[The] Museum’s function, like the library’s, is not entirely beneficent. It certainly enables us to see works that were scattered around the world and engulfed in the cults or civilizations which they sought to ornament as united aspects of a single effort. In this sense our consciousness of painting as painting is based upon the Museum. But painting is to be found in each painter at work, and there it is in a pure state, whereas the Museum associates it with lesser qualities. One should go to the Museum the way painters go there, in the joy of dialogue, and not as we amateurs go, with our spurious reverence. The Museum gives us a false consciousness, a thief’s conscious. We occasionally sense that these works were not intended to end up between these bare walls for the pleasure of Sunday strollers, for children on their free afternoon from school, or for Monday intellectuals. We sense vaguely that something has been lost and that these gatherings of old maids, this silence of the grave, and the respect of pygmies do not constitute the true milieu of art. So much effort, so many joys and sorrows, so much anger and labor were not destined to reflect one day the sad light of the Louvre museum...
The Museum transforms efforts into works. It allows only styles to appear but also adds a false prestige to their true value by detaching them from the chance circumstances in which they arose and making us believe that some superartists or “fatalities” guided the artists’ hands from the very beginning. Whereas the style of each painter throbbed in him like his deepest heartbeat and, insofar as he is speech and style, resonated in all other artists’ speech and style, experiencing the kindred value of their efforts, the Museum converts this secret, modest, nondeliberate, and almost involuntary historicity into an official and pompous history. The unsuspected imminence of a regression gives our enjoyment of a given painter a pathetic nuance which was quite foreign to him. He himself labored happily his whole life, a man unaware that he was on a volcano, while we see his work as flowers on the edge of a precipice. The Museum makes painters as mysterious for us as octopuses or lobsters. It transforms these works, created in the heat of life, into marvels from another world. In the pensive light of the museum and under its glass panes, the breath which sustained these works becomes no more than a feeble palpitation on their surface... The Museum kills the vehemence of painting just as the library, as Sartre says, transforms writings which were once a man’s gestures into messages. It is the historicity of death. But there is a living historicity of which the museum offers only a broken image. It is a historicity that dwells in the painter at work when, in a single gesture, he binds the tradition he continues into the tradition he founds. It is the historicity which in a single stroke joins him with everything that has ever been painted in the world, without his having to leave either his place or time, or has blessed and accursed labor. The true history of painting is not one which puts painting in the past and then invoke superartists and fatalities – it is the history that puts everything in the present, that dwells in artists and reintegrates the painter with the fraternity of painters. (72-3)
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Prose of the World. Trans. John O'Neill. Northwestern University Press 1973.
Works and Days
Tags: Maurice Merleau-Ponty