Tuesday, August 11, 2009

ESSAY: ‘Art is Cheap, Hurrah!’: The Bread and Puppet folk museum in the Age of the White Cube

(The following essay is submitted by Vermonter Kathryn Barush, now studying at University of Oxford in England. Below this article is the press release regarding Bread and Puppet's August events)

by Kathryn Barush

In the early 1960s Peter Schumann founded the Bread and Puppet Theater in New York City, and its "Domestic Resurrection Circus" first appeared during the Vietnam war shortly thereafter. In the 1970’s, the Bread and Puppet relocated to a Vermont - first to Goddard College, and then to Glover in the Northeast Kingdom, where the midsummer "Domestic Resurrection Circus" pageants were held. Bread and Puppet's brand of anti-commercial, anti-academic art was supplemented with baked sourdough rye that could be smeared with garlic aioli, and the Pageants were played out in a natural amphitheater, with barefoot puppeteers clad in white like a great modern Bacchanalia. In recent years the public could hear the tuneless, dented brass-horn ‘Homeland Security Band’ stomp out the Battle Hymn of the Republic. In 1998, due to the death of one of the festival goers, the large scale pageants were somewhat curtailed, but Bread and Puppet performances do continue. What is now known throughout Vermont tourist guides as the ‘Bread and Puppet Museum’ has been open since at least the early 1980s. This paper will provide a brief analysis of the ‘folk museum’, examining the containment of ritual objects and the liminal effects of Wunderkammer-esque display strategies- employing the Bread and Puppet Museum in Glover, Vermont as a case-study.

In the gift shop (in the traditional place, where most museum gift shops are found, upon entering the cavernous and cob webbed barn) are both a donation box, and donations hat, Also an array of posters, prints, woodcut-block postcards on brown paper depicting grass (Rise!) and flowers growing out of combat boots (Courage!). There are no employees, no guards, no pedestals, but this is indeed a museum. The barn unfolds into room after room of preserved puppets, some on their own, eerily suspended against thick storm windows, others in the rafters collected in a great crowd, leaning over the stable doors in numbers like a peaceful papier-mâché army, accompanied by massive set pieces, ephemeral cardboard tableaux, and spiders. There are also the museum-goers, all conditioned by their upbringing to move through the silent puppets with an air of reverie, the museum ritual taking hold even in this cluttered, anti-curatorial, anti-academic, anti-capitalistic barn where nothing is commoditized. In fact, Peter Schumann states in his 1984 ‘WHY CHEAP ART’ manifesto: “People have been thinking too long that art is a privilege of the museums and the rich. Art is not a business. Art is food. You can’t eat it but it feeds you.”

Folk museums may have had their advent with Alexandre du Sommerard’s Musée de Cluny. The museum still functions as a veritable reliquary chest of everyday objects: brooches, pots, tapestries with a Roman Bath thrown in, retrieved column capitals, a narwhale tusk functioning as a unicorn horn, a pantheon of heads with their noses in varying degrees of disrepair, and an illuminated manuscript with Mylar protected pages to leaf through. The Cluny example is cited by Stephen Bann: it falls particularly on the art historian to look at those examples which refer back to a period antedating the functional separation of museum types, and hence to scrutinize varieties of display which promoted distinctive relationships between knowledge and visibility to take one significant case, the Musée de Cluny was before all else a historical museum,

dedicated to the revival of the life of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which were evoked in a series of densely packed rooms. Yet it was also in a real sense a precursor of the ‘folk-museums’ and ‘museums of everyday life’ which are current today, insofar as it admitted numerous objects of everyday use which had never been placed on display before.

Another precursor was Rudolph II’s Prague-Castle collection, the Alchemist’s Alley’ riddled with mystique inclusive in the experience, alongside the Mannerist artworks. The ‘folk museum’, as I am defining it here, separates the utilized object from its articulated stance for purposes of static display, thus promoting a visceral shift from ‘low’ to ‘high’ art.

Another purpose of the folk museum is to serve as a space for the containment of ritual objects, retired from their initial purpose and recast into collections. A festal memory is revived and the viewer is invited to participate: to sit in despair (or awe) over the ‘magnitude of antique fragments’ (to borrow from Fuseli). Bann reminds us that the ancient Greeks ‘had seen the function of art as being inseparable from religious and public functions.’ Grouping the puppets in tableaux and theatrical arrangements, which recall set design thus summons a narrative, and invites the public to participate by the act of viewing. This is not far removed from the ‘religious and public function’ which was a further articulated narrative account with the purpose of entertaining, while providing metaphorical clues, embedded in the iconography (a dove means peace, red is for blood, a black robe is for mourning). To invoke Carol Duncan: aestheticians gave philosophical formulations to the condition of liminality, recognizing it as a state of withdrawal from the day-to-day world, a passage into a time or space in which the normal business of life is suspended. In philosophy, liminality became specified as the aesthetic experience, a moment of moral and rational disengagement that leads to or produces some kind of revelation or transformation. Meanwhile, the appearance of art galleries and museums gave the esthetic cult its own ritual precinct. That in mind, a folk museum is providing a Kantian aesthetic immersion in a twofold manner via the arrangement of

the objects and the memory of the original ritual usage.

Although this discussion of folk museums and the display of the American primitive papier-mâché object is far removed from that famous and heralded ‘Olympiad of the Arts’ /Documenta/, there is still an aspect of staging via both instances. Arnold Bode went through great pains to improve the architecture, aligning it with the content of the exhibition. Meanwhile, traditional museum strategies are impugned in the case of Bread and Puppet, arranging the objects not in separated cases in a clean, white museum, but in an old barn. On a much, much more public and major level, this canonical dispute has already taken place in Paris at the Musée D’Orsay. Svetlana Alpers defines the accepted canon as ‘twentieth century notions of skill, ambition, and the achievement of art in the second half of the nineteenth century in France’, and cites the dispute as ‘the media displayed (furniture and decorative arts, photographs, and sculpture mixed in with painting) and in the choice of artists exhibited’.

Naming the Bread and Puppet space a ‘museum’ (the term ‘museum’ as I have previously defined it) is an unsubtle project acting as a purposeful deconstruction of the bourgeoisie museum-going culture, all the more effective owing to the ‘quotations’ of traditional Hegelian timeline display strategies. The very act of doing so promotes Peter Schumann’s project: that is, the project of ‘Domestic Resurrection’ itself.

Bann, Stephen. ‘Art History and Museums,’ in /The Subjects of Art

History/, eds. M.A. Cheetham, M.A. Holly, and K. Moxey, (1998), p.

239 – 240.

Bann, Stephen. 237.

Duncan, Carol. ‘The Art Museum as Ritual’ (1995), in /The Art of

Art History/, ed. D. Preziosi, (1998), p. 480.

Grasskamp, Walter. ‘For Example, /Documenta/, or How is Art

History Produced?’ in /Thinking about Exhibitions/, ed. R.

Greenberg, B.W. Ferguson and S. Nairne, (1996), p.72.

Alpers, Svetlana. ‘The Museum as a Way of Seeing,’ in Exhibiting

Cultures: The Poetics and Policies of Museum Display, ed. I. Karp

and S.D. Lavine, (1991), p. 29.

Photos by by James Riches