Thomas Struth's &
Museum Photographs

I. The Work of Art
as a Cultural System

The first assumption I make is that paintings in a museum, pictures on exhibition, are best viewed as belonging to a social world or cultural system rather than seen as so many isolated art objects housed in some space. It is interesting to reflect, of course, whether the work of art is ever an isolated object, even in the studio of the artist who makes it. But that is a subject for another conversation.

There is a tendency among contemporary museum-goers to read themselves out of the picture when viewing a work of art in a museum, to see it as something hanging on some wall in a museum and themselves who visit the gallery as completely independent of one another. There might be a connection, but if there is that will depend on the museum-goer, whether he or she is struck by the painting on the wall or just so happened to have had a feeling, any feeling at all, about it. The connection begins, if it happens at all, as the conventional wisdom seems to have it, with the viewer. Since paintings are often moved in and out of the same gallery, museum-goers tend to treat the paintings separately from and independently of the gallery space itself or the space, for that matter, of the museum itself or to anything else that may be hanging around it or have been hung next to it.

I assume that pictures on exhibit in a museum are best viewed as part of a complex cultural system that includes not only the paintings, but the room they are in, how large or how small it is, what distance it affords to visitors to stand back from the paintings or to this or that side of them. This system in which a painting in a museum might be seen to be embedded includes the paintings that have been hung around it as well as and perhaps most importantly museum-goers.