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Jewish World Review May 8, 2001 / 15 Iyar, 5761

John Leo

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Consumer Reports

But where's the art?

Museums dumb down culture with pop nostalgia shows -- A spate of amazingly foolish exhibitions at American art museums is raising a grave question: Are these museums determined to conduct their own meltdown?

To entice the young and the nostalgic, the once staid Museum of Fine Arts in Boston ran a big exhibition of 130 guitars, thus turning itself into a gigantic Hard Rock Cafe. New York's Guggenheim Museum put on a blockbuster show on motorcycles, with catalog essays by Hunter Thompson and Dennis Hopper. (The New Republic called the show "a dark day in the history of American museums" and "a pop nostalgia orgy masquerading as a major artistic statement.") The Miami Art Museum featured William Wegman's gag photographs of dogs in high-fashion clothes. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., staged a big exhibition on Disney theme parks. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art felt the need to honor the American sneaker ("Design Afoot: Athletic Shoes, 1995-2000").

An exhibit on the film saga Star Wars, essentially a traveling ad to drum up publicity for the fifth movie in the series, has been touring the art museums of San Diego; Minneapolis; Houston; Toledo, Ohio; and Brooklyn, N.Y. The Brooklyn director, Arnold Lehman, is an old hand at exploiting pop culture. When he headed the Baltimore Museum of Art, he installed shows on Dr. Seuss, jukeboxes, and Looney Tunes cartoons. At the Brooklyn Museum of Art, he staged a big hip-hop show, borrowed from Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Other art museums presented major shows on "Thirty Years of Rock and Roll" and "Rock Style."

Wash-and-wear. Many art museums now turn themselves into department store windows, displaying the clothes of fashion designers like Giorgio Armani (the Guggenheim) and Christian Dior (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which also planned a Coco Chanel show but abandoned it in favor of a show on Jackie Onassis's wardrobe).

What does all this have to do with art? Not much. Curators are caught up in a slide toward mass entertainment and marketable product. More and more, the process of broadening appeal has come to mean dumbing down and looking to pop culture for the lowest common denominator. The huge financial success of the "Star Wars" and motorcycle shows points the way toward more and more money-driven decisions. (The Guggenheim is building a 63,000-square-foot exhibition hall in Las Vegas, which will open with the motorcycle show.) Since the pop exhibits usually cost money to attend, and the permanent collections often don't, the message being blinked is that the pop stuff is exciting and important, while the high art isn't. And the amount of money that can be raked in opens the door to shady practices as well as lower standards. The Guggenheim did not reveal that it had accepted $15 million from Giorgio Armani before staging the Armani exhibit.

Part of the problem is that curators are afraid of straying too far from current popular tastes. The writer Heather Mac Donald calls this "cringing curatorial populism." This fear of quality has roots in ideology as well as in mass marketing. The current generation of museum curators, mostly reared in the 1960s ethic of opposition to authority and tradi- tion, bought into the postmodern idea that art museums have been part of the stuffy, elitist, Eurocentric power structure that must be overthrown. According to postmodern theory, artistic judgment is a mask for power: There are no masterpieces, and even quality is suspect. If the problem is that aesthetic standards have been imposed from above, the solution must be to heed the judgments of ordinary citizens–in other words, to elevate pop culture. "When standards become relative, everything becomes art," Lynne Munson writes in her new book, Exhibitionism, "and politics (or any other nonart priority) is left free to guide the mis- sion of museums."

In general, curators seem to accept the postmodern ideology, and some take it more seriously than others. The Seattle Art Museum, which stuffs its European and American art out of the way on the top floor, is one of several museums that hired Fred Wilson, essentially to mock its permanent collection. Wilson is an "installation artist" and "museum deconstructor" who rummages around in permanent collections and stages displays to show how racist and intolerant museums are. The most political of the nation's current exhibitions is probably the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "Made in California." Ostensibly a tribute to the state, the show is largely a sour depiction of California's founders and elites as pure villains.

As critic Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times, "Today's museums are under attack from art-theory ideology on one side and commerce on the other." In many ways, their decline parallels what happened to the colleges: an ideological loss of faith in tradition and the classics accompanied by a loss of standards and a consumer-oriented dumbing down. Those allegedly villainous elites whose money largely supports these museums ought to pay more attention to what's happening.

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Incorrect Thoughts : Notes on Our Wayward Culture. Send your comments by clicking here.


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