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March 11, 2008

How Should Museum Art Be Selected?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

My copy of The New Criterion arrived yesterday, and the first article I dove into was this one, "Revisionism at the Met" by New York Sun art critic Lance Esplund. He has been examining the recently re-done Galleries for Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture and isn't entirely pleased. And he has some concerns about the direction the Met as a whole seems to be taking, but I'll leave that for another time.

Another matter I won't deal with here is the validity of Esplund's complaints about the galleries. That's because I don't visit New York City often and haven't seen them in their present form.

What interests me for now is the following passage.

More and more, museums are allowing the public to decide what is and is not worthy in art. Websites and notebooks accompany galleries and exhibitions, so that visitors can weigh in on issues concerning what they saw, didn’t see, would like to see, or would like to see changed in museums. I think there is a lot of value to be gained here, as long as public opinion is taken for what it is -- public, rather than expert, opinion. The problem is that the experts and policy makers (museum curators, directors, and trustees) appear to be making decisions based on public taste. It is public opinion—or, more correctly, the desire to appeal to public, or populist, taste -- that has ruined the once-magnificent Brooklyn Museum of Art. And, based on what is happening within certain areas of the Met, including the Galleries for Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture, there is a sense that populist, crowd-pleasing taste -- or at least an appeal to that taste -- is weakening the museum’s foundations. Or, worse yet, there is a sense that populist taste is a Trojan horse that is already inside the gates.

Let's see: letting the public taste camel get its nose in the tent will ultimately lead to a Met gallery of paintings of Elvis on different colored velvets.

Well guess what: that very same Elvis gallery might result if left to "experts" and "professionals" uncorrupted by the public. All it would take is a prominent critic or two to proclaim that Elvis-on-velvet paintings really are art worthy of attention and respect. And if words such as "ironic," "paradigm," "deconstruction," "narrative," "subversive" and "meta-theory," were used in the right places, museums across the land might well stampede to the nearest shopping mall art show to scoop up their own Elvis collection.

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously complained about the defining-down of deviancy. I think the same might be said of art. The term for what once was rarefied has over the years been applied to seemingly nearly everything. A visit to the Tate Modern a few years back confirmed this for me. Rather than art, I thought most of it was sh*t.

Disagree with my opinion? Then let me add that some of it literally was sh*t, as this article in London's Telegraph explains in reference to a five-digit-pounds purchase by the Tate of the droppings of one Piero Manzoni.

To conclude, I'm not claiming that the artistic taste of the general public is necessarily good. I'm just saying that the experts that Esplund seems to think should be art's guardians might not be such great shakes either, even when not influenced by public taste or the box office.



posted by Donald at March 11, 2008


The Brooklyn Museum populist? I thought it was trendy curators treating everything as an artifact illustrating some sort of social, socialist or sociological point. They've got quotes from Gloria Steinem and whoever on the walls of the Egyptian gallery. If that's populist then statues of heroic Soviet workers were populist.

Posted by: Thomas on March 11, 2008 7:12 PM

I read somewhere that Manzoni's famous tins didn't contain what he claimed they contained. If so, does that make them better art?

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on March 11, 2008 11:18 PM

Funny posting. It's funny too how hard it often seems for some institutions to find some kind of balance between elite opinion and popular taste. (And of course to some extent the idea of "expertise" in the arts is pretty hilarious, especially in the U.S.) Should a museum simply enshrine what consensus opinion has deemed timeless and immortal? Or should it take a determined and active role in trying to shape opinions and canons? Some people argue that museums would be better off avoiding the whole contempo-art questions. Let history settle those battles, then in a century or two come back and put the victors on pedestals.

I tend to be of the "museums should be conservative" camp myself -- let the galleries and critics and audiences and publications and artists battle it out over what's happening in the present tense. Stay away from that, until the dust settles. On the other hand, there are many museums, and why shouldn't some of them put their toes in contemporary waters? Of course if they do, they should expect controversy and ridicule -- that's part of the game. And also if they do, they risk giving up the "dignified" and "responsible" upholder-of-culture role that museums (and museum people) often seem to crave.

You pays your money, you takes your chances, I guess.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 12, 2008 12:00 PM

I was in the Met recently, twice on two trips to New York, which makes, I blush to say, four visits in a month and a half. And I came away more gaga after the fourth visit than after the first.
The new galleries add an immense amount of wall space. That's far and away the most important thing about them. The selection? Impossible to satisfy every taste. But when 85% of the Mets permanent collection can now be seen...permanently, what a privilege!

Posted by: ricpic on March 12, 2008 9:23 PM

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