Art is present everywhere in our lives. Sometimes we notice it, sometimes we don’t. But what is the role of art in our society? Specifically, how has the role of art in society evolved throughout the years, what is good art and what role does a museum play in preserving, exhibiting and mostly communicating art to the public? These are some of the questions that were raised during the guest lecture hosted by the Dutch United Nations Student Association, also known as SIB. The main speaker of the evening was Andreas Blühm, the director of the Groninger Museum, who was more than willing to share his experience and insight on what the role of art in society is, or even better, what it should be.
SIB Groningen often organizes several lectures on matters that interest the city’s students. In one of the most recent lectures, on the 15th of October, the student association invited Andreas Blühm who introduced to a full house at the Club Kiwi in the Peperstraat the subject of art in society. His lecture lasted for an hour, however, the discussion afterwards was perhaps the best part of the whole evening. But let me get back to that later.
Andreas Blühm has been the director of the Groninger Museum since 2012, and before that, he served as a curator at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. During his concise and informative lecture, he began with a historical view on what the role of art has been in society. Specifically, art made a first appearance as part of society when during the early 18th century Salons were introduced in France. They were the first places where art would be exhibited to the public on a massive scale. A public that didn’t belong to high society and didn’t have access to art before. And that was when the notion of museums appeared. From that point on, the role of museums became clearer. Dr Blühm explained very elaboratively that the role museums have taken in society expands from collecting and preserving artwork of cultural, religious and historical importance, to presenting those artworks to the public for education and enjoyment. The main challenge for museums remains, however, how to communicate art to the public.
Another big issue that was raised during the lecture, was the question of what happens to art when we take it out of the museum. Specifically, dr Blühm told us how last year the Groninger Museum placed the extremely valuable and iconic work of the American artist Jeff Koons, Christ and the Lamb, in a wall of the central mall Bijenkorf in Amsterdam. The initiative was inspired by the 100-year anniversary since Marcel Duchamp submitted to an exhibition his famous urinal, which he called Fountain, challenging in that way what counts as art. Koons’s artwork was placed in the Bijenkorf without informing the public, to discover whether such artwork would be noticed and appreciated once acquiring a non-artful function. As soon as a label was put next to the artwork, that was the defining moment people started realizing and recognizing its worth. The lesson? Art needs museums for it to be appreciated.
After an insightful lecture, the time came for the best part of the evening, the questions. As I mentioned before that was the most interesting and exciting part of the night. The discussion was heated with several questions form the students to which dr Blühm answered diplomatically, but with honesty too. It started with a question about the controversial role of the internet in how we perceive art. Dr Blühm answered that art is indeed more accessible online, only people still have the need to visit the original artworks. Another question dealt with what good and bad art is, and what if society likes art that professionals reject. Art is first and foremost subjective, said dr Blühm, answering the first question. He added saying that if an artwork is expensive, it doesn’t mean it is good, but if it stays expensive and popular, as in the case of Banksy, then we understand its worth. That brought to my mind how Banksy set his famous artwork Girl with Balloon to shred itself, during an auction two weeks ago, as soon as it was sold for more than £860,000. The artist renamed the work Love Is In The Bin and while making history, he also challenges traditional views on what makes an artwork valuable.
All in all, the lecture created an interesting discussion and offered food for thought around the role of art in society. Inevitably art is everywhere, every person can be art, can appreciate art and understand it. Art is after all human creation, and, as dr Blühm concluded, supporting it is very crucial for our society.
Photo: Looking at a Monet painting at the Albertina museum in Vienna, from the travel journal A Winter Weekend in Wien, 2017.