Artifacts, Works of Art, and the Historicity of the Encyclopedic Museum

 (Fig. 1) Sancai horse, Tang dynasty, 7th-8th century. (Fig. 2) Buddha Feet, Ai Weiwei, 10 Buddha-Feet - Northern Wei-Dynasty (AD 386 - 534), 2003

“Artifact” is a word favored by anthropologists and archaeologists; art historians and art museums prefer the more lofty term “works of art.” By calling a manmade object a work of art they give it a special status as well as distinct aesthetic and commercial values. How these values have been established is a long and complex story, but one should keep in mind that the concept of “art” or “fine art” is always historically and culturally defined and redefined. To take China as an example, the idea of “fine art” was restricted to portable scroll painting and calligraphy before the twentieth century. No sculptors, print makers, or architects were ranked “artists” in the same sense; their works were absent in the art collections of emperors and scholars, and were not subject to historical inquiry. This situation changed fundamentally in the twentieth century when the country embraced the European classification of art forms and systems of collecting. As a result, art historians, not only in London and Paris but also in Beijing and Shanghai, started to reinvent indigenous “art histories” of Chinese objects, sculpture, and architecture, while simultaneously canonizing a small group of examples as representative masterpieces of these elevated visual traditions. 

Such art historical reinvention of artifacts was not just an intellectual process taking place within the walls of museums and art academies, but was also realized in the field and the marketplace through destruction and shady transactions. It is at this junction that the transformation of artifacts into works of art acquires an ethical dimension. Religious sculptures, once having entered the newly invented pantheon of art history, were forcefully removed from cave-chapels with chisels and hammers to become transportable works of art as well as lucrative commodities; sometimes an entire timber-structured building was dissembled so it could be transported to a foreign art museum. But if this process of displacement started as a colonial or imperial practice, it soon became an essential technology of the new nation state in rewriting its cultural history. No Chinese art collections before the twentieth century, for example, included Tang dynasty three-colored figurines (fig. 1), because everyone knew that these sculptures, though visually magnificent, were created for the dead and should remain concealed in underground tomb chambers. Such “spirit articles” first appeared in the antique market and art historical catalogues in the early twentieth century when China entered the modern era. Now they are indispensible to any museum display of ancient Chinese art. 

Two practical questions concerning art history and the encyclopedic museum emerge from this brief historical review; neither have ready answers. First, after realizing that the current historical narrative of ancient Chinese art is a modern reconstruction under strong Western influence, should we cast it away and re-embrace the indigenous concepts of art and artifacts? In my view this possibility, though seemingly ethically sound, can only remain a Utopian project, because it is theoretically impossible to genuinely integrate pre-modern aesthetic standards and art historical discourses into a modern system of art education and commerce that is by nature transformative and homogenous. This dilemma is succinctly illustrated by an installation created by the contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, consisting of ten pairs of stone feet broken off from Buddhist statues (fig. 2). By displaying these abandoned remnants of stolen sculptures, the artist focuses the viewer’s eyes and mind on absence rather than presence, and on the statues’ destruction instead of their original beauty. In this way the work delivers an implicit critique of the antique market and the system of art collecting that supports it. The problem, however, is that even this critique participates in institutionalized art discourse and commercial transactions, since it transforms ancient artifacts, in this case broken ones, into valuable “art” by means of the Readymade. 

Both the absent Buddha statues and Mr. Ai’s installation can easily enter an encyclopedic museum, which aspires to collect art works from all around the world and to exhibit them under one roof. The question concerning this type of collecting institution can be framed as follows: if the encyclopedic museum originated from bygone historical conditions and ambitions, be these Enlightenment ideals or colonialist and imperialist expansion, how can it serve today’s global public and the future needs of mankind? By raising this question I do not mean to ignore the important roles which encyclopedic museums continue to play today in advancing education and scholarship; nor should their self-reinvention toward multi-culturalism be overlooked. Rather, the question emerges from a simple fact, that this kind of mighty art institution is a rare breed and only graces a few Western metropolises. Because the history that gave birth to it will not be repeated and because important works of art are rare and singular, it is unlikely that encyclopedic museums can continuously proliferate beyond their traditional locus. This means that any non-Western country today, even with formidable economic resources and high ambitions to display global art in its cities, would be unable to amass the kind of collections one finds in major Western encyclopedic museums, such as the British Museum, the Louvre, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This reality again has an ethical implication: even though these three Western museums together hosted more than twenty million visitors in 2012, this impressive number merely equals the population of a single mega city in China, India, or Mexico. To a much greater number of people in the world, these museums belong to a cultural and geographical sphere beyond their reach. 

The solution to this problem cannot be found in undoing history, but must be imagined by reversing the fundamental tactic of encyclopedic museums in bringing art treasures from diverse localities to a self-styled “world capital.” One powerful concept that can facilitate this reversal is the notion of contextulization: works of art, especially those created for specific places, cannot be properly understood and appreciated without context. If this simple truth can filter into art lovers’ minds and stay there, it will guide them to seek the origins of displaced artifacts and to reconnect these objects with their local environment and histories. It will also help prevent future looting, for the historical and aesthetic value of a work of art is greatly reduced if its original context becomes unknown. 

Another possible way to reverse the logic of encyclopedic museums is to temporarily but routinely disseminate their great concentrations of art works through legitimate and well-designed channels. While these museums will undoubtedly continue to attract people to London or New York, it would be equally, if not more important to make their collections available to the much larger audience in different countries and regions. Indeed, for non-Western countries aspiring to build a vibrant museum culture for today and tomorrow, it would be a futile and even harmful effort to imitate the existing Western encyclopedic museums. It is futile because history will not allow another round of treasure hunting to gather regional masterpieces into a few designated spots. It is harmful because such imitation would repeat the egocentric practice of building a monumental art institution through destruction and decontexualization. The mandate of the new type of encyclopedic museum is to invent a new system, in which a permanent display of local art history will be balanced by a flow of high-level traveling exhibitions from all over the world. Rather than spending a huge sum of money to acquire a few foreign masterpieces still available on the market, it would be much more effective to use such resources to organize a continuous series of well-curated traveling exhibitions through international collaboration. Animated and invigorated by these non-repetitive, ever-changing displays of art treasures, the new encyclopedic museum would be able to abandon the dated ambition to physically possess art objects that belong to other peoples, while gaining greater capacities to take the learning and appreciation of world art to a new level. 

Professor Wu Hung, Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor of Art History, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago, and Consulting Curator, Smart Museum of Art, for Zamyn

© Zamyn and the author, all rights reserved. No reproduction, whether in whole or in part, without the prior written consent of Zamyn.