Every exhibition tells a story, by directing the viewer through the exhibition in a particular order: the exhibition space is always a narrative space. The traditional art museum told the story of art’s emergence and subsequent victory. Individual artworks chronicled this story – and in doing so they lost their old religious or representative significance and gained new meaning. Once the museum emerged as the new place of worship, artists began to work specifically for the museum: Historically significant objects no longer needed to be devalued in order to serve as art. Instead, brand new, profane objects signed up to be recognized as artworks because they allegedly embodied artistic value. These objects didn’t have a prehistory; they had never been legitimized by religion or power. At most they could be regarded as signs of a “simple, everyday life” with indeterminate value. Thus their inscription into art history meant valorization for these objects, not devaluation. And so museums were transformed from places of enlightenment-inspired iconoclasm into places of a romantic iconophilia. Exhibiting an object as art no longer signified its profanation, but its consecration. Duchamp simply took this turn to its final conclusion when he laid bare the iconophilic mechanism of glorification of mere things by labeling them works of art.
Over the years modern artists began to assert the total autonomy of art – and not just from its sacred prehistory, but from art history as well – because every integration of an image into a story, every appropriation of it as illustration for a particular narrative, is iconoclastic, even if the story is that of a triumph of this image, its transfiguration, or its glorification. According to the tradition of modern art, an image must speak for itself; it must immediately convince the spectator, standing in silent contemplation, of its own value. The conditions in which the work is exhibited should be reduced to white walls and good lighting. Theoretical and narrative discourse is a distraction, and must stop. Even affirmative discourse and favorable display were regarded as distorting the message of the artwork itself. As a result: Even after Duchamp the act of exhibiting an object as an artwork remained ambivalent, that is, partially iconophile, partially iconoclastic.
The curator can’t but place, contextualize, and narrativize works of art – which necessarily leads to their relativization. Thus modern artists began to condemn curators, because the figure of the curator was perceived as the embodiment of the dark, dangerous side of the exhibiting practice, as the destructive doppelganger of the artist who creates art by exhibiting it: the museums were regularly compared to graveyards, and curators to undertakers. With these insults (disguised as institutional critique) artists won the general public over to their side, because the general public didn’t know all the art history; it didn’t even want to hear it. The public wishes to be confronted directly with individual artworks and exposed to their unmediated impact. The general public steadfastly believes in the autonomous meaning of the individual artwork, which is supposedly being manifested in front of its eyes. The curator’s every mediation is suspect; he is seen as someone standing between the artwork and its viewer, insidiously manipulating the viewer’s perception with the intent of disempowering the public. This is why, for the general public, the art market is more enjoyable than any museum. Artworks circulating on the market are singled out, decontextualized, uncurated – so that they have the apparently unadulterated chance to demonstrate their inherent value. Consequently the art market is an extreme example of what Marx termed commodity fetishism, meaning a belief in the inherent value of an object, in value being one of its intrinsic qualities. Thus began a time of degradation and distress for curators – the time of modern art. Curators have managed their degradation surprisingly well, though, by successfully internalizing it.
– Boris Groys