On a frequently neglected benefit of museums and other cultural institutions


It is highly laudable when museums try to reach out to as many sections of the population as possible, offering them incentives and inducements – what we might call appetizers and aids to digestion, aperitifs and digestifs – to partake of the kind of high cultural fare that is not always immediately appealing or easily digestible. After all, if all members of the public are paying for culture, then all members of the public should also participate in its services if possible, and not just that small, well-off, culture-loving section of the population who tend to pay their income tax in Malta or the Maldives anyway, if they possibly can.

However, if assiduous cultural policy-makers and bureaucrats set about evaluating the performance of museums, theatres and other cultural institutions based primarily on the raw number of visitors, then they are overlooking something crucial – just like everyone who tries to assess such ephemeral, not easily definable things such as culture, wit or innovative ideas using the sadly miserably primitive, quantitative criteria of evaluations. Even in the considerably more physical sphere of contemporary football, it has long been recognized that quantitative parameters such as possession of the ball, tackle-rate, pass-rate, number of shots on goal or distance covered tell us nothing about the result of the match. In the arenas of culture and the intellect, unfortunately, we are often still a long way off realizing what football pundits have known for some time.

What is easily overlooked by the exercises in quantification and measurement that are currently so fashionable in the world of culture is something genuinely cultural – namely, that culture consists in large part in maintaining fictions. Here we encounter a wonderful paradox: the reality of culture exists primarily in the things and events that feed the imagination of culture. We can see this already by looking back into the history of culture. For example, the first houses that humankind ever built were not usually inhabited. As pyramids, temples, cathedrals and palaces, they served instead to maintain a fiction – usually concerning power or religion, or both together. And when people did turn up there, like the apparently pious people of the Middle Ages, for example, the clergy had to insist that they refrain from blaspheming and playing dice at the altar.

We can see this in ritual practices too. People who practised early religions used all sorts of devices to give the impression of religiosity without becoming overly engaged or involved themselves. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek has provided a shrewd description of this general functional principle using the example of Tibetan prayer wheels:

You write a prayer on a paper, put the rolled paper on a wheel, and turn it automatically, without thinking (or […] you attach it to a windmill, so that it is moved around by the wind). In this way, the wheel itself is praying for me, instead of me – or more precisely, I myself am praying through the medium of the wheel. The beauty of it all is that in my psychological interiority I can think about whatever I want, I can yield to the most dirty and obscene fantasies, and it does not matter because – to use a good old Stalinist expression – whatever I am thinking, objectively I am praying.

Using a word from recent cultural theory, the principle of these practices can also be described as ‘interpassivity’. Interpassive practices, devices and buildings freed people from demonstrating religious commitment – by creating exactly the opposite impression. It was not the people themselves who had to consume their religion and thus exercise their ‘passivity’ (which consumption is usually regarded as, rightly or wrongly). Rather, their things and events did it on their behalf. People could delegate their ‘passivity’ to such substitutes.

The older the religions were, the more both ritual machines and more monumental factories were used to impress others. This largely freed people themselves from having to engage in activities of religious consumption such as faith. We can therefore say without exaggeration that even during Greek and Roman antiquity – civilizations that are comparatively familiar to us culturally – it was the case that the gods believed in people rather than the other way around.

People only seem to realize that they had to produce their religiosity themselves, by hand (e.g. joining hands in prayer) so to speak, relatively late on in cultural history. This trend contrasts remarkably with the well-known development in the sector of productive work, where, after thousands of years of laborious manual work with minimal use of equipment, human ingenuity finally made it possible for people to delegate their work more and more to machines. Strangely enough, while people in the sphere of economic production increasingly eased the pressure on themselves, in the sphere of religious reproduction (or consumption) they assumed even more responsibility.

But fortunately, in the field of culture, people don’t have to do everything themselves. If we did, we would probably descend to the level of a totally amateurish do-it-yourself culture (which, we should note, is not a criticism of DIY-ers or DIY culture, only of its suitability as a universal cultural principle!). In the sphere of bourgeois culture in particular, which in many ways has transferred the pageantry that was once the reserve of religion to the secular world, we still have great ritual apparatuses: state opera houses and theatres, federal museums and state-sponsored festivals and cultural institutions constitute what we might call the battleships and aircraft carriers of an impressive cultural navy; they are flanked by the many semi- and wholly independent institutions of the more or less free cultural scene which we might see as their cruisers, frigates, corvettes, destroyers, submarines, supply ships and sloops.

And so, as a navy maintains a threat, our long-suffering cultural fleet of gross registered tonnage bobs about upholding culture – as a fiction – so we ourselves don’t have to believe in culture or know much about it or even go to events. Where would we be if everyone suddenly had to be a passenger or a sailor! But once the fiction of culture is upheld – which is perhaps the most crucial sense of the term ‘high culture’ – we don’t have to worry any more, since now we are all as protected by culture as the citizens of a seafaring nation are by their navies.

Culture sallies mightily forth, impressing and convincing others (in the case of the Greeks and Romans it was still their gods). And we just let it run its course, even if we, as Slavoj Žižek speculated, are indulging in our ‘most dirty and obscene fantasies’. It is precisely in this sense that the famous and subtle cultural theorist Roland Barthes once aptly remarked: ‘I have always liked the theatre and yet I hardly go there any more’. That is exactly what theatres do for us; and the bigger they are, the better. We can of course visit them as well, but what matters most is their contribution to maintaining culture as a fiction, which, whatever we do, surrounds us all, as it were, with a gracious, protective and charming veil of sophistication.

In this regard, if we were focusing on the involvement of as many people as possible in culture, and imagined this in the form of personal attendance, we were perhaps somewhat misled by the words. We understood ‘involvement’ in the sense of ‘participation’ and concluded that only those who turned up and took part would receive a piece of the cultural pie. But this was probably a mistake. It’s easy to explain – and since we’re paying more and more attention to money in culture anyway, we should turn to economics for help on this point too. In this sphere, we see more and more frequently that it is never those who work and take part who end up with major benefits, but rather those who often do not work at all and who never take part at all reap the juiciest returns. This is exactly what we, with all our ‘cultural capital’ should do: we should understand ‘participation’ in the sense of ‘shareholding’! As such silent participants in culture, we could count ourselves fortunate, whatever we do. As non-visitors, we are indeed profiteers, in the certain knowledge that the fiction of culture will be preserved, and that its benefits will inevitably be distributed in our favour and added to our existing assets.

Robert Pfaller

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