show, tell, sell and persuade: the invention of tactics of display

Certain texts on the history of exhibitions often cite the initiatives of the Salon des Refusés (1863) in Paris as the creation of narratives of the field. 1See. ALTSHULER, Bruce. Salon to Biennial 1863-1959. Exhibitions that Made Art History, vol. 1. Londres: Phaidon, 2008. The narrative is also present in CASTILLO, Sonia Salcedo del. Cenário da arquitetura da arte: montagens e espaços de exposições. São Paulo: Martins, 2008. As a counter to the French academic salons and the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, artists such as Courbet and Manet, alongside the French impressionists, sought to show their work in a credentialed way while, at the same time, remaining outside of the artistic categories established by the Academy. One of the critiques of the impressionists at the Salon was that the arrangement of the art works, spread out through a building, did not allow for visitors to properly appreciate them. Thus, the impressionists did not only exhibit each work in a particular way, but, when captained by the marchands, they also exhibited in galleries that simulated the domestic environment, displaying their work amongst furniture in order to stimulate the buyer who visualized the work installed in their (possible) future abode.

This consolidated narrative can be set back a bit in time, incorporating the very institution that promoted the Academic Salons: the Louvre Museum, protagonist in the institutionalization of museums as we know them today. From the initiatives of the French revolutionaries, legal and technical devices were created for the understanding of museums as the repository of national patrimony. 2See. JULIÃO, Letícia. “Apontamentos sobre a história do museu” In: Caderno de diretrizes museológicas. Brasília: Ministério da Cultura/ Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional/ Departamento de Museus e Centros Culturais, Belo Horizonte: Secretaria de Estado da Cultura/ Superintendência de Museus. 2006. pp.19-32. The opening of the Louvre, in 1793, took place after the confiscation of the building and the royal collection, now transformed as the property of the French people. The organization of works in the galleries followed a chronological system that brought into contact the supposed styles and countries of origin of the works, thus articulating a progressive linearity and national identity. 3BIRKETT, Whitney. To Infinity and Beyond: A Critique of the Aesthetic White Cube. New Jersey: Theses Setton Hall University, 2012. P.9.

This articulation indicates the modern museum, studied extensively by Tony Bennett in The Birth of the Museum (1995). 4BENNETT, Tony. The Birth of the Museum. History, Theory, Politics. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. According to Bennett, the history of museums (of art and otherwise) stem from the practices of classificatory organization and arrangement of objects; that is, from an internal point of view of its own history and as part of its classificatory and technical improvement. However, Bennett’s proposal is to corroborate this from a political perspective, expanding and combining narratives. This allows, for historical studies with a focus on exhibitions, a demonstration of the zones of friction between differing accounts, the obscure bits in which the narrator and their hypotheses aren’t sufficiently proven, and, ultimately, to collaborate in order to call into question the established, the crystallized, and the hegemonic.

For Bennett, the museum has the same origins as other institutions that, in the eighteenth century, were organized with a rationalist orientation, such as libraries and public parks; similar to the initiatives of the World’s Fair [Exposition Universelle] and modern fairs, which Bennett characterizes by its practices of “show and tell,” and for being spaces of “showing artifacts and/or people in a calculated manner to embody and communicate specific cultural values and significations.”

These museums would also, according to Bennett, be concerned with inventing mannerisms and manners of behavior of visitors through architecture and devices for controlling their flow. This feature is certainly not limited to museums, but to all activities in which a crowd of participants can quickly become dangerous, and, for example, inciting carnivalesque revelry, or worse, a riot. Thus, stations, department stores, parks – places in which a large number of people circulate – developed behavioral norms and technological changes to impede possible insurrections. Recall that during this time, the popular demonstrations that had surpassed, beginning with the French Revolution, the limits imposed by religion or the rights of kings, was highly prevalent in the European social imaginary, principally of its governments.

Prescriptions and technologies would be shared by these spaces of “show and tell,” and would form, in Bennett’s expression, an “exhibitionary complex,” similar to Michel Foucault’s conception of the prison-industrial complex. 5FOUCAULT, Michel. Vigiar e punir. Nascimento da Prisão. Trad. Raquel Ramalhete. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Vozes, 2000. According to Bennett, it’s possible to observe the passage of an organization, through its objects and bodies, from a closed, private space to a public space, serving as much for crowd control as for the inscription and transmission of messages of knowledge and power. 6See. BENNETT, p.61. As a prime example of this, Bennett cites the London Exhibition of 1851, at which was presented:

(…) an ensemble of disciplines and techniques of display that had been developed within the previous histories of museums, panoramas, mechanics’ institute exhibitions, art galleries, and arcades. In doing so, it translated these into exhibitionary forms which, in simultaneously ordering objects for public inspection and ordering the public that inspected, were to have a profound and lasting influence on the subsequent development of museums, art galleries, expositions, and department stores. 7Idem, p. 61

According to Bennett, it was this exhibition that demonstrated that the threat of the crowd could be circumvented by devices of visual organization and by the pedagogical appeal from the perspective of capital. During its organization, the press was concerned with the comingling of classes in a single public space, which was resolved by the differentiation of prices during different days of the week, preventing such confrontation. The World’s Fairs of the nineteenth century served to constitute an amalgam in which visibility was designed and exercised in a didactic, commercial and ideological way: show, tell, sell, and persuade.

Bennett’s assertions outline another field in which histories of exhibitions, or histories of art, dilate beyond the arrangement of works in architectural spaces and institutions, covering as well ideological projects of great magnitude, in a play between micro and macro perspectives. This is very similar to what Pablo Lafuente defines as display:

(…) the essential aspect of the field– exhibitions – is display. By display, I don’t refer to the exercise of selection, nor to the question of who made decisions over a certain selection and was the author of the conceptual text, but the effective articulation of a specific set of relations between objects, people, ideas, and structures, within an exhibitional format. Display, and the principles that regulate its articulation, propose a discourse that is, at times, in disagreement with the discourse of the exhibition. Only by address the two together can we have a position on exhibition history stemming from this identity struggle. 8LAFUENTE, Pablo. “Introduction: From the Outside In – ‘Magiciens de La Terre’ and Two Histories of Exhibitions”. In: STEEDS, Lucy, et al. Making Art Global (Part 2): ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ 1989. Londres: Afterall Books (Exhibition Histories), 2012.

In Lafuente’s statement is the implication that, each display visited, there is the activation of a complex of notions: art, exhibition, visitation, society. However, the origin of modern exhibition histories is also that which marks the processes of instrumentalization of cultural production aligned with governmental management of social behavior. In this sense, the regulation of behavior elaborated and trained in public spaces encompasses places that are unthinkable at first glance, such as theme parks or the realm of illicit pleasures, and, at the same time, of the wonder of the visitor in front of industrial technology at the service of free time. 9See. BENNETT, p.6.

Display is present, then, in contemporary exhibitions, both in the continuity of these instrumentalizations of artistic production engendered in macro politics as well as in the tactical possibility of creating dissonance and disobedience toward disciplinary norms of social comportment.

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This text was originally published in the book the autobiography of monalisa (museu do louvre pau-brazyl, 2016) and revised in June, 2021.

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  • 1
    See. ALTSHULER, Bruce. Salon to Biennial 1863-1959. Exhibitions that Made Art History, vol. 1. Londres: Phaidon, 2008. The narrative is also present in CASTILLO, Sonia Salcedo del. Cenário da arquitetura da arte: montagens e espaços de exposições. São Paulo: Martins, 2008.
  • 2
    See. JULIÃO, Letícia. “Apontamentos sobre a história do museu” In: Caderno de diretrizes museológicas. Brasília: Ministério da Cultura/ Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional/ Departamento de Museus e Centros Culturais, Belo Horizonte: Secretaria de Estado da Cultura/ Superintendência de Museus. 2006. pp.19-32.
  • 3
    BIRKETT, Whitney. To Infinity and Beyond: A Critique of the Aesthetic White Cube. New Jersey: Theses Setton Hall University, 2012. P.9.
  • 4
    BENNETT, Tony. The Birth of the Museum. History, Theory, Politics. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
  • 5
    FOUCAULT, Michel. Vigiar e punir. Nascimento da Prisão. Trad. Raquel Ramalhete. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Vozes, 2000.
  • 6
    See. BENNETT, p.61.
  • 7
    Idem, p. 61
  • 8
    LAFUENTE, Pablo. “Introduction: From the Outside In – ‘Magiciens de La Terre’ and Two Histories of Exhibitions”. In: STEEDS, Lucy, et al. Making Art Global (Part 2): ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ 1989. Londres: Afterall Books (Exhibition Histories), 2012.
  • 9
    See. BENNETT, p.6.

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