What would happen if the Met was destroyed? Questions and answers to an artificial intelligence

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Destruction and provocation

The recent fall and destruction of Jeff Koons’ work in Miami (https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/jeff-koons-balloon-dog-broken-miami/index.html) has generated in me a provocative and somewhat fascinating question about the destruction of art, which unravels philosophical and historical questions to ponder.

Let me preface this by saying that my artistic practice is often accompanied by the need to devote time, in different measures, to creation as much as to destruction. Working as a decorator and scenographer, the creative process always goes through different phases: conception, construction, fruition and dismantling, as a set must always be dismantled, an installation removed, and even in designing, a good designer should ask himself the question of how his product will be disposed of; ‘from cradle to grave’ is the motto of designers in the ‘age of sustainability’.

As I have been practising this discipline more and more, I have realised that destroying is an activity that brings with it interesting philosophical concepts, important for the development and growth of human consciousness: non-attachment to one’s own creation (and thus to one’s ego); awareness that things (and life) come to an end; surrendering to the impossibility of having control over everything; embracing the end as regeneration and new possibility in the making; taking the right distance from material conditions and giving importance to the immaterial treasures of life.

Obsession with preservation

What is certain is that human beings have developed over the centuries a strong obsession with preservation, layering, perpetuating; considering it more just to ‘protect’ things from the passing of time (as if this were an enemy) and feeling the need to create a history to guide them. This applies as much to objects as to bodies and memories; just think of how in this historical moment it is socially important (if not fundamental) to record video, audio, images and collect everything in digital containers, in which we also place the illusion that the representation of us and our lives will remain forever.

I find myself wondering whether the contemporary ‘social-media circus’ is not to blame for the very existence of museums, places of preservation and exhibition par excellence, where for centuries people have been able to admire wonderful artefacts. Today, however, there seems to have been a dialectical transfer between spectator and object: an exchange of roles resulting in the need (and today’s obsession) for people to become objects themselves, to be preserved and exhibited on a daily basis, among the algorithms of social networks.

What would happen if the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York were to be destroyed tomorrow?

Despite the fact that I write articles on a digitised art platform, working on 3.0 preservation of works of art, I have to ask myself: What would happen if the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was destroyed tomorrow?

I asked ChatGTP to give me his point of view on the question, because I wanted to understand what would be the most predictable reaction based on data collection. Surely an artificial intelligence is much better prepared than me to write a hypothetical eulogy for one of the world’s most important museums, and here is a computer’s condolence:

“The destruction of the Metropolitan Museum of Art would be a devastating loss to the world of art and culture. The Met is one of the world’s most important and influential museums and its collections span centuries of art and artefacts from around the world. The loss of the Met would mean the loss of countless irreplaceable works of art, artefacts and historical documents. It would also mean the loss of an important source of education and inspiration for generations of people.”

History is made of losses

Surely we agree with Ai: it would be a huge loss of culture, inspiration, memories and lessons, as happened when the Library of Alexandria burnt down or when conquerors and Catholic monks in the 16th century burnt most of the Maya codices. I still remember, in 2001, when the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the two great Buddha statues from the 6th century, were destroyed by the Taliban (https://www.mei.edu/publications/death-buddhas-bamiyan) and who’s heart did not clench a little when watching the video of Notre-Dame cathedral burning down on 15 April 2019?

The list of wonders lost over the centuries is very long. Think of how many civilisations and human histories the violence of war and colonisation has destroyed and continues to take away from us. Surely the immeasurable value of knowledge and thus the importance of an institution like the Met is tangible.

The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, located in New York City, is one of the world’s largest and most visited art museums. This museum has nineteen different curatorial departments, each with its own staff of curators, conservators, educators and support staff: ancient Middle Eastern art; Greek and Roman art; Asian art; African, Oceanic, and American art; Islamic art; medieval art; the main exhibition; the cloister; European painting; European culture and decorative arts; American painting and sculpture; American decorative arts; drawings and prints; the Robert Lehman collection; contemporary art; arms and armour; the Costume and Dress Institute; photography; musical instruments; and libraries.

Truly an immense amount of knowledge and in fact there are 2 million works of art owned by the Met and over 5,000 artists on display.

Do we realise the kind of container that human beings have been able to produce? Of the artistic and creative time that the Met contains, along with the thousands of stories, events and materials of human civilisation?

The best hours spent by mankind?

 ChatGPT says it is impossible to estimate the total number of hours of creation contained in the museum, and I would agree with many creatives and art lovers that those are probably the best hours spent by human civilisation. But this is personal opinion, certainly not based on data collection. In fact, when I put the question to ChatGPT, it is the robot Ai himself who instils a doubt in me. Its answer disconcerts me and at the same time stimulates new thoughts. The AI answers:

“No, the hours of creation contained in the Met Museum are not the best waste of humanity’s time. While the Met museum is a great place to explore and appreciate art, there are many other activities that can be more useful to mankind. For example, volunteering, learning a new skill or engaging in meaningful conversations with others.”

I realise how one circle is closing and another is about to begin; I find myself back to the original question again but this time the answer is different.

What would happen if the Metropolitan Museum in New York was destroyed tomorrow?  Second chance

 Nothing. Would it really be a tragedy? Yes. Could we survive without it? Of course. Perhaps an empty space would be created, which would be frightening at first, but which could be stimulating in the second instance.

I realise that artificial intelligence is perhaps better prepared than some humans to raze everything to the ground and to think of the future as a set of meaningful actions more important than any preservation and remembrance of past civilisations. More prepared than we are to live ‘in the present moment’ (and its as yet unexplored possibilities), letting go of the past and its crystallisation, and to consider of more value personal and community growth.  

On the other hand, ChatGPT reminds me that history is what we write today and that, however much we may know and learn through study (and the artefacts of the past), the most important actions for the future are done in the present, probably as free of past influences as possible.

Conservation vs. relationship

I have always believed that art is one of the most important worlds for mankind, but this ‘modern answer machine’ is instilling doubts in me.

Much more important are human relationships, solidarity and self-improvement. If even a robot has figured this out (through the analysis of human data, of course), I wonder why our society still relies on Knowledge, History, conservation. Why do we find it important to spend time among ancient monuments, artefacts and writings? Why is it so important to self-celebrate past human affairs?

Actually, I firmly believe that art is necessary for mankind, as an expressive form of what he is.  However, there is a difference between the creative act and the celebratory-conservative act, and it seems to me that ChatGPT is referring to this. Art is most important for human civilisation at the moment of creation; for the creative catharsis that ensues. Once the creation is over, the object is already something else and at that point, it can perhaps become a stimulus for reflection for others. But if it becomes a fetish, are we perhaps walking through the door of psychosis?

The issue was also addressed by one of the most representative artists of our century: Banksy.

Indeed, in 2018, his work ‘Love is in the bin’ self-destructed as soon as it was auctioned at Sotheby’s. Not surprisingly, its value went from £1,042,000 to £18.5 million. As always, capital claims. It was the first performance made at an auction and I think it is an important demonstration of the collective mania that characterises the contemporary world. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_is_in_the_Bin)

Today better than yesterday, on a loop.

 I realise that we have now founded our social structures, century after century, on what we believe to be the ‘overcoming’ and ‘improvement’ of what was before us. On the belief that, surely, we are better today than we were yesterday and so on forever in the cycle of time returning. Yet I firmly believe that sometimes destruction is a good place to start and the blank, blank sheet of paper, even better than secular encyclopaedias. Rather than continuing to create, would it perhaps be better to stop?

We are on a merry-go-round in perpetual motion, but this is not predestination. It is we who keep the wheel turning, and perhaps the real reason lies within the insidious folds of the social system as we have set it up (and imposed it) to date. Capitalism cannot afford a pause, neither can the chain of production; the economy works because yesterday’s earnings generate new capital to invest tomorrow… and so on in a loop. If it stopped today, debts and budget holes would inevitably be exposed.

Here my plea to the wealthy industrialist or futuristic technology tycoon. Here is my plea to the millionaire who no longer knows how to spend his money or the entrepreneur who wants to fill her products with high social meaning at all costs: stop.

I don’t think you need any more, you are already billionaires, how far do you want to grow your capital? Until when will you tell a story completely opposite to what you actually do?

The showcase of memories

 This ‘socio-political’ claptrap aside, returning to art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, perhaps its destruction, along with that of other conservative museums around the world, would be the impetus to raze historically derived social structures to the ground and start from scratch. Could cultural, political and social change take place in this way?

Would this be the key to the real transition to a global era?

Perhaps it is the museum actually just dead memory? Perhaps it is the museum the showcase in which to store the trinkets that no longer find a place around the house?

Who remembers in 2020, when protesters pulled down the statue of Christopher Columbus in Minnesota? (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-minneapolis-police-saint-paul-statue-idUSKBN23I04X)

A perfect example of how the preservation of monuments or artefacts, especially in public and institutional places, represents the perpetuation of a certain social structure and its ideologies. In this specific case, I consider it necessary to remove outdated representations from public space that are no longer in line with the social structure. Therefore, the museum becomes a fundamental place for historical memory, where statues of ‘inestimable value’ that represent characters to be denounced rather than celebrated can be crammed in and archived (as dead and already finished history). The showcase, indeed.

Without categories

As the Met disappears, so does much of the evidence of cultural diversity over the centuries, and this brings us back to the concept of “globality”. If we look at contemporary art, we realise that it is no longer so easily identifiable in a certain category or region of origin, that it is no longer so easy to place works in specific cultural departments (such as the nineteen into which the Met is divided). Contemporary art, for better or for worse, is eclectic and mestizo, imaginative and to some extent devoid of clear-cut categorisation, so much so that geographic location is often no longer a determining factor. An example of this is the Venice Biennale 2022, ‘The Milk of Dreams’, which we have already talked about here https://blog.openartimages.com/2022/10/12/stories-and-reflections-from-the-waters-of-venice/.

Free and freeing content

I believe it is interesting to preserve the knowledge of mankind, as long as it is knowledge free from the interests of power. The question to be asked is precisely how information from history can be manipulated in order to condition future behaviour and balance. Making art immortal means being able to pass on content that is free and above all liberating for the public to admire.

On the Met, however, there is no unequivocal answer and this question will always generate an internal short circuit, both in real people and in artificial intelligences.

Author Details
Set builder, decorator and graphic designer. She loves looking at art and getting emotional.
Paola D'Andrea
Set builder, decorator and graphic designer. She loves looking at art and getting emotional.
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