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A Brief History of Art in the Private Sphere

  • Essay
  • Dec 01 2019
  • Àngels Miralda Tena
    is a Catalan-American writer and curator currently based in Terrassa, Catalonia. She writes on curatorial and institutional ethics and organises exhibitions internationally.

It was not so long ago that a revolutionary idea changed the face of culture and museum collections. Art’s relationship to individuals and power meant that its structure had long relied on private patronage – in Europe this was dominated on one hand by the wealthy noble families who could afford private collections and on the other, by the church. In these times science, invention, and art were all confined to those practitioners who had a good relationship with wealthy patrons and the court. In order to survive as an artist, one painted portraits of the royal family, religious scenes, and eventually genre as the petite bourgeoisie was formed in Protestant countries. Dissent was hidden in paintings through symbolism and clues, for to upset the patron was to risk your own livelihood. An advanced notion of “reading” a painting was developed in the Renaissance which led to complex compositions and meanings which today are barely perceived.

And yet, it was not as if art had not existed for people outside of the wealthy collections. Folk art traditions existed in all mediums and places. It is rather Art History as a discipline which has failed to document a popular history of art - focusing instead on the preserved collections of wealthy individuals. Those which were seized or donated to museums reveals a vacuum in our understanding and appreciation of art in different classes of private homes. The seeming impossibility of class integration through art might then be a product of the creative class’ own lack of education. Pierre Bourdieu once termed “legitimate taste” in opposition to “middle-brow taste” or “popular taste” in his book Distinction: A Social Critique to the Judgment of Taste (1). Bourdieu proposes that the root purpose of art is to create class divisions by promoting the need to “educate” the lower classes who believe that natural enjoyment can constitute a form of art. Bourgeois art contains moral superiority– and thus is contained in museums (2).

It was in Vilnius while I visited the newly opened private museum called the MO Museum that I considered the skewed perception of art that arises when historians and curators display private collections to the public. In this extensive collection of 20th century Lithuanian art, little was said of the conceptual or performative past of the country, especially by the politically dissident groups working under the Soviet Union (3). The private collection specializes for the most part in those items that can be packaged and marketed, easily bought and preserved in storage – and so with few exceptions (including the incredible Marzona collection in the Hamburger Bahnhof) historians and curators have been handed down a legacy of conformism and manageable production.


In 2015 I spoke with Corin Sworn who was preparing a project produced in the framework of the Max Mara prize for the Whitechapel Gallery. In the exhibition titled Silent Sticks (2015) (4) she executed the production of actors’ costumes from the 16th century tradition of commedia dell arte which was a widespread popular theatre tradition in Europe. These actors not only had the possibility of using satire through the comedic nature of the plays, but they also travelled around the continent adapting the script to local languages and dialects. This form of popular theatre was performed in squares or makeshift stages that travelled with the crew making them on-site and improvisational. The exhibition was a tribute to the artists who performed, wove costumes, and built the props, and who (to my knowledge) have never been exhibited in the great museums of Renaissance art along with their contemporary court painters. 

In 1792 the French King Louis XVI was imprisoned by Republican forces and the royal collection was nationalised into public property. Thus, Bataille famously stated that “The origin of the modern museum is linked to the development of the guillotine"(5). The private collections of the monarchy given to the people and supplemented by Napoleon’s spoils of war became the basis for the world’s most visited museums and still convey the essence of nationalism and imperialism with which they had begun. But it is not on the stage of the historical museum that the new nobility is staging their recapture of the platforms of contemporary culture, rather in that of contemporary art. The ideals of the revolution and those of post-war Europe in which culture was a public right and museum collections belonged to the public is quickly being set aside in favour of new models of philanthropy. Contemporary art museums are now becoming the empty shells which temporarily house and exhibit private objects and in so doing, teach a new ethic of privatisation and plutocracy.


In Hito Steyerl’s Is the Museum a Battleground? (2013)(6) scenes of mobs flooding the Hermitage Museum during the Russian Revolution reminds us of the political function of the museum and its repeated use as a symbol of power and ownership. Even though Trotsky was unable to describe exactly what proletarian art would be or whether it could even exist (7), a clear message is that it would be public, it would belong to the people, and it would be enjoyed by all, not by a dwindling group of cultural elite and intelligentsia.

Today we are experiencing a re-feudalisation of society. A world in which everything that was considered a public right is being privatised, and even that which is free remains the property of an individual. Not only do public institutions serve as the means by which private collections soak up maintenance and exhibition costs from public budgets, but increasingly the institution itself is set up on an entirely private ground to glorify an individual collector as a personal shrine. The private museum of the future has returned to the medieval depictions of patrons in the stained-glass windows of privately-funded chapels. Their purpose is absolution of the donor and instillation of the neoliberal ethic to which the rabble must be happy to be given access to these wondrous treasures of a higher taste.

So, as opportunities for young artists and curators are increasingly given to the wealthy children of aristocratic families or the curators whose livelihoods they provide -  DIY project spaces in the private homes of regular people pose an alternative structure. If art is leaving the institution and entering the private home – let it be all private homes regardless of class or income. 

Because art of a private nature cannot be restrained to the showroom apartments of Belgravia or the Freeport storages in Geneva airport – but rather, the private project space and DIY venues show that art can exist regardless of price tags, production budgets, or curatorial fame. Perhaps the most subversive act against the congratulatory nepotism of museum’s private infrastructure is the anarchic principle that it can be replicated anywhere without acknowledging institutional superiority. Art emerges in all sectors of society, and not only those to which are given the permission to produce. The proposition is that art can function on an extra-capitalist system. Artists may not have numerical capital, but they have social capital. That power to bring people together for talks, events, and screenings, is precisely the power that can generate belief and is precisely what can so easily be manipulated in the name of power. 

We live in a society in which opposition is almost unthinkable because nobody really knows what belongs where or to whom. The only thing for sure is that we still have agency to produce. And the less we are given in terms of institutional support, the more we should take advantage of our own spaces and any “commons” which still remain. To produce social occasions are to define an emerging art scene. Bringing people together for discussion in casual environments, private homes, and pubs, is the catapult of artistic production and critique which cannot be monetised or collected. The function of the private project space parallels what many of the founders of private museums say in The Private Museum of the Future: that the private nature of their enterprises allows for risk-taking that public institutions cannot afford (8). These risks when taken by artists and curators who have begun a new space allow the power of visibility to return to its place of production and break the chains of institutional superiority. The project space in the private home can finally be seen as a subterfuge of production from below.

    1. Pierre Bourdieu, trans. Richard Nice, Distinction: A Social Critique to the Judgment of Taste, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1984. Original pub. 1979. “The definition of cultural nobility is the stake in a struggle which has gone on unceasingly, from the seventeenth century to the present day, between groups differing in their ideas of culture and of the legitimate relation to culture and to works of art, and therefore differing in the conditions of acquisition of which these dispositions are the product.”
    2. Ibid. “The denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, venal, servile-in a word, natural enjoyment, which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an affirmation of the superiority of those who can be satisfied with the sublimated, re ned, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane. That is why art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences.”
    3. Claire Bishop, “Zones of Indistinguishability: Collective Actions Group and Participatory Art” E-flux Journal #29, November 2011. ( “By contrast, the participatory art of Eastern Europe and Russia from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s is frequently marked by the desire for an increasingly subjective and privatized aesthetic experience.”
    4. Corin Sworn, Silent Sticks, 20 March – 19 July 2015, Whitechapel Gallery, London.(
    5. Georges Bataille and Annette Michelson, „Georges Bataille: Writings on Laughter, Sacrifice, Nietzsche, Unknowing” October, (Spring 1986), p. 24-25.
    6. Hito Steyerl, Is the Museum a Battlefield? (2013). (
    7. Leon Trotsky, "What is Proletarian Culture, and is it Possible?” 1923. (
    8. For instance, this interview with Gil Bronner in which he states “Private museums can generally be more spontaneous and react faster than public institutions due to flatter hierarchical structures.” Christina Bechtler and Dora Imhof Ed., The Private Museum of the Future, JPR Ringier, 2018. Pg. 43



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