Making and Effacing Art: Modern American Art in a Culture of Museums

Front Cover
Oxford University Press, 1991 - Art - 267 pages
In his 1923 essay, "The Problem of Museums," Paul Valery called the museum a "strange organized disorder" and likened it to a room where ten orchestras played simultaneously. Malraux similarly argued that the museum was a place for "pitting works of art against each other." But regardless of their problems, museums have become powerful influences in modern culture, deciding which artists and which of their works are to be preserved as part of our history. Indeed, such is their power that some critics have remarked that it has become the museum, and not the artist, who creates art.
In Making and Effacing Art, Philip Fisher charts the pivotal role the museum has played in modern culture, revealing why the museum has become central to industrial society and how, in turn, artists have adapted to the museum's growing power, shaping their works with the museum in mind. For instance, Fisher contends that just as a medieval sculptor would link a statue stylistically to the cathedral it would adorn, the modern artist creates his work to mirror its ultimate destination, the museum. Using Jasper Johns' Divers (1962) as an example, he shows how this painting is almost like distinct works placed side by side, that is, Divers is itself a wall of paintings that mirror the wall of paintings in a museum gallery. He also points out that artists such as Frank Stella create sequences within their own work to echo one of the museum's main functions, the sequential ordering of styles. In addition, Fisher includes an extensive discussion of the function of the museum in industrialized society (as the organization mediating between the realm of technology and that of art making and consumption) and he describes a major shift in both the theory and practice of the visual arts, which he argues have been brought about ultimately by the processes of modern technological production. Along the way, he offers insightful commentary on the work of major artists including Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Degas, Picasso, Klee, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, and many others. Vividly illustrated with numerous halftones and 14 color plates, Making and Effacing Art is an important contribution to our understanding of modern art and culture.

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MAKING AND EFFACING ART: Modern American Art in a Culture of Museums

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A brilliant, intricate interpretation of modern art's progress as it reflects the dictates of the museum, by a Harvard professor of English. Fisher casts the art museum as the major interpreter of ... Read full review

Making and effacing art: modern American art in a culture of museums

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A thoughtful premise underlies all of Fisher's arguments: because art museums have wielded a pervasive power over 20th-century art forms, functions, and thought, their organizational authority can be ... Read full review


Object Time and Museum Space
Jasper Johns and the Effacing of Art
Sequence Drift Copy Invention

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About the author (1991)

About the Author:
Philip Fisher is Professor of English at Harvard University. He is the author of Hard Facts, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism.

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