Traditionally, the main occupation of art was to resist the flow of time. Public art museums and big private art collections were created to select certain objects—the artworks—take them out of private and public use, and therefore immunize them against the destructive force of time. Thus, our art museums became huge garbage cans of history in which things were kept and exhibited that had no use anymore in real life: sacral images of past religions or status objects of past lifestyles. During a long period of art history, artists also participated in this struggle against the destructive force of time. They wanted to create artworks that would be able to transcend time by embodying eternal ideals of beauty or, at least, by becoming the medium of historical memory, by acting as witnesses to events, tragedies, hopes, and projects that otherwise would have been forgotten. In this sense, artists and art institutions shared a fundamental project to resist material destruction and historical oblivion.
Art museums, in their traditional format, were based on the concept of a universal art history. Accordingly, their curators selected artworks that seemed to be of universal relevance and value. These selective practices, and especially their universalist claims, have been criticized in recent decades in the name of the specific cultural identities that they ignored and even suppressed. We no longer believe in universalist, idealist, transhistorical perspectives and identities. The old, materialist way of thinking let us accept only roles rooted in the material conditions of our existence: national-cultural and regional identities, or identities based on race, class, and gender. And there are a potentially infinite number of such specific identities because the material conditions of human existence are very diverse and are permanently changing. However, in this case, the initial mission of the art museum to resist time and become a medium of mankind’s memory reaches an impasse: if there is a potentially infinite number of identities and memories, the museum dissolves because it is incapable of including all of them.
While the museum emerged as a kind of secular surrogate for divine memory during the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, it is merely a finite material object—unlike infinite divine memory that can, as we know, include all the identities of all people who lived in the past, live now, and will live in the future.
But is this vision of an infinite number of specific identities even correct, e.g., truly materialist? I would suggest that it is not. Materialist discourse, as initially developed by Marx and Nietzsche, describes the world in permanent movement, in flow—be it dynamics of the productive forces or Dionysian impulse. According to this materialist tradition, all things are finite—but all of them are involved in the infinite material flow. So there is a materialist universality—the universality of the flow.
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