Peace, the Museum, and Globalization, 1800/2014

by Todd Porterfield

Jacques Derrida’s sustained analysis of globalization[1] carries three main insights that are important starting points for this essay. Firstly, against the abundant rhetoric surrounding globalization, the vapid determinism and blind and fabricated faith in liberal economics, and the sense of wondrous awe often exuded before seemingly immediate communication, Derrida is very clear about what globalization is not. In his 2003 book, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, he addresses the mistaken notion that global integration produces democracy, which, in turn, yields increasing equality. But this is an illusion:

Though the discourse in favor of globalization insists on the transparency made possible by teletechnologies, the opening of borders and of markets, the leveling of playing fields and the quality of opportunity, there have never been in the history of humanity, in absolute numbers, so many inequalities….

He also names those inequalities, just as they have been named in protest movements from Occupy Wall Street to Rio to Hong Kong and beyond.

From this point of view, globalization is not taking place. It is a simulacrum, a rhetorical artifice or weapon that dissimulates a growing imbalance, a new opacity, a garrulous and hyper-mediatized noncommunication, a tremendous accumulation of wealth, means of production, teletechnologies, and sophisticated military weapons, and the appropriation of all these powers by a small number of states or international corporations…. And yet, wherever it is believed (that) globalization is taking place, it is, for better and for worse.[2]

In this way, Derrida is excruciatingly clear about the devastating effects of the passive and uncritical marveling over so many aspects of globalization.

On a second register, Derrida proposes a fundamental distinction between two French terms, which are not so easily translated into English: globalisation and mondialisation. By so doing, he points to political and critical tensions within a historical framework, a periodization, which informs my present work. We might say that Derrida’s globalisation means imperialism, and it has been around for a very long time. For this reason, he rebrands it as globalatinisation,[3] to indicate its origins in imperial Rome, Counter-Reformation Catholicism, and in the modern imperialism of Europe and the United States. Derrida prefers mondialisation, which he translates as “worldwidization,” tracing it back to the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In my estimation, the simultaneity of and tensions between globalisation and mondialisation constitute a basic characteristic of modernity, which in the French case coincides with a national project that embraces both liberté, égalité et fraternité and imperial conquests that end up reaching a sixth of the planet.[4] In Derrida’s account, the current of mondialisation gains speed after World War II, with the rise of worldwide human rights and the prosecution of crimes against humanity. We might say that globalisation concerns the false consciousness of the cosmos, whereas mondialisation relates to what is proper to humanity.[5]

On a third register, Derrida discussed the story of the Tower of Babel as a nightmare allegory of alternative endpoints of globalization, both of which haunt our imagination.[6] For, on one hand, as the philosopher recalls, the Semites built the Tower as a symbol of tribal preeminence, which they asserted via transparency and uniformity in language, laws, and people, and which they enforced with crushing, imperial violence. The alternative was not much better. Once God destroyed the Tower, he covered the earth with a plethora of diverse peoples, idioms, cultures, and histories, which sounds good so far, but the differences were so extensive and fundamental—humanity, so atomized, conflicted, and hostile—as to guarantee perpetual violence. Although it is true that we can draw some solace in Derrida’s belief that even the individual him- or herself is not unitary but multiple and divided,[7] and so to expect that there could be coherence and uniformity amongst individuals, societies, languages, cultures, and nations is absurd and impossible. However, even the drive toward uniformity is dangerous, as is its opposite—belief in a world of opposed, essential, and fixed identities that will necessarily stand in mortal conflict with (invented) others.

From this, I deduce that we are left with but one appealing imperative, the key ethical, social, cultural, and intellectual challenge of globalization: to know, accept, and live in difference without otherness. With this measure of value, a broader study of art and globalization might take the same chronological frame and look at international and intercultural relations vis à vis artistic explorations of language and genealogy, peace and sovereignty, love and friendship, home and hospitality—a project that I have begun elsewhere.[8] For our purposes here, we shall look at the legacy of the modern institution of the art museum at the crossroads of peace and their representations.

Uniformity and the Museum

To the challenges raised by globalization, the universal survey museum would seem to have the answer, if we are to believe Berlin State Museum Director P.K. Schuster and the 2002 Declaration of the Importance and Value of Universal Survey Museums. It declares that museums are “uniquely placed to promote cross-cultural exchange and smooth the path to social harmony and world peace.”[9] I would hope for this to be so, but rather than accepting it on face value, let’s look back at the inception of the universal survey museum in France in the 1790s, to foreign artists’ responses, to peace and its representations. We will ask what Emmanuel Kant thought peace should look like, and whether we can find it in the visual culture and museum projects of this crucial period for art history and for the modern institution of the art museum. In other words, we are going in search of examples of difference without otherness.

Decades ago, Carol Duncan and Alan Wallach memorably analyzed the typology of the universal survey museum, and they traced its origins to the Louvre of the French Revolution, site of democratic leveling and popular liberation.[10] The museum was inaugurated on August 10, 1793, one year after the storming of the Tuileries and the arrest of the king and queen, an event Gérard drew and celebrated in preparation for a never realized history painting. Upon entering the museum, the citizen reenacted the breaking down of the old royal doors and crossed the threshold into the newly nationalized former royal palace. The French citizen thus took possession of the people’s treasures, laid claim to the past for purposes of the future, and entered into the galleries to draw lessons of historical insight and moral virtue that could then be used in the construction of a new society.

The Louvre was also opened on the same day as the National Festival of Unity, a celebration of difference without otherness. That is, at least according to the words of its organizer, the painter Jacques-Louis David: “All individuals useful to society will be joined as one. You will see the president of the executive committee in step with the blacksmith; the mayor with his sash beside the butcher and mason; the black African, who differs only in color, next to the white European.”[11] The museum’s program, however, quickly became more imperial than democratic. The universal in the universal survey museum often meant imperial dominance. In the estimation of Armand de Kersaint, the Louvre would “speak to all nations, transcend space, and triumph over time.”[12] According to this view, differences across class, race, and origin that were named, maintained, and embraced by David, would be transcended or, dare we say, obliterated in this universalist-imperialist program for the Louvre, for France, and for the Revolution.

The museological expression of this universalist project lies not in the first and very short-lived installation. It followed an Ancien Régime approach to the presentation of paintings from a time when the national collection was a royal collection and the Royal Academy’s artists and connoisseurs honed their appreciation and skills by comparing and learning from, for instance, Raphael’s line, Rubens’s color, and Claude’s handling of light. Once the Louvre became public, as Andrew McClellan has shown, that system quickly gave way to the more enduring organization according to national schools,[13] whose summits and greatest and characteristic contributions added to the forward movement of progress and lead to the triumph today of the French school—in the arts, as in society, the leading vector of civilization.

I choose this last word carefully, for let’s be clear that the civilizational discourse is forged in the same years and, I assert, with the same ideology as the modern institution of the art museum. In my account, civilization is the master discourse that gives form and meaning to the discipline of art history and the modern museum, and to the key concepts of Orient and Occident. In the 1990s, Ernst Gombrich went so far as to say that the primary task of the art historian is to act as a spokesperson for Western civilization.[14] To be sure, the words, civil and civilité, go way back. In 1757, Mirabeau uses civilization for one of the first times, but he links it to religion as its bedrock.[15] The notion takes on its modern color in the 1790s, most notably with the 1794 publication of Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain. In that treatise, civilization is both marker and movement. That is to say: the notion of civilization functions to indicate the degree of attainment of a society according to a series of criteria. When one culls through Condorcet and sees the defining attributes of civilization, one is struck by how his criteria have continued to be used to evaluate societies. They include: government that works in the people’s interest, equality between men and women, equality in education, technological advancement, and a high level of artistic production characterized by universality and transparency. In this way, civilization is a measure and attribute of quality. Indeed, when “civilisation” first appears in the dictionary of the Académie française in 1798, the same year as the French invasion of Egypt, it is succinctly defined as “Action de civiliser ou état de ce qui est civilisé.”[16]

The notion of civilization is also, then, defined by movement: by its very nature, civilization spreads and advances. This formal quality of forward movement is part of the visual imaginary of the universal survey museum, of globalization, and of imperialism. Axial projection through space, assuredly over time, taking everything in its wake, undergirds one of the most famous representations of the Revolutionary Louvre, the hurtling axis of Hubert Robert’s View of the Grande Galerie.[17]

This is the axis and the trajectory of progress and of universalism, which seeks to cast away differences of race and language. All is subsumed in a triumph of the republican ideal, moving forward, making for rational and transparent communication amongst all men. Uniting the forces of all people and peoples, leading them into the future, everything that comes into its assertive vector of force will be ordered with and by it, and will share in universal dialogue and progress. Alfred Barr’s early twentieth-century fantasy of his Museum of Modern Art as a “torpedo moving through time”[18] shows us that the prototypical modern art museum was conceived along the same lines as the universal survey museum. Will the modern museum in our age of global consciousness exert the same force as Robert’s vector of progress and Barr’s torpedo through time—running roughshod over the entire world, subjecting everything to its Western narrative—or will it be a site of acknowledgement of difference that refuses to invent and essentialize the other?

Difference and the Peace of Amiens

Following more than a decade of revolutionary wars across the continent, the universal survey museum had its first trial run before an international public during the Peace of Amiens (1802–1803). Foreign travellers—Brits, continental Europeans, and Americans; among them Friedrich Schlegel, Fuseli, Turner, Flaxman, Wordsworth, Benjamin West, and many others—flocked to Paris. This was the first opportunity for many to see post-Bastille France under the First Consul for Life, Napoleon Bonaparte, and to see the Louvre Museum, whose collections were swollen by more than a decade of war and plunder. How did that work out?

This is a story that still needs to be charted in all its detail, but suffice it to say for now that certain figures, like West, then president of the English Royal Academy, played a cooperative role. At the Royal Academy in 1802, he exhibited his Belisarius with the Boy, a nod, no doubt, to the regicide, Jacques-Louis David, whose Belisarius of 1781 was a clarion call to neoclassicism and reform. In Paris in the fall of 1802, West also made a preparatory drawing for a painted portrait of Bonaparte, which, after war resumed, the artist abandoned.

Of greater importance were those who rejected French aesthetic and political universalism and who modeled an essentialist art history of opposing nationalisms. Friedrich Schlegel, who moved to Paris in 1802, published his Descriptions of the Pictures of the Louvre in 1803, in which he charted an essential German artistic and national identity that would not be assimilated to a French or universal model.[19] Already then, in the opening years of the universal survey museum, art history’s universalist model was opposed by a nationalist model. Both endured as major alternatives in art historical analysis, and yet neither could be said to have generously accommodated difference without otherness. The universalist model credits no qualities that are not assimilated to its unitary model, while the essentialist model (taken to its logical end) opposes universalism with racial essences whose cost will be national conflict and racist reductivism. The universalist and the nationalist models for art history are structured into our institutions and discourses from the very beginning. Art history as played out in the institution of the museum is set to repeat the nightmare alternatives of Babel—seeking to assume and impose crushing imperial unity and uniformity, or—and sometimes at the same time—staging a clash of essential and conflicting national traits.

In its early years, the universal survey museum did not succeed at promoting “cross-cultural exchange and smooth(ing) the path to social harmony and world peace,” according to Schuster, but what did peace itself look like around the Treaty of Amiens? Inert and moribund, if we are to believe Jules-Claude Ziegler’s, Peace of Amiens, a painting that was commissioned at the beginning of the Second Empire, five decades later. It was no doubt intended to bolster Napoleon III’s propaganda campaign that exclaimed, “L’Empire, c’est la paix,” a slogan that Hardt and Negri consider exemplary of One World Order. And, in fact, it was a peace that laid the groundwork for French expansion in New Caledonia, Yemen, Lebanon, Somalia, Mexico, Syria, Cambodia, and Benin. Ziegler’s belated canvas follows the example of the most bureaucratic style of First Empire performative subjects, which I have analyzed elsewhere,[20] in which the abundance and banality of detail looks pacific while actually serving to mask the violence of imperialism.

Ziegler’s painting shows the signing of the peace in the stately Salle du Congrès, but the rooms where the negotiations took place looked altogether different. Before Joseph Bonaparte, on behalf of France and its allies, and Lord Cornwallis, ex-governor general of India (1786–93), on behalf of Britain and its allies, met in the winter of 1802 in the eastern French town of Amiens, the rooms had been prepared. An ensemble of nine Louis XV-era paintings, “les Chasses Exotiques,” were permanently moved from Versailles to Amiens. Is it any wonder? Although the treaty meant to settle European disputes, it had overwhelmingly to do with extra-European territories—in Africa, Egypt, and what today is South Africa; in Asia, India, and Ceylon; and in the Americas, from the Falklands to Trinidad and Tobago, to Newfoundland. In fact, Talleyrand, who later became foreign minister and was responsible for implementing the peace, complained that in the treaty “continental affairs were hardly mentioned.”[21] How convenient, though, that Boucher’s Crocodile Hunt, Parrocel’s Elephant Hunt, and Lancret’s Tiger Hunt (figs. ) should provide inspiration for carving up the globe. Isn’t this how Europe—or at least a European peace—can be made?

The Globe: Form and Function

Perhaps we ought to search elsewhere for the look of peace around 1800. According to Kant, it is round. In his 1795 pamphlet, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Project, he makes this remarkable statement: “We must have peace because the world is round. On a round globe, ultimately, we cannot get away from each other, for we will eventually run into each other. Our differences may be many, but they are not fundamental and they are not eternal. The necessity to peace, therefore, resides in form.” In his article III, “cosmopolitan law requires universal hospitality,” and this right is “based on the common possession of the surface of the earth, whose spherical form obliges that we cohabitate side by side.”[22] Like museum collections, installations, and representations, the motif of the globe provides a testing ground for notions of peaceable coexistence.

Remarkably (or unremarkably), the globe, sphere, and circle are recurring figures in visual culture around 1800, just as they have become again in the last decade or so. Do globes of around 1800 necessitate peace, as Kant’s sphere would require? William Blake’s might. W.J.T. Mitchell has championed them as vehicles of opposition to empire. He points to Blake’s Ancient of Days, to the frontispiece to Europe: A Prophecy, and to the poet’s contention that “globalization and the world order” are not natural, religious, or eternal, but are “historical products of the human imagination.”[23]

Fig. 1. William Blake, The Ancient of Days, frontispiece to Europe: A Prophecy, 1794.

From Blake we might pivot to the graphic art of caricature, its rise associated with the tide of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century nationalism and racism, its task in the words of a 1788 critic, “to fix the idea of identity” and, no doubt, to oppose identities in a social and political hierarchy.[24] This would seem to be an unlikely locus for peace, yet the globe and the spherical form have a special place in visual satire around 1800. How might that production measure up to Kant’s globe that requires peaceful coexistence? Appetizingly so, if we are to believe James Gillray’s 1805 Plumb Pudding in Danger.

Fig. 2. James Gillray, The Plumb Pudding in Danger; — or– State Epicures taking un Petit Souper, 1805.

With another peace initiative on the table, the world falls under the knives of the great imperial forces of Pitt and Napoleon, who earnestly carve it up to serve themselves. As for the Peace of Amiens itself, commemorated by Gillray in The First Kiss this Ten Years! (fig. ), the globular form created by the embrace of tubby Britannia and boney Bonaparte results from the joining of opposites only made possible by French treachery and British naiveté. This is not a stable whole.

In our quest for difference without otherness, perhaps we must return to the museum but look slightly back in time to the spherical museum designs of Étienne-Louis Boullée.

Fig. 3. James Gillray, The first kiss these 10 years, 1802-1803.

McClellan wisely linked them to the 1771 visionary novel of Louis-Sébastien Mercier, L’an 2440, which features a massive domed, encyclopedic, dare we say, universal survey museum. That this should be a globe derives its logic from its time. In the Journal de la République of year VIII, Houel advocated for spherical designs because “a globe is at all times the most perfect emblem of equality.”[25] Boullée, in his architectural treatise, celebrated the sphere as “an infinite polyhedral, deriving its perfect symmetry from infinite and varied points.”[26] We might also find these formal and political expressions in Boullée’s circular designs for a National Assembly, in which all points are equidistant from the center and, therefore, in the words of Rolf Richardt and Hubertus Kohle, may be “taken as the symbolic expression of an enlightened form of government based in the principle of equality rather than hierarchy.”[27]


Looking back and looking forward, I believe the challenge today is the same for the survey museum and the modern art museum as it has been for the last two centuries. Over several days of our conference at the Stedelijk Museum, I was surprised to hear curators who appeared newly panicked, as if they had recently learned that they were saddled with uncooperative objects and outdated institutions that did not allow them to answer to an ostensibly new imperative to account for a world that did not uniformly submit to the precepts of Euro-North American high modernism. They sounded as if they knew that they must—but did not know how to—give up what was always an illusion: that objects, any more than societies, institutions, disciplines, nations, and individuals, had ever been or ever could be fully and essentially without difference. What, then, to do? The starting point is to assume that multiplicity is always present. It is the rule, not an exception that must be sought after. Regarding objects, inspired by Kant’s globe, we might look to recognize in them what the philosopher understood as difference without essential otherness. Regarding institutions, we might look to the model advanced by Getty Museum Director James Cuno, who wants the museum experience to be one of “unselfing.”[28] And why not? But to achieve this, whether looking at or curating art from 1800 or 2014, we may have to do some unlearning. For we will have to overcome the inherited conventions, reflexes, and practices of our disciplines, institutions, and societies, structured as they are by notions of universalism, nation, and civilization.