Alice Creischer, The Greatest Happiness Principle Party, 2001. Collection M HKA, Antwerp © M HKA.
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 term “art hypothesis” to describe what a museum of contemporary art does and should do is our desire to break away from the 19th 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? Encyclopaedic 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 undergo too.
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.”
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 → 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 indispensable 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 Breuer – The Metropolitan Museum of Art 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!
Addendum: Quotes from H HKA’s Policy Plan 2012–2016
This hypothesis is the image of art which is shaped by the museum and is presented to the world at large. M HKA constantly calls this image into question, tests and rethinks it. A traditional museum marshals the artistic past into a “master story”, a precept. This precept creates the impression of being definitive and unchangeable. A museum of contemporary art constantly checks and rechecks the past, the present and the future – with the artists, its audience and society. In this way insights can be reappraised and reformulated. As a result the image of art presented by the museum lives and evolves and thus constantly gains strength. It is acquired internally and is simultaneously presented.
Two pairs of concepts are at the heart of M HKA’s art hypothesis. On the one hand, the tension between the immaterial – art as an attitude, as thoughts – and the cultivation of the factual. On the other hand, the contrast between social commitment and a poetical, existential dimension. […]
The attention the museum pays to globalisation is in keeping with Antwerp’s character as a port city. That M HKA thinks so explicitly in terms of a hypothesis is a direct consequence of its localisation. In contrast to many other museums, M HKA was not founded by citizens and collectors. The roots of the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp lie in the Antwerp art scene. It starts from current developments in the world and from artists, since they have always defined the Antwerp scene.
Any activities – collecting, conservation, study and presentation – occur within a framework of ongoing exploration of the artistic and art-historical climate. At the same time this is positioned within the broader, prevailing social, political and economic trends. M HKA, in order to live up to its art hypothesis, has formulated five essential points in its policy plan, each of which is subdivided into two objectives. (page 6)
A museum is audience-orientated by nature. But “being public” is not sufficient: “becoming public” is better. How are we doing that? M HKA aims to establish five links:
With the public in the usual museum domain (presentation, collection, public relations, etc.);
With the broad social context (major events, partnerships, specific target groups, etc.);
With the museum context (purpose of the collection, vision, expertise and training, etc.);
With the commissioning authority (manage innovative projects, publicise discursive visions, etc.);
With artists (represent the vision, artistic quality, positioning abroad, etc.).
These links also operate multilaterally, i.e. between public, social context, museum context, authority and artists. The museum aims to ensure that as far as possible these links reflect the art hypothesis central to the museum. The diverse interactions between M HKA and its constituencies contribute to the museum’s becoming-public. In this way the museum assumes the role of meeting point for a multiplicity of partners. The art hypothesis becomes public in as many directions as possible; it becomes part of a social fabric. “Everyone” can be informed about this and thus has the opportunity to become acquainted with M HKA. The museum aims to be alert to diversity and actively apply its staff to reaching the various focus groups. (page 25)
The triad of research, experiment and → reflection has gradually taken shape during the past few years, and will now be systematically and publicly developed. During the past five years the collection has become an actuality, and the actual deployment of the art hypothesis is now being realised. (page 33)
The website can collect and produce insights, ideas and thoughts, become a knowledge centre and eventually be a virtual community, grafted onto and forward-thinking in terms of M HKA’s art hypothesis. (page 39)
At the same time the final goal, the ongoing realisation of the art hypothesis, is kept in mind. To this end M HKA intends to devote attention to training, discussion platforms and the like, but also learning and acquiring insights from practice itself. (page 42)