Thursday, April 19, 2012

El Museo del Barrio

After a few days of visiting New York art fairs and contemporary art meccas a trip to El Museo del Barrio came as a refreshing reprieve. On display at the time, and of particular note where beautifully allegorical handkerchief drawings by prisoners as well as colorful figurative toy sculptures of animals by Gregorio Marz├ín. Both would not have been considered “contemporary” art by the standards of the art world we were mostly visiting. Their functional value exerted just as much a importance as their aesthetic value, and their origin was born much more out of either a cultural form of expression or a folk-art type of necessity of materials.

Yet as refreshing as the artwork was I couldn't help but feel like the museum context of the Barrio wasn't doing the artwork or the artists due justice. Removing the artwork from it's cultural context and making it available for larger cultural consumption might work for many forms of contemporary art which aren't rooted in deeper cultural traditions. But for artwork which is dependent on its use and circulation the museum context strips it of its vitality and imposes a specific and somewhat alien mode of experience.

What happens to cultural-rooted forms of art when they are removed from their original context, stripped of their symbolic use value, and observed only aesthetically? What purpose does the museum serve? Is is decentralizing the contemporary art playing field? Does that playing field mesh with the ambitions of its artists, art, and supported communities? How does cultural consumption legitimize groups, communities, neighborhoods? What is at risk?

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