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Modern and Contemporary Art Museums

“What relation do modern and contemporary art museums have to a culture that so prizes the entertainment experience?” (Hal Foster). Discuss.


In 2005, Hal Foster asked an important question, with relation to museums. The question was: “What relation do modern and contemporary art museums have to a culture that so prizes the entertainment experience?” (Foster, 2015) . In this short essay, I will critically discuss Hal Foster’s question. However, because this task cannot be done without examining the logic behind the question, I will first summarize the main idea in Foster’s article and provide my responses. Then I will examine whether prizing entertainment experience is a genuine challenge to museums or is it an ill-formed question. At last I will conclude the essay with my views on the current view of museums.

The White Cube, in Hal Forster’s article refers to the space that the modern and abstract art needs within a museum. He differentiates this spatial need from the earlier anointed refurbished rooms within the museums provided to modern art, or art that was typically being produced for the markets. He says that as modern art became more autonomous, its homeless condition was mirrored by a space that came to be known as ‘the white cube’ (Foster, 2015) . Further on, to make the spatial requirements more abundant for different arts, ‘black boxes’ (required for image projection), ‘grey boxes’ (for presenting performance), etc. were also needed (Foster, 2015) .

The logic of the article “After the White Cube” can be summarized in a sentence: Hal Foster tried to argue for the reason behind the development of modern and contemporary art museums and state that a wrong ideology leads astray the development of art museums (i.e. enjoyment). He first pointed out the problem at hand was spatial and not always economic or political in nature (Foster, 2015) . He then supported his claim with four evidences:

  • The 1960s industry collapse in New York turned factories into artist studios which provided the space for developing gigantic artworks
  • Space race which emphasis on capital power rather than actual function of an exhibition space
  • Museum as an icon, will promote cultural tourism
  • Uncertainty about art and how to create a spatial recognition for the arts within the museums (Foster, 2015) .

Foster came up with an underlying ideology in operation: to enjoy (entertainment). However, it is important to question what Foster meant by entertainment? He relates the term entertainment to spectacle and experience and says that we live in a “spectacle society” or an “experience economy” (Foster, 2015) , concluding that museums are a part of the capitalism in the society. Clearly, entertainment is meant in a pejorative sense. In other words, entertainment is a clichéd saying of a Hippy way of enjoying/living with the presence – “activation has become an end, not a means” (Foster, 2015) . Hal Foster stated his ideal museum would be a Proustian one. He suggests that there should be a purposeful abstinence from creating too much decorative details within the museums. (Foster, 2015) .

Hal Foster’s argument is clearly against the current entertainment-driven ideology that is reflected in some museums. It is true that going to museums nowadays have become an act of Symbolic Registration (Rabaté, 2003, p. 128) , that is, the symbolic action of going and taking pictures as a record became an end rather than a means to the real action of understanding art, as Lacan explains that symbolic registration makes a person lose their own immediacy in order to become meaningful to others (Rothenberg, 2013) . Online social networking have indeed given us an illusion that taking a record and posting it online is the whole process of visiting a museum. This makes the act of going to the museum, symbolic rather. His view is a static understanding of a museum, rather than a contemporary contemplation of it. We have to question what he has omitted in this picture of “enjoyment”. He expended a large amount of words arguing against the unnecessary expansion of the museum, and at the end he also questioned if a museum should operate as a “space-time machine”. He said it is because the audience and artworks were presumed to be passive therefore they needed to be activated or aroused by the gigantic space (Foster, 2015) . The Tate Modern in London has done a lot of influential work in creating channels through which audience can interact with artworks. The Gallery emphasises on such audience participation and interaction. Here, the Gallery’s efforts are focused to express that artworks have their symbolic value in themselves, and sometimes they need their audience to actively participate in the process. Tate has been influential in helping to develop audience interaction with artworks, as seen in the 2004 ‘The Weather Project’ by Ollafur Eliassen and the 2007 ‘The Test Site’ by Karsten Holler (Vindbjerg, 2016) . Tate has encouraged interactions with the young audience through free collection displays and ‘Tate Tracks’ (Kotler, et al., 2008, p. 345) . Hal Foster has focused on the negative side of the space expansion rather than on the positive side. He has not done a sound job in constructing his own argument.

The four evidences he used to develop his argument on entertainment experience have to be questioned. It might be true that industry collapse led to the development of larger artworks, however that was not the only reason. The development of larger artworks can be the result of the development of Art, for which artists need freedom of spirit and space (Hegel, 1998, p. 606) . The increase in the size of an artwork might reflect a whole new level of contemplating Art and its nature (Hegel, 1998) . Foster can only derive such relationship between artwork size and industry collapse with a static view of Art evolution in which artwork has a fixed nature.

Secondly, he argued on the space race and said such vast spaces within the museums have led to other undesirable by products, such as immense atria (Foster, 2015) . Here he has failed to recognize the function of today’s art museums (Kotler, et al., 2008) . He has also failed to realize the fact that some traditional museums have unused space as well, such as the Chinese National Museum and the Great British Museum. Modern and Contemporary art museums are now a multi-function construction, rather than simply displaying artworks, they serve as an general art education site, souvenir shop, art preservative site, promotion of new artists, among other things, as a part of the negotiated transfer of wealth between the donor and the curators (Storr, 2007) . It is questionable which function is emphasized by Foster when he says that “An emphasis on design power distracts from fundamental matters of function” (Foster, 2015) .

Thirdly, a museum as icon doesn’t necessary lead to negative result such as disruption of poor neighborhoods or the need for the artists to respond to the architecture of the museum (Foster, 2015) . Foster’s statement to that effect is another instance where Foster focused only on the negative side but not the positive side. I strongly disagree when he claims “museums become so sculptural that the art arrives after the fact, and can only ever be second on the bill”. Those iconic museums can also serve as a new space for more experimental art (Lorente, 2016, p. 123) .

Fourthly, the uncertainty of the nature of an artwork is exactly the feature of contemporary art. Zizek has pointed out that the “void” is central in contemporary art (Žižek, 2001) . Zizek said that after Marcel Duchamp, there is no “thing” proper which can fill up the proper place of the concept of “art in its purest form” (Žižek, 2001) . Every artwork which try to fill up the place of art is destined to fail. Hal Foster failed to accept this feature of post-modernism. Hence his conclusion that it is because of entertainment experience that museums are built which has no guide line for its function rather than a philosophical contemplation of the nature of contemporary and modern art.

On top of that, Foster’s argument is “museum-center oriented”. If prizing entertainment experience is an issue, it is a general issue to the world of Art instead of directing only to modern and contemporary museums. Zizek has pointed out the ideology of today’s society is “jouissance” or enjoyment – you ought to enjoy, and that’s all (Žižek, 2001, p. 132) . Hal Foster should focus not solely on museums but also to art fairs, galleries, art institutions etc.

On top of that, Foster’s argument is “museum-center oriented”. If prizing entertainment experience is an issue, it is a general issue to the world of Art instead of directing only to modern and contemporary museums. Zizek has pointed out the ideology of today’s society is “jouissance” or enjoyment – you ought to enjoy, and that’s all (Žižek, 2001, p. 132) . Hal Foster should focus not solely on museums but also to art fairs, galleries, art institutions etc.

After reviewing the logic behind Hal Foster argument on prizing entertainment experience, we have come to conclude that prizing entertainment experience is not a genuine challenge but a biased and ill-formed question. There might be a portion of entertainment experience included in museums nowadays, however, it does not provide the full picture of the role of contemporary museum.

Hal Foster commend on the current modern and contemporary art museums situation is a nostalgic one. In my point of view, entertainment experience and the increase in size of museums are ways of promoting art for general public. In the past where Art only belongs to elite and privileged class, it should now be open to the public and let the public retroactively participate in the construction of the idea of “ART”.


  • Rabaté, J.-M., 2003. The Cambridge Companion to Lacan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hegel, G., 1998. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Volume 1. s.l.:Clarendon Press.
  • Baniotopoulou, E., 2001. Art for Whose Sake? Modern Art Museums and their Role in Transforming Societies: The Case of the Guggenheim Bilbao. s.l.:Journal of Conservation of Museum Studies.
  • Storr, R., 2007. To Have and To Hold. In: Collecting the New: Museums and Contemporary Art. New Jersey: Princeton Univerity Press, pp. 29-40.
  • Lorente, J. P., 2016. The Museums of Contemporary Art: Notion and Development. Oxon: Routledge.
  • Žižek, S., 2001. The Fragile Absolute: Or, why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For. London: Verso.
  • Foster, H., 2015. After the White Cube. London Review of Books, 37(6), pp. 25-26.
  • Rothenberg, M. A., 2013. The Excessive Subject: A New Theory of Social Change. Cambridge : Polity Press.
  • Vindbjerg, I., 2016. The First Book I Wish I’d Had At Art College. s.l.:Lulu Press.
  • Kotler, N. G., Kotler, P. & Kotler, W. I., 2008. Museum Marketing and Strategy: Designing Missions, Building Audiences, Generating Revenue and Resources. San Fransisco: John Wiley and Sons.

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