Preaching to the converted – Victoria and Albert Museum

A dwarf’s hat, as worn by 10,000 protesters at a 1988 march against communism in Poland

It is understandable that, in current circumstances, major arts institutions should try to ally themselves with the more anarchic, contrarian elements in contemporary culture. Perhaps this is especially true of those dealing with the contemporary visual arts, committed as these still are to the myth of ‘avant-gardism’. One problem that immediately presents itself, of course, is that this myth is not itself contemporary – it is rooted in the very earliest years of the century before ours, and first blossomed before the outbreak of World War I. The myth has become so diversified in the course of more than a century of growth that what is indisputably avant garde today has become very difficult to define. One man’s ‘avant garde’ can easily be his neighbour’s idea of ho-hum, follow-my-leader conservatism.

Another problem, allied to the first, is that the history of the 20th century avant garde was rather specifically a history of élites. Avant-garde artists relied on élite patrons for financial support – independently wealthy, high status individuals who were conscious of the fact that their championship of the radically new distinguished them from the mass. There is also the fact that the now-classical avant-garde art movements initially embraced right wing politics more enthusiastically than they did left wing ones. This was the case with Italian Futurism, the most publicised of the early avant-gardes. Later, when avant-garde artists began to identify with the left, it was nevertheless would-be mass movements, Nazism and Soviet Communism, which were particularly hostile to avant-garde art. When Surrealism tried to sustain an alliance with Communism, the relationship was always extremely uneasy.

Disobedient Objects at the V&A (until February 1st) shows that this uneasiness has not gone away. Housed in one of London’s most important museums, its organisers have gone to some lengths to emphasise its democratic status. It is free entry, like the rest of the permanent collection (but unlike the other special exhibitions the museum offers as part of its regular programme), and it has been given an unusually long run – six months in all.

What it offers is an anthology of objects connected will all sorts of anarchic projects, from the anti-nuclear protests at Greenham Common in England, to the Mothers of the Disappeared in Buenos Aires – all challenges to some kind of existing status quo, made in many different contemporary societies and national entities, democratic and non-democratic. Most of the objects concerned would not normally be classified as art, or even as craft or design. In fact, what one has here is a kind of religious treasury – the holy relics of a number of recent episodes of social agitation, some of which succeeded in their aims and some of which failed. If Christ had lived in our own times, it wouldn’t be surprising to find a relic of the True Cross as part of the display – always remembering that this now sacred item wasn’t, and was never intended to be, a work of art, despite the numberless times it has since been depicted in art. I say this in the full consciousness that, to anyone who reads the Gospels carefully, the texts do in fact seem to advocate a radical egalitarian revolution in society. This despite the famous verse that tells the convert to: “Render unto Cesar the things that are Cesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”  [Matthew 22:21].

The introduction to the catalogue, by the two curators, Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, shows a queasy consciousness of this situation. On the one hand they say:

“The position of this project, both ‘within and against’ an institution, emerges principally from careful attention to these objects [included] and their own and their own instituent power.”

On the other they declare:

“Exhibitions are moments of collective meaning-making. Bringing these objects and histories together, and presenting them to an audience that never encounters them outside the mass media, makes the museum a site for difficult questions and tests it claim to be

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