For this last session of the Glossary, M HKA would like to return to a term we have been using tentatively for a while, because of our largely intuitive feeling that it fits our activities and our ‘philosophy’ (if we may allow ourselves to use also this term a bit loosely).
One reason for coining the Art Hypothesis is to describe what a museum of contemporary art does and should do is our desire to break away from the nineteenth-century bourgeois understanding of art as an activity and system (and to some extent a field of knowledge) ultimately serving the cohesion and continued flourishing of ‘the cultured classes’ or, in the twentieth-century formulation, ‘the interested public’. Another reason for the coinage is our conviction that art should not be reduced to a service provider for the leisure economy of today’s bourgeoisie, i.e. those who benefit from the new accumulation of wealth – and the new scarcity of meaningful employment – that characterises globalised reality.
The ‘collectors’ community’ is still a major force in the Belgian art world, not least because it is not limited to the old establishment but keeps itself open to new members from the entrepreneurial sectors of post-industrial society. The Belgian approach can be marketed, with some credibility, as ‘democratising art without politicising it’, and therefore as a system sympathetic to and supportive of ‘the freedom of art’. But it rings true only as long as bourgeois notions such as ‘public’ and ‘audience’; ‘exhibition’ and ‘curator’; ‘creator’ and ‘mediator’ and ‘viewer’ still wield their power over our minds. And those are the very notions we continuously seek to question and challenge.
We combine the words ‘art’ and ‘hypothesis’ into a term because we prefer not to pretend to know what ‘art’ is. We do it also because we wish to avoid defining the meaning of ‘art’ by default, as a mere function of the context we work in. Put simply, we want to strengthen the community we are part of by not accepting its consensual definitions of what we do and should do (as a contemporary art museum) before we have tested them to see how meaningful they are to us. In this sense, we insist on the subjectivity of the institution, on its agency as a societal subject and on its capacity – indeed its obligation – to create, disseminate and defend its own concepts and operations. By coining this and other new terms, we (we who represent the institutions that create and recreate collective memory) insist on our own right to be a ‘constituent power’ of the society we inhabit (and, incidentally, on our right and need, as a museum, to do our own research).
What, then, does ‘hypothesis’ mean, to us and in general? Encyclopedic knowledge is always a good first step towards understanding. Wikipedia entries (in various languages) remind us that the Greek ὑπόθεσις literally meant ‘to put under’, ‘to set before’ – in other words ‘to suppose’, ‘to suggest’ – and that it referred to a summary of the plot of a classical drama. Interesting. Here we already have ‘the provisional idea whose merit requires evaluation’ and which ‘will enable predictions by reasoning’ – not only an application of the rules of logic but also the aesthetic treatment that the unknown may also undergo.
In science, moreover, it is not considered ethical or good manners to formulate a hypothesis about something we already know too much about. Instead it is the realisation that our knowledge is insufficient, no matter how diligently gathered, that should prompt us to use hypotheses as tools to at least prove ourselves wrong. To be of scientific value, hypotheses must be falsifiable, preferably through experimentation. ‘If the researcher already knows the outcome, it counts as a “consequence” – and the researcher should have already considered this while formulating the hypothesis.’ (All these quotes are from the English Wikipedia page.)
The framing and interpretation of concepts and theories are rarely clearly separated operations, in science and elsewhere. Their interpretability is part of what makes hypotheses ‘vibrate from their own putting-into-question’ (Ernst Bloch, Über Fiktion und Hypothese, 1953, my translation). Yet for scientific researchers, it is advisable to construct hypotheses in ways that ensure testability (or at least falsifiability), parsimony (the economy of rhetorical means), scope (applicability to multiple cases), fruitfulness (prospects for future explications) and, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, conservatism (the ‘fit’ with existing recognised systems of knowledge).
Let us look closer at the Art Hypothesis with all this in mind. For our purposes as a contemporary art museum, and to help create ‘other institutionality’, the concept must be as open-ended as possible (so that it clears our mind for new perspectives and prevents us from falling back onto established dichotomies such as ‘art and society’ or ‘form and content’) and as general as possible (so that it avoids excluding not-yet-known ways of making and understanding ‘art’ from today’s discussions). The concept should be well grounded in our intuition of what we do and should do, and also in the facts that our operations and activities help create. It should take into account the progress we make with our concrete collaborations with concrete people. At the same time it should not limit itself to the institution and its own self-understanding (which has sometimes been an unwanted consequence of Institutional Critique). An Art Hypothesis that fails to develop with the dynamic interaction the institution maintains with society (where artists and audiences are just two of many constituencies) also fails to be useful. It is therefore important that the concept be open to amendment, since the practice of hypothesising always implies risk.
To us, these general requirements for the Art Hypothesis add up to a raison d’être. They seem to take care of ‘scope’ and ‘fruitfulness’, while ‘parsimony’ is a somewhat fluid requirement that may or may not have been addressed with the sound-bite itself: ‘The Art Hypothesis’. But what about the more challenging criteria of ‘testability’ and ‘conservatism’?
It may not be possible to convince sceptics of the usefulness of our new term without offering more specifics on what its ‘art’ component should and should not do. One of our purposes is to work out a concept that helps us be horizontal in our work. Not flat, not afraid to raise our heads, but combining the democratic virtues of horizontality in organisation and collaboration with a capacity for verticality in the meetings (between both people and ideas) that our activities orchestrate. We should not exaggerate the possibility to successfully transplant the criterion of testability from science into art, but it is also healthy to remind ourselves that we must never start believing our own propaganda. We must always carefully monitor what actually happens before and during and after those meetings.
Another purpose for the term is to make sure that the Art Hypothesis remains ever-developing, by being informed, as much as possible, by all the specific engagements and insights and missed opportunities from our past, the already existing images and objects and their various combinations in exhibitions, and their encounters with the urgencies of our present time. Thus, while the art of hypothesising is in itself futures-oriented, a certain form of conservatism, or at least of continuity, is indispensible if the Art Hypothesis is to become more than an intuitively pleasing phrase.
Our term has consequences not only for the institution of art (the Institution with a capital I) but also for the art institution (which we prefer not to capitalise, because we see it as a support structure). We have a hunch (as Robert Filliou used to say) that it is the Art Hypothesis, in its open-endedness and openness to change, that can bring about the constitutive moment allowing us, in our institutional work, to pass from the institution to the Institution and back again. The Art Hypothesis constitutes an autopoiesis of the given institution, different in each case, propelling it forward through time and experience and allowing it to reproduce and maintain itself in its given environment.
An art institution (in our case a museum of contemporary art) that bases its work on an Art Hypothesis grounded in its own reality will, we hypothesise, identify neither with the master narrative of fine art museums (such as Le Louvre or El Prado or less majestic examples closer to home), nor with the leisure economy logic of the much-touted trans-historical museums (of which The Met in the Brauer Building has already become a clear example). An institution that allows itself to hypothesise, and to experiment to verify or falsify its hypotheses, is, we think, better poised to be relevant in the various futures we can now imagine. In the end, every institution is its own Art Hypothesis!