Inside the activity of communicating to laymen : exhbiting paintings and demonstrating an artist's value - École des Ponts ParisTech Access content directly
Conference Papers Year : 2013

Inside the activity of communicating to laymen : exhbiting paintings and demonstrating an artist's value


For almost one century in museums, constant debates have dealt with accessibility of their contents to laymen. Part of these stakes are directly embodied in professional practices and meanings. This has resulted in the conceptualization of museums as organizations, composed of specialized professional groups. These are supposed to cooperate for collective targets and diverse ends but are also supporting rival and conflicting views. In the French institutional arrangements, this is all the more so that professional boundaries are institutionalized a a strict distinction between conservateurs and those, of diverse occupations, who claim to act as médiateurs, specialized on making collections more understandable for non experts. For their British or North American counterparts, institutional definitions conversely encompass various possible modes of acting as a curator, from a dominant scientific activity on collections to mainly devoting oneself to make collections more accessible-what the North American historical path has constructed as an 'interpretation' activity. Common, however, is the historical controversy about what a museum is about and what sort of practices are required. Are museums basically devoted to the conservation of collections and the scholar activity of studying them scientifically, or should museums staff be invited to think of themselves as members of organizations devoted to their publics? In this second case then is the expert activity partly deprived of its legitimacy by the obstacles it creates for profane perfect understanding of collections. Be they members of a same profession of curators or divided between conservateurs and various sorts of médiateurs, professional segments debate of what is fundamentally making museums useful for their publics, what is expected of the institution and of the individuals, what are legitimate activities and ways of practicing them. Fine arts museums are particularly exposed to such controversies, as they historically have been erected as symbols of temples forcing laymen to undisputable respect and celebration, admiration of the grandiose value of works and artists much more than beneficiating from experts' efforts to deliver accessible explanations of their knowledge. The paper will argue that this is less a matter of 'interpreting' versus behaving as a curator badly concerned with non-experts than of what are the intrinsic difficulties of communicating scientific results by and within the technical support of an exhibition. Exhibitions have developed since the 19th century not only as entertaining places for a large audience but also as a means of advancing knowledge on artists and their works. In other words, they are scenes of scientific debate on what scholars know on artists and works; they aim at explaining whom one particular painting has been attributed to and why it now should be attributed to another; they bring proofs about what is the exact value of this painter compared to that when replaced in the historical evolution of the artist or his/her movement, and so on. But at the same time and unlike most classical scientific scenes, a public is there, more or less consciously and competently interpreting the scene as an expert debate. When scientific activity is under sociological scrutiny, it generally is about scientists such as biologists, chemists, and so on. In the paper, the focus will be on curators as involved -entrapped?- in a specific scientific field and its constraints on how we produce knowledge and how we communicate results in such a field. In this perspective, exhibition is a fundamentally contradictory arrangement, compelled to convey conviction of experts and simultaneously to respond to expectations of various non-expert audiences. Scientific activity of fine arts curators is dealing with attributing value to works and artists, defining a scientific value, which contributes to determine commercial value. This is the professional stake of curators, forced to practice within organizational contexts. Analysis will be based on the exhibition 'Raphaël, les dernières années' (Louvre, Paris, 2012-2013), which has given rise to a public controversy about what it tried to show out and its object's relevance: it has been criticized for excessively trying to decide if details in the paintings should really be attributed to Raphael or to which of its students. Scenography, the choice of works and artists exhibited, texts (cards explaining works, catalogue, etc.) will be studied. They are not peripheral but central in the controversy in their various performance in making it clear what was the exhibition scientific major stake, namely dealing with a critique born in the 19th century about the value of Raphael end-life painting.



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hal-00944776 , version 1 (11-02-2014)


  • HAL Id : hal-00944776 , version 1


Pascal Ughetto. Inside the activity of communicating to laymen : exhbiting paintings and demonstrating an artist's value. 25ème Congrès annuel de la Society for the advancement of socioeconomics, Jun 2013, Milan, Italy. ⟨hal-00944776⟩
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