Sacred modern: An ethnography of an art museum
Smart, Pamela G.
Marcus, George E.
Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation is an ethnographic study of the Menil Collection, a formerly private art collection in Houston, Texas opened to the public in 1987 as a museum designed by Renzo Piano. It addresses the collection as an object, and as a technology of self-fashioning, but also, in the context of modern museums, as an instrument in the formation of a public. I show how the Menil Collection participates in these processes, while pursuing a distinctive project of critique. The 10,000 piece collection has significant holdings of surrealist work; New York School painting; Byzantine icons; African and Oceanic objects; and antiquities. In 1995 it opened a freestanding gallery solely for the permanent exhibition of the work of Cy Twombly, and this year, construction was completed on a chapel built and consecrated to house 13th century Cypriot frescoes that were bought and restored by the collection. Each of these initiatives furthers an intricate moral, political, religious and aesthetic agenda that Dominique and the late John de Menil had given early expression to in their commissioning of the Rothko Chapel in 1964. Their projects are underpinned by a critique of the pervasive disenchantments of modernity, read particularly through the French Sacred Art Movement of the 1930s and 40s and Catholic Ecumenicism. The de Menils embraced a radical religious aesthetic--a sacred modern--by which they sought to rehabilitate an engagement with the material world that at once would allow for an immediacy of experience while fostering the possibility of spiritual transcendence. Hence, I argue, the organization and the exhibitionary practices of the Menil Collection are committed to a poetic rather than a didactic experience of art and they self-consciously seek to foster uncanny traces of the unseen, offering up these realms in the form of incantations.
Cultural anthropology; Art history; Anthropology