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Has André Malraux’s imaginary museum come into its own?

2 April 2020

One of the many consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a surge in online visitors to museum collections, the British Museum, for example, recently recording a large spike in attendance via the internet. This, in turn, has sparked renewed interest in the notion of ‘virtual museums’, and one name that crops up frequently in this context is the French writer and politician André Malraux, inventor of the term musée imaginaire – introduced in his first book, the three-volume Psychology of Art (published in French between 1947–49), which was later revised and published as one volume in The Voices of Silence (published in French in 1951).

There is, however, a curious inconsistency here. While the concept of the musée imaginaire (usually translated as the ‘museum without walls’, or the ‘imaginary museum’) is a standard point of reference in the context of virtual museums, the larger theory of art from which the concept is drawn is widely neglected, especially in Anglophone countries, in both the fields of aesthetic philosophy and museology. Why is this? One answer is that Malraux’s thinking – in books such as The Voices of Silence and The Metamorphosis of the Gods – represents a radical break with traditional aesthetics, even at the basic level of the nature of our response to art. Rather than confront Malraux, many modern philosophers of art have, it seems, simply turned their backs on him. Hence the distinctly odd situation in which the concept of the musée imaginaire is cited quite frequently, while the theory of art that sustains it and gives it meaning languishes unread and undiscussed.

As a result, the meaning Malraux ascribes to the term is often oversimplified and misunderstood. One common mistake is the assumption that Malraux is simply talking about photographic reproduction. Douglas Crimp writes, for example, that the musée imaginaire is simply a collection of ‘any work of art that can be photographed’ (and argues that the whole concept collapses once photographs themselves come to be considered as museum objects), while others suggest that Malraux wanted to dispense with art museums altogether and replace them with reproductions. A further quite common claim is that Malraux is not just the inventor of the term musée imaginaire but that the thing itself is somehow his creation – something that owes its existence to his theory of art, and offers a special ‘Malrucian’ way of looking at art that would otherwise not exist.

Malraux himself would certainly have rejected these propositions. At a basic level, the musée imaginaire is simply an acknowledgment of practical realities. It recognises that, since the early 1900s, our world of art has undergone an immense transformation. No longer the exclusive preserve of Western art, art museums today contain objects from the four corners of the earth and deep into prehistory. Now, no museum, or even several, could hope to house such an extensive world of art – the ‘first universal world of art’, as Malraux terms it – especially given that many of the objects in question are not movable. Today, therefore, we supplement the exhibits in art museums with works we might only see via reproductions, from Pacific Island masks to Hindu sculpture to the cave paintings at Lascaux.

This places the role of reproductions in context. Malraux certainly stresses their importance: they are visual art’s ‘printing press’, as he once put it, and their role is very much in keeping with his longheld belief, which informed his work as the French culture minister, that no effort should be spared to increase public access to the arts. He was a keen advocate of television as a means of boosting access to art and would certainly have seen the huge potential of the internet for the same purpose. Nevertheless, the musée imaginaire is not simply a collection of ‘any work of art that can be photographed’. It is each person’s ideal collection of works – the works he or she most admires – drawn today from our vast ‘universal world of art’. It is an imagined collection of artistic treasures, whether encountered in bricks-and-mortar museums, on television, in art books, or in the internet’s ‘virtual museums’. It does not ‘replace’ the art museum; it does not replace anything. It is simply a key element of our expanded experience of art from around the globe.

Of course, once one begins to speak about ‘ideal collections’ and ‘artistic treasures’, questions are raised about the human purposes of art. Do we choose the works we place in our musée imaginaire because they give us what philosophers of art since the 18th century have termed ‘aesthetic pleasure’? Is our ideal collection based on a form of sophisticated perceptual delectation? The question raises issues too large to be addressed satisfactorily here, but it is important to give at least a flavour of Malraux’s response. ‘People confuse the nature of art with the pleasure it is able to provide,’ he writes. ‘But like love, art is a passion, not simply a pleasure.’ Stated briefly, it is a passion for meaning. Art, Malraux writes in an oft-quoted phrase, ‘denies our nothingness’. Art is not a religion, but it nonetheless addresses the same fundamental questions to which religions respond. Thus, the musée imaginaire, he writes, is ‘the collection of works with the power to help us live’.

Derek Allan is writing a book on André Malraux’s theory of art, to be published in French and English.