Open no. 14: Sacred Sites

Issue no. 14 of Open, a publication on "art and the public domain"edited by Jorinde Seijdel, is dedicated to art institutions and the reinvention of publicness. This issue contains contributions by Chantal Mouffe, Nina Möntmann, Jan Verwoert and Bik Van der Pol, among others, as well as my essay Exhibiting Cult Value: On Sacred Spaces as Public Spaces and Vice Versa (pp. 38-55 in the English edition). The text analyses the relations between museum, cathedral and mosque, arguing against the popular tendency to either define museums and other art spaces as bullwarks of "Western"secularism or demand that they become so. An extract:

"For Enlightenment fundamentalists, mosque and museum are radically opposed to each other, while the cathedral is politely or opportunistically ignored. If the Qur’an is seen as the enemy of Western “free word” and its media, the mosque stands in a similar opposition to the museum, the home of “free art” that is under threat from sinister fundamentalists. In this way the mosque comes to be opposed to the museum as representative of the secular public sphere. Recently, when the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague refused to exhibit photographs that showed gay men wearing masks representing Muhammed and Ali, his son-in-law, the museum was attacked for betraying its mission to be a space of secular freedom against theocratic tyranny. Thus there are two opposed interpretations of the museum: in contrast to the authors who argue that the museum is too sacred, that it is insufficiently profane, others ideologize the museum as a prototypical space for Western secularism, for free words and images. Both positions are militantly secularist. In both cases, the sacred as such is seen as ominous.

"Emile Durkheim noted that “[t]here are two kinds of sacred, one auspicious, the other inauspicious;” for Enlightenment fundamentalists, there only seems to be bad sacrality. But does not the concept of the secular itself come to play the part of the “good” sacred? After all, the Enlightenment fundamentalists effectively sacralize “the Enlightenment”, “the West”, “free speech”, “free art”—while using such slogans to avoid any discussion of Western complicitness in the situations they denounce, in the Middle East and elsewhere. If secularization means the questioning of dogmas and stifling celestial and earthly hierarchies, a revolt against a culture of fear and taboo, then secularization is indeed crucial, but many secularists seem intent on sabotaging this process by nurturing Manichaean dichotomies. This goes for art-bashers as well as for Islam-bashers; while the latter use the bogeyman of Evil Islam to prevent a serious contestation Western neoliberal policies and economic imperialism, the former seem intent on disabling whatever potential for dissent art may still have. Yes, the museum needs to be critiqued, but Ulrich’s “profane” museum, which is no longer distinct from the surrounding culture, would itself be as critical as Fox News.

"Perhaps the museum’s insufficient secularization, its elitist and mystifying form of publicness, also enables critical practices that would not be possible otherwise. And did not churches, at various moments in history, function as public places that enabled the articulation of dissenting practices and forms of resistance, both from a Christian and from a post-Christian perspective? No doubt some mosques deserve to be eyed with suspicion, and there are many obstacles to be overcome, but one can give a positive twist to the mosque’s difference from (and in) the current order, as in the case of the museum. Some works of art stage a tentative dialogue between art context and mosque. Lidwien van de Ven’s photo of a Viennese mosque, in which men are seen from behind, praying with their faces to the wall, is pasted directly on the wall of the white cube; thus one space of concentration, however myth-ridden, is presented as an extension of the next."

Image: Lidwien van de Ven, Islamic Centre, Vienna, 2000.

The complete text is online here:

En de nederlandse versie is hier:

[Correction: Although in recent years Lidwien van de Ven often shows her photographs in the form of poster prints glued directly on the wall, the picture of the Islamic Center in Vienna has not been shown in this way yet.]