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Development of the Museum as an Institution

The concept of an institution requires that there is a mutual agreement on what kind of solutions are used to respond to the problems that arise as a part of everyday societal needs. To be more specific, the term “institution” could be related to either private or public organisms intended to fill a special necessity. Therefore, museums can be considered institutions because they function in line with private law and an acknowledged legal system that regulates all internal and external activities (Polyck-O’Neill, 2018). The most common concepts related to the development of the museum as an institution are public ownership (France) and public trust (the Anglo-Saxon law). The majority of issues related to the institutional basis of museums stem from the idea that a museum institution and a museum are not the same. The precise accepted meanings are well-known, but many tend to utilize the term “institution museale” to evade the word “museum.”

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The excessive burden of the development of the museum as an institution has led to a recurring debate that still affects it to this day. The first important hypothesis that should be noted here is that the nature of institutions divides them into two levels, where one level responds to the biological needs and the other one supports the societal needs such as defense, organization, health, and many others. It may be concluded that museums belong to the second category because they appeal to human feelings and knowledge and not biological needs. To remain a museum (or even a musical institution), the latter should meet every social requirement and provide the visitors with an understanding of what and why they are seeing (Polyck-O’Neill, 2018). The role of museums should never be underestimated because they enrich the cultural background of any given nation and establish an artistic heritage that should be protected at all costs.

Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp was one of the first artists to envision the influence of sublime detachment on the audience. He addressed it as the beauty of indifference and claimed that the majority of audience members that prefer inconsequential art would be much more persuasive than their substantial counterparts. Even though Duchamp has never tried to discredit the art and its derivatives, the idea of the “white cubes” became essential for his later creations (Housefield, 2018). The prospects of being able to negate the surroundings for the sake of art that is here-and-now also allowed Duchamp to step away from retinal art. Instead of trying to appeal to the viewer’s eye exclusively, he chose to reject the perceived rules of art and walk down the path of his own artistry. The resentment that Duchamp displayed toward his early career shows that indifference is a valuable reaction that may bear a positive connotation as well.

The ability to find positivity in everything allowed Duchamp to ask numerous questions and always find the answers in his own motives and interests. The practical obliviousness toward social and historical issues contributed to the complete revision of what has been previously considered art – at least according to Duchamp. Therefore, the main questions that prevail in Duchamp’s works are “hows” and not “whys.” The close connection between the receiver and initiator of the art was a sort of a game for Duchamp, where he resolved his personal dilemmas (Housefield, 2018). The crucial idea included in each of the works created by Duchamp was that the artist alone would never be able to perform the creative act on their own, which hints at the central role of the audience, too. The ability to detach from the external world and focus on the creation was outlined by Duchamp as one of the biggest contributions to the creative act.

The International Surrealist Exhibition of 1938

The exhibition of 1938 quickly became one of the major cultural events that took place in Paris at that time. There was a huge number of visitors who came to the International Surrealist Exhibition to witness the new creation. There were so many members of the audience that even the police had to interfere and control the masses. Even if it was outlined as a mere spectacle by most press representatives, the innovative spirit of the exhibition affected the artists and allowed them to see through lines and develop new ideas based on the conceptual background of the demonstrations (Kauffman, 2017). The core idea behind the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1938 was that artists would get a chance to experience something new and gain a better understanding of how they could step away from excessive reliance on the exterior when creating art. The best explanation for this idea would be to conceptualize the differences between a variety of artworks and place them in the so-called “white cubes” to separate them from the real world.

When the vernissage started coming to an end, it became evident that the International Surrealist Exhibition was a farewell message to the surrealist movement. The growing influence of politics on art affected many artists who had to adjust to World War II, and this division impacted the artistry even worse. The later production became much more sterile but did not lose any of its charms because the audience became too accustomed to the idea that an exhibition should reflect the piece’s strong suits and disconnect the audience from the real life. The post-war period was therefore shaped by several milestones in terms of art that may be seen in the advent of Neo-Dadaism, for example, or Conceptual Art (Kauffman, 2017). As for the first half of the 20th century, the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1938 may be rightfully considered to be one of the essential expositions that broadened the horizons for artists and gave them more room in terms of creative freedom.

The Role of the “Context as Content”

The existing objections to Cubism turned out to be based on the idea that the brute nature of the occupant is directly linked to the sublimated nature of the real world. Therefore, space itself makes the artwork inappropriate and creates a sense of incorrectness in the audience. The lack of connection between the space and the audience (as discussed in the “Context as Content”) has to be viewed as the result of abundant spaces that do not give the creators a chance to help the viewers focus on the artwork and not the surroundings. The fact that the viewers may only be occupied by the artworks that are in accordance with their worldviews has led many artists to the realization that the “white cube” is the only way to appeal to the audience through the creation itself (Powell, 2018). Given that both the floor and ceiling created a certain amount of pressure on the audience, it was decided to leave the connection between the audience and the real world behind and focus on the vision. The communication with the outside sources of information (through windows, for instance) is not always allowed because of the issue of integrity that affects the extent to which the audience may be able to judge the artwork.

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Despite the fact that the majority of critics and audience members agreed on the idea that the “white cubes” resembled an idealist program, the idea was that the viewers’ pleasure could be extracted directly from the creation and not the exterior. Many movements presupposed to be linked to modernism were met with a White Cube alternative that showed many artists the right way to step away from the content that depends on the context. Unified means of bold architecture and a plastic, bizarre reality found the visitors addressing the possibility of different works of art manifesting themselves as separate objects (Powell, 2018). The constructive ideas standing behind the conception of “white cubes” reflect the rational and utilitarian values. Nevertheless, the essential value of the White Cube ideology is in the beauty of the art and how it is viewed by the ones who judge the quality and inherent meaning of the creation.

It may be hard to negate Duchamp’s role in the process of developing and popularizing the “white cubes” because he made the gallery into a legitimate place for pieces of art that could be funny, ironic, or even fallible. The point was that the majority of attempts to deploy the White Cube ideology failed at first due to the fact that there were two vantage points that turned out to be mutually exclusive. The one suggested that modernism was much more efficient as a means of transmitting art and the other one shaped a belief that a “hygienic” representation of artworks (with no external interference whatsoever) could be much more beneficial for the artists who wanted the audience to pay attention to the creation and not the exterior (Powell, 2018). As the separation between the two continued, the “white cubes” became too prevalent because the “context as content” motto became outdated too soon.

The “White Cube” Effect

Initially, the gallery space that is now known as the “white cube” has been developed with the intention of evading dirty spaces to present artworks within a “pure” situation. The concept of the White Cube effect allowed artists to overcome the common representation of a “dirty” space and develop an outside ideology that valued the artwork over anything else. Therefore, creations were included in certain spaces to become art and not for the reason that they were art. The invention of the White Cube allowed the creators to step away from the condition of “dirty spaces” and formulate a deeper ideology that allowed the viewers to perceive the gallery space as disappearing as soon as they enter the cube space (Brieber et al., 2015). There are certain risks inherent in the White Cube ideology, but the White Cube effect is not anything bad in particular because it does not require the viewers to get any additional training or gain extensive knowledge to understand the context.

Being a sterile gallery space with white walls and nothing else rather than the artworks, the “white cubes” serve as covered passages that do not distract the visitors and have them focusing on creations and not the exterior. Even though it should have been a merely neutral space (as per the initial idea), the pioneers of the movement decided to implement the White Cube ideology to create an environment where no external ideologies would interfere with the proposed artworks (Brieber et al., 2015). Despite the flawed original concept, the idea quickly developed into philosophy with a large follower base. Since the advent of “white cubes,” artists were interested in finding the best ways to have the audience judge a piece of art while being able to detach themselves from the real world.

Accordingly, the majority of artists encountered a problem where they could not create because the “white cubes” took away the context and only allowed the visitors to judge the artwork itself. That was why Duchamp’s works had to pass the test of time to be considered art. The White Cube ideology may only be active under the condition where there is a neutral gallery space that enables the art by becoming practically invisible (Brieber et al., 2015). In a way, the “white cubes” paved the way for the new artists who could present anything as art and appeal to the visitors by artificially removing the latter from the real world.


The influence of the “white cube” turned out to so great that even the installation shorts of 1939 look as if they were made yesterday. There were no essential changes made to how exhibitions are held, which also extends the influence of the “white cubes” and makes them irreplaceable within the framework of museums. The art world sees the White Cube phenomenon as something omnipresent. Multiple crossovers among different galleries are not necessary to show different types of art to the world, but the presence of knowledgeable visitors is essential if museums expect to go beyond the concept of the “white cube.” The fact that modern art and the White Cube phenomenon became relatively inseparable shows how much Duchamp’s influence affects the contemporary art world. If there were a work that is complete in itself, the visitors would not prefer being able to look out of windows or get distracted by something else. Compared to Impressionist paintings, the “white cube” artworks seem to be extremely disconnected from the real world.

Closing Words

Even though almost a century has passed since the legendary surrealist exhibition, it may be safe to say that thinking outside the cube is not an easy task to complete. Some works do not require visitors to pay attention to the White Cube phenomenon. There are also works that may be considered art only under the condition where there is a specific situation that contributes to the ability of a person to recognize greatness. The perfect amalgamation between the “white cubes” and the overall gallery space gives artists a chance to reduce the number of potential distractions that could destroy the magic of artwork. Despite the fact that some works utterly depend on the context (Duchamp’s Fountain, for example), it should be claimed that the exhibition is a neutral space that should be used to demonstrate different artwork.

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Brieber, D., Nadal, M., & Leder, H. (2015). In the white cube: Museum context enhances the valuation and memory of art. Acta Psychologica, 154, 36-42.

Housefield, J. (2018). Marcel Duchamp’s Guernica? “His Twine,” the first papers of surrealism (1942), and aerial warfare in Europe. Space Between: Literature & Culture, 1914-1945, 14(2018).

Kauffman, A. (2017). The anemic cinemas of Marcel Duchamp. The Art Bulletin, 99(1), 128-159.

Polyck-O’Neill, J. (2018). The Hyperobject and the White Cube: The “Strange Stranger” in Douglas Coupland’s Canada House. Open Cultural Studies, 2(1), 406-416.

Powell, A. K. (2018). A short history of the picture as box. Representations, 141(1), 95-130.

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