, between real collection and museum collection, Benjamin, considering the case of E. Fuchs, German collector and art historian of the end of the nineteenth-century, accords the collector a quasi artistic faculty of assembling things, a faculty denied to the curator.

What distinguishes the apparatus from other similar technical entities like the dispositive is that only the apparatus invents/discovers a temporality, to the extent that the analysis of the temporality of the arts will itself, too, be conditioned by the apparatus. If we concern ourselves only with the temporality of drawing as art, as to an extent does Derrida in Mémoires d’aveugle, we will insist on the non-immediacy of the drawing and the motif. This is because in drawing, the draughtsman cannot avoid looking at his moving hand and not at the external motif. To draw, the draughtsman must blind himself to the motif ! The drawing is thus always late in relation to the present of the motif : between the event of the motif and the inscription of the trace, there is a delay : the temporality of the drawing, roughly speaking, is that of the Freudian aftermath. This is what we are confronted with when we want to describe time : wishing to describe T0, I can only do so by dissociating myself from it, condemning myself to T1.

If, on the other hand, I am only interested in the temporality of the apparatus of perspective, following for example the description by Alberti of the geometric dispositive – where the textile has an eminent position, since everything in the visual pyramid is thread, canvas, shape etc – then I would reduce the temporality to that invented by Alberti : a picture is a shape of the visual pyramid, this shape can be none other than instantaneous. In short, the perspective apparatus invents an extraordinary temporality, that of the instant, which is something completely different to the infinite shape of the continuum of movement well known from the Greeks. Yet, as we have seen, perspective has been the condition of the arts since the fifteenth-century, its temporality of the instant is imposed. Now, what about the museum and of its temporality ?

If it is commonplace for aesthetics since Lessing to compare the arts from the point of view of temporality (cf. Adorno comparing painting and music), the same does not go for the arts insofar as they are conditioned by apparatus. We have distinguished those apparatus which, having projectivity in common given that their common ground is perspective, can be said to be “modern”. This qualification enables us to sense, from another common ground or surface of inscription, the numeric and the “Immaterials”, so dear to Lyotard, another temporal era, that of the Lyotardian notion of “postmodernity” approximately characterised. These projective apparatus can be coupled according to a principle of contemporaneity : perspective at the unique point of flight/camera obscura, museum/photography, analytic cure/cinema, exposition/video.

Indeed, on the other side of the apparatus of perspective, the side of its projections and its subjectivisation, there is a more archaic apparatus, without origin, which the Arabs employed for a long time : the camera obscura. Its philosophy is that of immanence (Bergson rather than Leibniz), its temporality is that of continuous duration with neither beginning nor end : the reversed images of the phenomenal world flow over the reversed surface, opposite the pinhole. The spectatorial singularity, placed at the heart of the chambre, remains there indifferent, pre-subjective, adhering to the flux of images, necessarily shaded. The two apparatus are opposed in every respect, like the instant to the uninterrupted duration. Recently, Didi-Huberman was able to show that the conception of an immanent and continuous duration was elaborated by Bergson not so much against cinema, of which he knew little, as against the chrono-photography of E.J. Marey. Now, chrono-photography most closely recaptures the conception of the discontinuous creation of a world which remains faithful to the laws of physics, dear to Descartes, the authentic philosopher of perspective. It is perhaps in cinema that we would find this camera obscura temporality indivisible from a “romantic” perspective, a la Fiedrich : Mother and Son by Sokourov, or Tropical Malady, by Apichatpong Weerasetakul. And, for contemporary photography, Felten and Massinger.

The museum and photography form the latter couple. They are almost contemporaneous (end of the eighteenth century, beginning of the nineteenth) and projective, but they signal an inflection with regard to previous apparatus, as if the dimension of the project and the idea made room for that of grief, even melancholy. The paradox is as follows, and is at the heart of the French Revolution : the more the circle of inequality widens, the more the ‘sans-part’ Rancierians of La Mésentente climb onto the political stage and impose new demands and thus a new distribution of the sensible, the less man can remain outside humanity because of one handicap or another (blindness, deafness, dumbness, retardation, even dementia). Thus the more the conditions of integration and egalitarisation assert themselves (Tocqueville) on the one hand, the more the bottomlessness of revolutionary legitimacy becomes obvious on the other. Of course, the heart of power is indeed at the centre of an ideally empty place according to the powerful analyses of Lefort, but since the beheading of the French king and the ensuing disembodiment of the political body, the search for the arché, the archive (with the sense of origin, of beginning, of fundament, of what makes authority, etc.) entails a dissociation of the project and its temporality : on the one hand revolutionary ideology, on the other restructuring archaeology. The Museum of the Louvre (and all museums since then) will be thought of as that which, on the one hand, frees works from the past, reduced up until then to the obscurity of princely or monastic collections, finally delivering them to the full visibility of communication without limits, and, on the other hand as that which attests to the ideal permanence of the political unity of the French (and all museums will have the tendency from then on to affirm the idea of a people or nation). The political necessity of refoundation that all the post-Gaullist presidents of the Fifth French Republic would take up : Pompidou would be at the origin of the eponymous Centre, Giscard of the Musée d’Orsay and the parc de la Villette, Mitterand of the Louvre pyramid, Chirac of the Musée du Quai Branly. Yet the temporality of the museum apparatus is paradoxical : the “newest” works are also absorbed insofar as they have the capacity to save the past. This is a strange retroactivity where the most recent discovers what was already there, in the reserves for example, and declares it to be its material cause. In fact, the temporal loop of the museum is at the heart of all history writing. In a way, the issue is the establishment of “historical truth”, that we can’t attest to objectively, even if we had all the documents to do it (“material truth”). The museum is indeed that which, separating a work from its former destination, its former cosmetic, delivers this work to the aesthetic, being aware that a double disturbs contemplation like a phantom : the trace of “historical truth”. Such is the theme of the film, Russian Ark by Sokourov, where former factual or destinatory belongings constantly interrupt the aesthetic wanderings of the “Western” visitor to the interior of the Hermitage at Saint Petersburg.

In appearance, then, museums are national, cultivating a regional and historical identity. But in fact, this is not at all the case. If one remembers that the force of the works’ destination does no more than inhabit the museum imagination, paradoxically, then, the museum is not a place of memory. The best way to break with the force of the memory evocation of a piece for the future (not for the present), is to make a suspens of it. Because the museum is an apparatus that generates forgetting. Consequently, the artworks are conserved and endure in the future because they are detached from any identity, be it ethnic, political, social or whatever. The museum is that apparatus which generates the universal, a universal by default, and which encounters, in addition, the recipients (the public), who all have the same capacity to judge the works aesthetically (which does not mean to recognise them as scholars do).

It is different for photography, even if here historical truth is attested by the clue-giving nature of the image. It is the temporality of the “it has been”, which Barthes took over from Benjamin, that imposes itself. There is something incontestable about this : for the image to exist, it was necessary in the past for an object to reflect a luminous beam and for the latter to impress upon a photo-sensitive film, in spite of possible erasings, in spite of the codes which image semiologists describe. But there is more, when the photo was taken, the photographer on the one hand, but above all the object captured on the other, were well “aware” that they were working for the future. They did not ignore the fact that they were addressing themselves to a future stranger of whom they were asking a simple but imperious thing, of the order of duty and thus of law : to name them. He who looks at you in a photo, necessarily from the past, expects just one thing : that you rename him ! Each photo is for Benjamin a utopia, not from the past, but lying in the past, waiting for us.

Since the nineteenth century, it is not only “modern” artworks, that is to say subject to projective apparatus, which have entered the museum, but also many works of incarnation and incorporation, such as those of the cult of Christianity, or the works more widely submitted to the norm of the revelation (Judaism, Islam, even Buddhism, etc.) or even what we unfittingly call the “primal arts” or of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, as if it were a matter there of a civilisational era…

Those works entering the universal Museum, and all museums being in essence universal since they give rise to the aesthetic value which is universal (unlike cosmetics which are always specific and regional), are thus also modern apparatus (perspective, photography, cinema, video), incarnational apparatus (altar paintings, icons, gothic illumination, stained glass windows, etc.) or “savage” apparatus (masks, sculptures, fabrics, etc.) which find themselves absorbed by the museum apparatus. The destinatory force in play in these pieces from the fact that they were under the condition of apparatus in turn finds itself suspended. Do we ask ourselves if we can still kneel before a Virgin with child (imagine the reaction of the guards of the Louvre faced with such a situation, in the middle of the crowd of hurried visitors !), do we ask ourselves if an artwork set in perspective still has the power to generate subjectivity ? Do we still enter into a flux of anonymous perception before a Dutch canvas ? Will we always have the feeling of waiting for the name in front of this or that photograph ? Cinema itself being integrated into installations as is often the case in contemporary art museums, does it leave us pondering the question, how do we carry on ? On what long-sequence ? And videos, do they still suggest to us the feeling that a new law must be pronounced and that a moment of the past will never be recaptured ? The power of the museum is such, like that of patrimony, that it brings all the works, even the artefacts - and also their technical and institutional conditions of possibility, the apparatus - into the circle of universal inclusion. Because these apparatus destined singularities and beings in common to take on this or that direction, won’t the museum become a philosophical machine whose objective will be to isolate that which precedes the differentiation or de-phasing described by Simondon between singularity and psycho-social being in common, or what he calls pre-individual being (which is a mode of organisation of the psycho-social and of the individual before any differentiation) ? When Simondon, in Le mode d’existence des objets techniques describes the de-phasing of the vital process between techniques and religion, a déphasing which succeeds a “magic” organisation of the natural and human worlds, he retains a central, that is to say nodal, position for what he calls “aesthetic”, a place between techniques and religions. For him, the aesthetic stands “in between” techniques and religions and has as its task the calling to mind, even the future restoration, of the lost magic unity. At the very least, in this situation of remembering the origin and of the intermediateness between techniques and religions, the aesthetic can be neither totally anti-technique, nor totally anti-religious. It must conserve an essential part (this is beauty from a suspended bridge or the technical nature of the priest’s ritual). Between “the in-excess of unity” which every religion opens up in its capacity to totalise particularities and “the less than unity” which organises each necessarily particularising technique as no matter what savoir-faire acting upon the world and the others, the aesthetic indeed forges a space, but as memories and potentialities, to all the possible destinations which have configured or will configure the singularity and the being in common. There is only one very slight difference between what Simondon understands here by “aesthetic” and what subsists of the former destinations once their works have entered the museum. What is pre-figured by the aesthetic, is conserved by the museum : the museum aesthetic is thus universalising indeed. And it is so in two senses : preserving the testimony of the former destinations which are at the same time technical and religious (the apparatus), but also accompanying the de-phasing continued from the religions and techniques, plus the techniques themselves in theory and practice (museums of ethnography, the Musée des Arts et métiers, technical museums, aviation museums, automobile, space, and maritime museums, and so on). The museum constitutes an immense reserve of material culture, the condition of possibility of historical reflection like in modern art. Furthermore, it is the condition of the development of the philosophy of culture and thus of any genetic philosophy in Simondon’s sense, for whom a technical object is none other than its genesis.

To conclude, in suspending all destinations, all cosmetics, the museum also suspends all the forms of temporality they invented. It thus gives access to the pre-individual temporality which is an omni-temporality, that from which all the others emerged. This omni-temporality is certainly more consistent than the spectacle of universal peace to which every visitor to the universal museum can testify. Which implies that the temporality of the museum flaneur, that of his fleeting approach, is in a way archaic : it embraces and precedes all the temporalities which arise and which will arise in the future !