[31 January 2008]
If I do my job here correctly, I should indicate whether or not you should purchase Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser. I should indicate whether you should validate the work of the MIT Press and thereby acknowledge their cultural importance and view. Of course, I should couch this economic drive in the language of literary or critical evaluation.
Of course the website, PopMatters, further complicates my responsibility in that although I should be fairly savvy in my approach. I should not find myself bogged down in the mire of academic writing itself. This review is written over a nexus of cultural stresses—economic, intellectual, aesthetic, etc.—and I must have some awareness of the forces I am validating or undermining.
Fraser handles questions of institutional critique so excellently I must question my own motives and techniques when approaching this work. Of course, my ham-handed, brutarian approach to this institution blanches next to such a fascinating disciple of Pierre Bourdieu, who often viewed social spaces through an aesthetic lens. Fraser takes the gesture of Bourdieu’s text and applies them to her writing and performance.
In the most touching piece in the book, “’To Quote,’ Say the Kabyles, ‘is to Bring Back to Life’”, a tribute to Bourdieu. Here she struggles to pay tribute to a man, a public intellectual, who insisted “[his] individual personality alone a number of properties or qualities which are also the product of social conditions.”
Fraser feels the pressure of his work and her own interpretations of it by iterating, “No, I won’t betray him, by honoring him. No, I won’t betray him now by failing to honor him.”
I cannot claim to have found such nourishment in Fraser’s writing as she found in Bourdieu’s. Still, I struggle to praise her without praising her. I struggle to “honor” her by considering her work, its implications, and its actual purpose in the social system. The text at times displaces from its original content.
Scripts for site-specific performances, a letter that was circulated internally at the Wadsworth Atheneum, are potent evidence of her work. But I fear that the impact and critique has lost some of its force in being transformed into artifact.
The confrontation and drama of the institutional critique being performed in the institution critiqued have to a great extent been lost. Pictures and photographic evidence of these performances suggest the original force, but it is ossified impact, not dynamic. However, the work itself does take on a new life. Fraser’s attention to research, historical observation, and a complex understanding of artistic institutions mechanisms provide an excellent framework to reconsider the purpose of any museum or gallery space.
The context of this work has been considered and manipulated excellently. Clearly, Fraser’s complexity would resist the simplified approach of assembling the work in a chronological way, and editor Alexander Alberro has grouped them in logically organic groups. Alberro has permitted the reader to approach the material with a good grip of some complex concepts while not abandoning the essential reminders of some of the texts’ initial performative nature.
I hope that readers of this book do not allow it to affect them passively. The title, Museum Highlights, may seem to suggest a nice coffee table book with pleasing full color plates of Monet and Edward Hopper; however, the book urges us to be more aware of the way we consume aesthetic products, to question their true functions. For those who appreciate such fine thought, it is crucial to honor Fraser’s urge in such away as to meet her complexity with our own.
And I now return to my original concern. This book should be bought. The author, editor and press should all be validated by our purchasing power so that aesthetic institutions can be better understood and appreciated.