Society of the Spectator

Why Art Museums?: The Unfinished Work of Alexander Dorner Edited by Sarah Ganz Blythe and Andrew Martinez. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press and Providence, RI: RISD Museum. 272 Pages. $40.

The cover of Why Art Museums?: The Unfinished Work of Alexander Dorner

“Art museums are in a state of crisis.” The diagnosis is drastic, the remedy equally so: a radical update of both form and function. Hopelessly out of touch with the pulse of contemporary culture and the rhythms of everyday life, the grandiose architecture of the museum must be rethought in terms of adaptability and flexibility, with inert galleries transformed into sites of ongoing experimentation. Likewise the visitor’s experience, still rooted in antiquated models of passive contemplation, must be reimagined as a process of active participation and immersive engagement. Museums must reinvent themselves wholesale, in other words, to “guarantee their survival in a changing world.”

In its sheer ambition and sweeping scope, this proposal seems perfectly attuned to our topsy-turvy moment, when venerable institutions are struggling to attract visitors and maintain cash flow (see the Met in New York, which controversially resorted to charging admission last year) even as new museums continue to crop up in cities around the globe, each vying to outdo the others with more exotic architecture and more experimental exhibition formats. It’s a pitch that could come as easily from a starry-eyed architect selling a new design to a board of trustees, a crusading curator presenting a freshly reinstalled collection to the public, or a smooth-talking museum director asking donors to sign another round of big checks.

And yet these words were written the better part of a century ago by the German émigré Alexander Dorner, shortly after he was appointed director of the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 1938. Fleeing the Nazi regime, Dorner had arrived in the United States in 1937 from Hanover, where he had directed the city’s Provinzialmuseum beginning in 1923. In 1927 he commissioned El Lissitzky to produce the now-legendary installation Abstract Cabinet, a pioneering effort to integrate abstract art with modern architecture, and he collaborated on exhibition designs and other projects with László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, and others in the Bauhaus circle throughout his tenure in Hanover.

Installation of a gothic archway for an “atmosphere room” in the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, RI, 1940.
Installation of a gothic archway for an “atmosphere room” in the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, RI, 1940. RISD Archives

These impeccable avant-garde credentials have long made Dorner a cult favorite among ambitious art-world figures—the ubiquitous impresario Hans Ulrich Obrist has claimed that Dorner inspired his entire curatorial career. And Dorner’s appeal seems to grow every year, as his cultural forecasts seem more and more accurate. In addition to advocating the kinds of participatory experiences and immersive installations that later became de rigueur for contemporary-art venues, Dorner called for the invention of an “elastic” museum—a dream that seems to have finally been realized in the current obsession with “flexible” gallery spaces and the rise of museum buildings engineered to expand and contract in response to artists’ and curators’ every wish. With two such motile structures—the Fondation d’Entreprise Galeries Lafayette in Paris and The Shed in New York—opening within the past year, Dorner has come to seem uncannily prescient, a kind of art-world Nostradamus.

But like any good cult figure, Dorner has remained something of a shadowy presence. He published very little during his lifetime, and his career never recovered from the profound disruption of World War II. Presumably in part because his thinking was so far ahead of its time, he was fired from his position in Providence after only three years, and he spent the remainder of his career in relative obscurity, passing away in 1957. These circumstances have long left the real substance of Dorner’s ideas inaccessible. That situation has finally changed with the publication of Why Art Museums?, jointly released by the RISD Museum and MIT Press. The volume presents two previously unpublished texts by Dorner, accompanied by a series of scholarly essays fleshing out their historical and cultural context. The first, “My Experiences in the Hanover Museum (What Can Art Museums Do Today?),” is the transcript of a major lecture Dorner delivered at Harvard in 1938. The second, “Why Have Art Museums?,” is a book-length manuscript that was written in 1941 and slated to be published soon after, but was abandoned at the galley stage after Dorner’s departure from the RISD Museum that year.

In revealing Dorner’s thinking in unprecedented depth and breadth, the volume’s aim is to move him squarely into the mainstream, in part by emphasizing that contemporary culture has finally caught up with him. A foreword by John W. Smith, the current director of the RISD Museum, praises Dorner for undertaking a “complete rethinking of the role of art museums” and for re-envisioning their galleries “as immersive, multisensory spaces”; Smith confidently asserts that Dorner’s “goals will resonate with every museum director today.” In their joint contribution, editors Sarah Ganz Blythe and Andrew Martinez (the museum’s deputy director and the RISD archivist, respectively) suggest that Dorner can be seen “as the forefather of participatory, socially engaged museum practice . . . applauded for making museums other than themselves, brandishing curatorial authorship, and fully embracing contemporary art.”

In many ways, the evidence is convincing. Dorner wrote both of the book’s texts just as a new kind of exhibition space—what we would call the “white cube” today—was emerging as a powerful trend in museum design. In their reduction of gallery architecture to a kind of geometric degree zero, such spaces seemed to offer an ideal backdrop to the increasingly abstract forms of mid-century painting and sculpture. Nor did their impassive neutrality threaten to distract from historical artifacts; in both cases, the autonomy of the work of art—a core modernist value—was rigidly maintained. The white cube was almost universally embraced in the following decades, but Dorner’s incisive realization was that its blank walls masked a powerful ideology, a troubling blend of essentialism and idealism that was all the more dangerous for remaining covert: “Behind this ‘neutral’ approach stands the illusion that there is such a thing as an eternal character in art.” In reality, Dorner argued, both this ostensible neutrality and the supposedly “eternal aesthetic concepts” on which it rests are “just as timebound as the works of art. Neither of them are absolute, both are relative.” By striving to elevate works of art to an autonomous status, such spaces ended up cutting them off from both the richness of the past and the vitality of the present, enforcing a deadening equivalence that Dorner, in one of the book’s many memorable passages, condemns as “paralyzing in the kaleidoscopic chaos of its senility.”

In retrospect, Dorner’s ability to discern the limits of the prevailing ideology of his day so clearly—and to think so far beyond them—is impressive. His understanding, too, that even the seeming inevitability and naturalism of the present is itself relative, merely another historical construction, is remarkably ahead of his time. The unprecedented vision of a new exhibition space that he developed from these ideas feels even more startlingly contemporary. Dorner’s primary goal when exhibiting any work of art, whether unimaginably ancient or absolutely current, was to bring it to life, giving the viewer a sense of the culture from which it emerged. And so, rather than placing works of art “‘impartially’ . . . against a white wall,” he proposed plunging them into what he called the “atmosphere room.” The atmosphere room would have the opposite effect of the white cube; rather than isolating (and thereby enervating) works of art, it would amplify their effects and expand their resonance by integrating them into an array of other media.

In the case of historical artifacts, this might be as straightforward as pairing visual art with evocations of other period-specific forms of cultural production. A seventeenth-century altarpiece, for example, might be accompanied by speakers playing Baroque music and a backlit transparency of the church interior in which it was originally displayed. For more contemporary works, the ensemble might be more abstract, incorporating anything from colored lights and mechanized display cabinets to film and slide projections. In either case, Dorner fantasized about marshaling all the latest technologies— “there is no technical invention which could not be used,” he said—to produce a captivating phantasmagoria. Upon entering such a room, “the visitor could be engulfed by the atmosphere of shapes, light and color.” This multimedia approach, in turn, would generate a new state of heightened multisensory engagement: “This makes the visitor feel, think, and act.” Ultimately, Dorner hoped, the atmosphere room could both “animate” the museum and draw its audience into a new level of “active participation.”

Because Dorner’s writing on the atmosphere room has never before been published, the concept has remained largely unknown. Yet of all his ideas, this is the one that seems most visionary. Many key developments in postwar art can be seen as reactions against the white cube along the lines that Dorner suggested: The emergence of site-specific installations countered its sitelessness; the rise of works based on performance and participation redressed its lifeless neutrality. By presenting Dorner’s concept in such detail, however, Why Art Museums? also offers a cautionary tale. The book is thought-provoking in the extreme, but perhaps not quite in the way its organizers anticipated.

Dorner discussed the atmosphere room in terms of “activating” the viewer, but his own descriptions imply that the rooms might have had the opposite effect. Remember that the room makes the visitor feel—as if his or her response were nothing more than an involuntary reaction. And after rhapsodizing about the state-of-the-art technology that would fill his ideal gallery, Dorner closes with a deadpan description of the visitor’s interaction with this multivalent apparatus, which would consist mainly of “touching buttons” and “listening to earphones.” Here Dorner’s gallery conjures a different kind of modernism, one more Taylorist than avant-garde. His visitor sounds less like a hip cognoscente than a switchboard operator or an office drone, interpolated by technology rather than liberated by it. Equally troubling is Dorner’s insistence that his atmosphere be a form of total control, encompassing the entire horizon of the visitor’s experience. “Everything should be eliminated which reminds the visitor that he is in a contemporary building,” he writes. Tellingly, this directive extends even to the windows, which he describes as “one of the most deplorable drawbacks of all museums” because of their tendency to disrupt the totality of the gallery environment. Lamenting that nothing “can jar one out of an illusion more completely than . . . views out of windows,” Dorner recommends that each be entirely covered by a large color transparency. By this point, one begins to sympathize with Dorner’s hypothetical visitor. First “made to feel,” then reduced to a high-tech marionette, he or she is finally walled in like the character in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Today’s artists and curators would likely not describe their own atmospheric confections in such bald terms, but the fact that the installation has become the default format of our postmedium art world shows that this kind of thinking remains pervasive. The technologies have evolved—Dorner’s buttons replaced by touch screens—but many contemporary works are driven by the same desire for complete immersion. The consequences remain similar, too: Technological activation of gallery spaces still paradoxically reduces viewers’ agency, and the totalizing ambitions of artists and curators are still just as likely to alienate viewers as to transport them into a brave new world. Indeed, if Adorno’s famous critique of the desiccating effects of cultural institutions in the mid–twentieth century was based on the recognition that “museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association,” Dorner’s writing suggests an early-twenty-first-century update: The same could be said of immersion and immurement.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, however, are not the effects produced by the atmosphere room but the theories subtending it. Its fundamental purpose was to bring a work of art (back) to life by immersing it in the atmosphere of the culture that produced it. The very notion that such an operation is even possible is based on Dorner’s belief that the entire culture of any age, historical or contemporary, could be distilled into “one basic idea—the particular achievement of the period.” Dorner also had to believe, in turn, that he could fully capture this zeitgeist and deliver it to the viewer in its entirety and in all its immediacy. Thus his projects with Lissitzky and Moholy would “make the visitor understand and feel that one and the same trend permeates all fields of modern culture” as surely as his Babylonian room at the RISD Museum would reveal “the spirit of the Ancient East.”

If the latter sounds problematic, it is. Dorner’s approach was both reductive and essentializing, its pretensions to totality violating or caricaturing the cultures it presented. Moreover, his assumption that he was capable of constructing such totalities reveals a corresponding belief in his own omnipotence, which in turn emboldened him to pass judgment on the cultures he had brought to life. In the end, one of the reasons he rejected the idea of universal aesthetic values was because he believed in a teleological schema of historical progress—his dream was “to build a new culture, which contains the past by surpassing it.” Perhaps inevitably, this fantasy was Eurocentric; it was also colonialist and openly racist. After taking over at RISD, for example, he allayed fears that he would focus on modern art at the expense of the museum’s historical collections by assuring the institution’s leadership that he was happy to devote some gallery space to the “great Ancient American cultures” precisely because their work was a necessary foil for the modern: It was in fact crucial to show “how primitive they are compared with the conception and expression of life we believe in.”

It is, of course, unlikely that atmospheric installations would be deployed so brazenly today. But again Dorner’s fundamental ideas are surprisingly current. He argued that intensity of experience could eradicate difference, closing gaps in time and space and collapsing the distance between viewer and artwork. In recent decades, some of the fiercest debates in art criticism have concerned the true nature of so-called participatory and immersive experiences. Advocates propose an almost utopian scenario in which viewers transcend themselves in the aura of the radically expanded artwork. Opponents worry that such a scenario is instead a dystopian loss of subjectivity that marks the apotheosis of the “society of the spectacle,” the final surrender of art and viewer alike to the experience economy.

But while they are divided over the consequences, both sides share Dorner’s contention that works of art can become transparent, their meaning rendered self-evident, fully accessible, and reduced to something like pure experience—all assumptions as foolish as the idea that meaning could be fixed in the first place. Works of art, after all, have their own mutability, agency, and opacity. On a fundamental level, they will always remain mysterious and unknowable, whether they were made last century or last week. And so our encounters with them will always be confrontations with otherness, and our experiences of them will always entail a dialectical negotiation of that difference and distance. Rather than looking back at Dorner to vindicate our museums in the present, perhaps we should rally his ideas toward troubling their future.

Julian Rose is an architect and critic based in New York.