We present here the seventh and final text referring to the series “The Education of the Look and the Reading of Images – Ethical Challenges for Museums” Teacher Christian Ingo Lenz Dunker


I intend to show how mediation practices invite the encounter with the work as a reconstructive reading experience. This process can be understood as an ethical experience of recognition, involving aesthetic form and social contradiction. The ethical function of discourse, concentrated on the notion of letter, determines modes of relationship with the work that are also models of intersubjective relationship with the other. I present this theme based on seven ethical challenges for contemporary museums.


7 Universalism and Particularization: Determination and Indeterminacy


We start from the curatorship as listening to the conflict between symbolic systems and arrive at the museum as a place of articulation between aesthetic forms and social contradictions.

As Axel Honneth reminds us, the experience of formation is found between the dialectic of love and friendship and the dialectic of the laws of ethics. Bringing together community affections and social demands with the instituting and institutional force of the museum, summons affections pertaining to the space of cultural formation: respect. That is why the museological response cannot be just a normative response, which looks at the past and takes it for granted, creating a decision rule for the future. Now, a future conceived in this way, as a correction of the past, will never find the true experience of reparation (amendment), in the psychoanalytic sense, or healing, in the classical sense of the word.

This can become more exasperating, confirming the worst experiences of symbolic, cognitive and behavioral exclusion. Inviting someone to express their feelings and externalize their opinions, as if all discourses were equally legitimate and valid, as if there were no difference between high and popular culture, is an error that reproduces the symbolic violence that it theoretically aims to overcome. Institutional recognition is important and insufficient. Recognition is also needed as an experience of sharing indeterminacy and determination. No one can be surprised without having been captured by the coast before knowing where he is. And if, in the case of excluded populations, this coast is given by the school experience, this should be recognized before the compulsory extraction of the place to the voice.

The productive experience of indeterminacy is not just the negation of determination, imposed by hegemonic symbolic systems and their reified grammars of conflict placement or the solution of the bifid demand for formal renewal and social transformation. This is anguish or anomie, but I don't push to change oneself and the world.

A good example of how indeterminacy can become a productive force when associated with aesthetic form is the work of Chilean Alfredo Jaar.

Walking through the streets destroyed by the Fukushima nuclear disaster, he notices the profusion of chalks and blackboards, scattered around the schools. Classes that will never be taught again. Students who will never see their teachers. With the chalk residues he makes a kind of tank, where the memory of violence and loss, simultaneously refers to what could have been and what will be, through its reconstruction as a work. A similar articulation will be found in the work that gathers one million Finnish passports, to indicate the lack of reception of foreigners in that country. Passports produced with real paper money, which in the end will be burned in an act that reverberates the waste and accumulation of unshared resources. The materiality of the space, separated by a glass wall, through which passports can be seen, but not owned, challenges those who will be forever excluded from a new home. No hospitality, no host and yet an empathic listening to refugees in Europe today.

For an exhibition at the Helsinki Museum of Contemporary Art in 1995, Alfredo Jaar had one million false Finnish passports printed. After the exhibition, he had to destroy them by order of the immigration authorities.

For a long time, museums were reverential places, similar to medieval cathedrals, made to produce the feeling of belittlement and guilt. Places in which the visitor's body shows its class passport and displays its accumulation of cultural capital in the face of the supposed envy of adjacent passers-by.

But it is not by suspending this history, which is the history of the history makers themselves, that we will contribute to the emancipation of the gaze and to the invention of worlds still unthought of by science and by reproductive discourses.

The empathetic museum must build a transformative experience of recognition, between the public and the work, but also between the public and itself, and between the museum and the public. Affections are decisive here, but they are also insufficient, as we have seen, if they are not inscribed in a social bond and a real discursive relationship.

This is the fundamental ethical challenge for contemporary museums

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