What French art historian, philosopher and cultural politician André Malraux has to teach us about curation
André Malraux first published his essay Le Musée Imaginaire in 1947. It has often been translated in English as The Imaginary Museum or alternatively, The Museum Without Walls. There is abundant literature available online in English on the subject of this work but only a handful of articles pointing to the relevance of Malraux in the digital age. For a scholarly take on the latter idea, I would recommend reading Dr. Derek Allen.
Museums are not-so-happy accidents
If you are reading this piece for its ideas as they relate to the way in which we collect and seek to build cohesive collections of NFTs, I will happily give you the proverbial elevator pitch and spare you the scholarly homework! Here it goes:
Being French, Malraux was painfully aware how museum collections were once built: the Louvre, for example, is full of treasures that were pillaged and looted during centuries and centuries of warfare across Europe. Can we speak of “curation” when a museum’s core acquisition strategy was to rob its enemies of their finer artifacts?
Note that to this day, new museums are established and funded in similarly questionable ways (art foundations funded by arms dealers, corporations making large donations to museums as a means of money laundering and window dressing, etc). Thankfully there are also a few counterexamples if you look really hard for them.
An increasingly sophisticated and diverse visual landscape
Malraux pointed to the discovery of photography as a crucial turning point for art lovers. Through the reproduction of images of works of art in books and art magazines, art aficionados were able to broaden their exposure to art falling outside of their habitual and often random cultural context. The public at large was suddenly given the opportunity to both broaden and refine its understanding of art as new images became available and served to challenge antiquated, stuffy ideas based on outdated cultural narratives.
With the advent of photography and the resulting significantly increased number of artistic “data points”, each individual could suddenly decide for themselves: Is this art? Do I like it? Do I incorporate it into my very own Imaginary Museum? How does this compare with what I was taught at school or what I was led to believe was the art of the people of a given land only because it was promoted by a given nation’s Board of Tourism?
Diversity has a way of increasing granularity and also encourages both engagement and discernment on the part of the viewer. According to Malraux, visual arts were essentially revolutionized with the advent of photography. It might be a tad early to declare that a second revolution is currently unfolding in the Twitter NFT space… But all things considered, I will venture to say that it’s not such a big leap!
Choose your own adventure, build your own Imaginary Museum
If you are reading this piece and you have a wallet full of NFTs/cNFTs, your mind is probably blown right now: who IS André Malraux and how could he understand this way back then?! One of my favorite things about collecting digital art is how it has challenged me as a collector. In becoming more eclectic, we sharpen our eye for novelty and in turn our appreciation finds itself heightened. And if we are really lucky, we find ourselves at once inspired and overwhelmed and desperately wanting to be a part of the conversation.
Of course the craziest aspect about this is that André Malraux was quite left leaning, even if to the best of my knowledge he wasn’t an actual card holding communist. What he meant by the Imaginary Museum was precisely that: it was at best, for say the most cerebral of aesthetes, a sort of elaborate mind palace full of small analog images, typically in low contrast black and white… It was never, ever about tangible ownership. Rather it was about creating a large, cohesive mental portfolio of multifaceted cross-cultural imagery which allowed one to abandon oneself to the aesthetic experience, beyond one’s limited cultural context.
Following Malraux’s concept, I would posit that our own contemporary Imaginary Museums are not so much the wallets containing the digital assets that we own, although those would of course be contained within our personal Imaginary Museums, but the broader realm of the NFT universe that we find ourselves inspired by. For example, you might not actually own a Cryptopunk or have any Spacebudz but they are most likely in your Imaginary Museum, where they function as markers of sorts, or even just as a reminder of market forces, such as early entrant advantage, to state the obvious.
I would add that certain coveted assets are also evocative of the potential of a non-fungible token, as it would be almost impossible to hold the image of a Clay Nation character in one’s mind without also factoring in the role played by the community of owners of this particular asset.
In this sense, our Twitter NFT fueled Imaginary Museums are incredibly complex because the images come with complex associated unwritten metadata that we mentally create to feed our inner curators. Upon examining an image, we seek to answer blunt questions such as: Where is the floor? Is it too late? What is the upside potential? Followed by some more subtle and personal questions: Do I resonate with the community of holders of this asset? What is the raison d’être of the project itself? How do I value future airdrops and what do I think of the way scarcity is managed by the creator(s)? And plenty of other more personal questions, hopefully starting with: Does this piece make my heart sing? Does this project tickle my brain?
Art lovers win every time
I like to think that Malraux wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow at the speculative waters we find ourselves navigating today. First, he would probably delight in the fact that the middle men have been removed: imagine giving half your nft earnings to the gallery owner born with a silver spoon in his mouth while also giving him the privilege of managing your drop! I’m confident that Malraux would also approve of artists getting a cut on secondary market sales.
Secondly, Malraux would note that the looting has stopped for the most part, even if the looters have inevitably reincarnated as scammers in our otherwise mostly collegial metaverse.
Finally, the sheer breadth of the visual language at our disposal informs all the art that is being created and absent an internet connection, everyone can absorb a plethora of art every single day: in many ways the lucrative NFT space is also unprecedentedly democratic. No one is sitting around hoping for an invite to some fancy downtown gallery opening just to be able to see what the people “in the know” are creating.
We know who the people in the know are. We can actually DM them and more often than not they will happily answer. And there is this beautiful and occasionally chilling awareness that it’s a free market for ideas out there: unassuming yet highly talented introverts have been known to come out of seemingly nowhere and steal the hearts of many with the pixelated beauty of their unique interpretation of the present moment. And yes, this happens every single day…
Alchemizing old teachings, leaning in to the possibilities of the era of smart contracts
What would Malraux do in my shoes, I like to ask myself. I suspect he would urge me to stop complaining about money and certainly advise me to stop buying so feverishly. He would say something like, “Look, look harder, look with your heart and only buy when you know.” He is right of course, but he also never had to contend with present day FOMO levels.
Malraux would go on paraphrasing himself, in that slightly irritating way that dead white men get to do and tell me how to step up my game as an artist: “Think, think harder about the incredible potency of this moment and only mint when your message transcends the image”.
Thank you, generous reader, for indulging me as I converse about this futuristic moment with a dead French dude (old habits die hard in our culture)! To end on a more thoughtful note, I propose that we hang on to the visionary ideas of our elders and that we also rebrand them when it makes sense. With this in mind, I offer a revised English translation for Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire, I would like to call it the Imaginal Museum, with the imaginal being in the words of Cynthia Bourgeault, “a realm that separates the visible world from realms invisible but still perceivable through the eye of the heart.”
Art, after all, is nothing if not ineffable. I experience it as a conversation between the seen and the unseen. My own Imaginal Museum now contains so much work that I did not know was art, not because it was purportedly lowbrow, but because my culture did not teach me to see beauty everywhere I look.
I finally understand that our world is rigged for love and beauty and that we sometimes simply lose ourselves for a while in a place of fear. This is where community is especially valuable and I am consistently astonished by the camaraderie and the support of the Twitter CNFT community. What a beautiful time to be an artist in the world!
If you’ve read this far, you are AMAZING, thank you!
Secret message: I am organizing an underground giveaway for friends interested in reading about and discussing CNFT art! If you RT my tweet about this article and add a comment showing that you’ve read the article, or even just spotted a really unfortunate typo (!), you will be in a great position to win an Aetheric Appreciation Token (minted on Tokhun)…
Winner selected on October 15, 2021.