Thomas Struth's &
Museum Photographs


I. The Work of Art
as a Cultural System


Once they find their way into a museum, paintings are best seen as belonging to that world, the world of the museum, in much the same way the word "kick" takes on new meaning and plays a new role once it's embedded within the idiom "kick the bucket." To understand what the phrase means, it is necessary to understand its meaning as a whole and not simply break it down into the meanings of its constituent parts. In this respect Struth's "Museum Photographs" are idiomatic, that is, readings of paintings that take note of the world of viewer and viewed as its own unit of value and significance.

As Erving Goffmann and others have also noted, occupants of social worlds will take their cues for their routines from the social worlds they inhabit. So to choose but one of many examples, a waiter in a restaurant will take his cue from the spaces he's in. If he's in the kitchen he may be relaxed, but once he passes through the swinging doors into the dining area, once he moves, as it were, from the backstage onto stage, from the back to "out front," with his tray held aloft and balanced on his fingertips his demeanor suddenly changes and he will straighten up and this is especially the case if he is working in a fairly fancy and expensive restaurant in mid-town Manhattan.

It's as if the social setting in which the waiter worked had issued a set of instructions on how he ought to behave.

As I hope will become evident, perhaps even too obvious for words, Struth captures on camera the ways in which museum-goers behave in response to a set of instructions, issued by the works of art on display at a museum, instructions about how and where to stand, not so unlike Goffmann's waiter who responds to cues he picks up from the spaces he finds himself in.