While the burgeoning splendor of the New England foliage is itself sufficient reason to travel north in the autumn, this year one found oneself drawn to Hanover, New Hampshire, to witness a display of cultural as well as natural exuberance. For at the end of September, Dartmouth College threw open its arms and welcomed a host of outsiders to help celebrate the start of its two hundred and sixteenth year and the dedication of its latest cultural acquisition, the Hood Museum of Art.

Designed by Charles W. Moore and Chad Floyd of the firm of Centerbrook in Essex, Connecticut, the Hood Museum is named for the Dartmouth alumnus and milk-products magnate Harvey P. Hood, whose benefactions to the college, one was frequently reminded, were both numerous and large. The new museum takes its place at the center of Dartmouth’s campus. It connects Wilson Hall, a late nineteenth-century brick Romanesque building that Moore and his associates have thoroughly renovated as part of the project, and Wallace K. Harrison’s 1962 Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts, a sprawling, unlovely edifice whose facade gruesomely foreshadows Harrison’s Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, which was built a few years later. Together, the three structures constitute a performing and visual-arts complex that is replete with exhibition galleries, theaters, auditoriums, rehearsal and studio spaces, a sculpture courtyard, and a café.

Great fanfare attended the dedication of the Hood Museum. The festivities began on September 23, when the painter Frank Stella, who had been an artist-in-residence at Dartmouth in 1963, returned to receive an honorary degree and to become the first artist in Dartmouth’s history to deliver the address at the college’s convocation ceremony. Stella praised the Hood, but he also spoke frankly to the assembled faculty and students of Dartmouth College about the proper vocation of the university art museum. Its real purpose, he suggested, is not to provide us with an encyclopedia of style or a comprehensive overview of the history of art; it is to initiate us into the wonders of art’s visual richness, to help teach us to see. In this sense, the educational value of the small museum can be said to come primarily “from the quality of its use rather than the quality of its objects.”

I found it difficult to disagree. After all, how many college museums can really compete with the distinguished art museums at Harvard, Yale, or Smith, let alone with the great public museums? And while Stella insisted that “the university must have an art museum,” he warned against the temptation of seeing “the ideal small museum as a reduction of the ideal big museum.” “The prospect of a miniaturized Metropolitan Museum,” he noted, “seems more amusing than desirable.” It remains to be seen whether or not Dartmouth will take Stella’s observations to heart.

Later in the week, luncheons and dinners and receptions—many of them black-tie affairs—not to mention tours and, speeches and sundry other events commemorated the Hood Museum’s opening. Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for The New York Times, spoke to an auditorium full of eager celebrants, and Charles Moore gave a brief talk and slide presentation on the place of historical allusion in contemporary architecture. Following Moore’s talk the Concord String Quartet performed Beethoven’s F minor Quartet, Opus 95. I had to miss the conference on “Art versus Artifact,” though, reflecting upon the heterogeneous collection of art and ethnographic objects that the Hood Museum is charged with preserving and exhibiting in its small compass, I appreciated the pertinent opposition expressed in its title. The celebration concluded with “Dartmouth in Hollywood,” a film that was especially produced for the occasion. I had to miss that, too, but I suspect that the press release describing the film as tracing “interrelationships between Dartmouth and Hollywood since D.W. Griffith’s filming of ‘Way Down East’ on the nearby White River in 1919” already said rather more than one wanted to know.

Now the opening of a new museum designed by Charles Moore and his colleagues is itself a noteworthy event. Moore, along with Robert Venturi, Michael Graves, and Philip Johnson, must be counted among the most prominent senior practitioners of that brand of self-consciously historicizing architecture that, for better or worse, we have come to call “postmodern.” Johnson’s notorious AT&T building, Graves’s Portland Public Service building or his much-discussed design for expanding the Whitney Museum, Venturi’s various “decorated sheds,” or Moore’s own Piazza d’ltalia in New Orleans: all are examples of the genre.

When one reflects upon such concoctions—which stand as admonitory reminders of the crisis in contemporary architecture—one can only be grateful for the restraint that Moore displayed in his design of the Hood. For while the museum is by no means without flaws—a subject to which I shall presently return—it possesses a measure of simplicity and forthrightness that sets it apart from many other postmodernist creations. There are no Corinthian pilasters with shiny metal capitals or wall fountains in the shape of the architect’s head, as there are at Piazza d’Italia; there is no neon and little extravagant use of color; nor is the museum ornamented with Egyptoid or Chippendale elements, other notable signatures of postmodernist fancy. In fact, it is a testimony to the architects’ skill and sensitivity here that the new museum succeeds as well—and as quietly—as it does, especially on a campus dominated by colonial and Georgian architecture. Its copper roof, green cornice, and band of gray brick manage to be distinctive without seeming showy or out of place. Further, the museum, discreetly set back from its neighbors, makes the most of an exceedingly difficult site. Its concrete gateway minimizes the visual chaos that was bound to attend any effort to bridge two such wildly different buildings, and its sturdy brick construction establishes at least some degree of visual coherence in the mélange that faces East Wheelock Street and the Dartmouth Green.

I am not myself terribly impressed with the monumental concrete gate that ushers one into the sculpture courtyard and thence up to the museum entrance; its stark, severely articulated columns seem to me to be too somber for the solid but urbane building they are meant to herald. Furthermore, the gate opens onto the courtyard in a confusing way: I was not the only visitor who had to stop to look around for the front door to the museum after walking through the gate. But it does bring Wilson Hall and the Hopkins Center into a real if somewhat grudging unity, and—what is probably more important in the face of such strong and disparate architectural neighbors—it relieved the architects from the task of having to contrive a public facade for the museum: the Hood huddles quietly behind the gate, showing the street little more than its copper roof and cupola.

The detailing and workmanship of the Hood are of a very high caliber. The influence of Louis Kahn, with whom Moore studied at Princeton University in the late Fifties, is evident throughout, especially in the generous use of oak and bushhammered concrete. Most of the museum’s nine galleries (which together comprise about eleven thousand square feet of exhibition space) are modest and unobtrusive: they are comfortable, well-lighted spaces in which to view art. The Churchill P. Lathrop Gallery on the second floor—in many ways the showpiece of the museum—aspires to something grander and more stately. Its most ingenious feature is a skylight that is partially concealed above a catwalk that runs like a spine across the center of the ceiling; this arrangement allows for controlled natural light and provides a simple and flexible device for hanging lights. In the end, though, this gallery impresses one as being more barnlike than grand; it seems somehow out of scale with the row of smaller galleries that cleverly intersect it on a diagonal. At the same time, it is disrupted by the oversize stairway that opens into it from below along the museum’s east wall.

Cleverness, in fact—a too self-conscious attempt to be “interesting”—is the besetting weakness of the Hood’s design. There are a few too many unexpected perspectives and playful corners, too many allusive details and “brilliant” solutions to architectural problems. The paint scheme in the entrance vestibule, for example, is gratuitously complicated, and the deliberate references to New England brick industrial architecture seem more coy than appropriate. Thus, although the museum as a whole has a dignified yet unpretentious feel to it, there is an underlying current of architectural trickiness and free play that occasionally distracts one from the works of art the building was designed to display. Nevertheless, I do not mean to diminish Messrs. Moore and Floyd’s accomplishment here; by and large, I believe it can be said the Hood Museum is a far more serious and accommodating work of architecture than one had reason to anticipate. It respects but does not ape the buildings that surround it, and it provides an inviting, even elegant, place for the enjoyment of art.

The Hood’s success also owes a great deal to its new director, Jacquelynn Baas, and her curatorial staff, who are to be congratulated for the thought and sensitivity that they brought to the installation of the museum’s inaugural exhibition. Their efforts gave as much scope and coherence to the show as one could expect given the limitations of Dartmouth’s collection. The highlight of that collection, incidentally, is a series of six Assyrian stone reliefs from the ninth century B.C., which the college acquired in the mid-nineteenth century; dramatically hung and lighted in the large first-floor gallery, they have a commanding presence as one enters the main part of the museum.[1]

For the rest, the Hood Museum’s holdings, consisting of a wide variety of ethnographic and anthropological objects as well as art works proper, are fairly undistinguished. There are several works by Stella on loan for the opening show, including the well-known Valparaiso Flesh and Green, painted when the artist was in residence at Dartmouth, and a massive, irridescently painted construction on etched aluminum, Shards III (1983), which measures seventeen feet by fifteen feet and continues Stella’s by now familiar explorations of pictorial space. As far as Dartmouth’s permanent collection goes, there are a handful of notable works scattered here and there, mostly contemporary or near-contemporary. I found Dubuffet’s Topographie au nid du pierres, an oil and collage from the late Fifties, a particularly engaging piece. But there is also the usual conglomeration of second- or third-rate works by artists known and unknown: an anemic Vuillard, a clumsy Vlaminck, an unfocused Pissarro, and so on. Recalling Stella’s admonition, I couldn’t help but wonder whether a good number of the works exhibited had been acquired and displayed more for their names than for their intrinsic aesthetic merits. Thus it was refreshing to discover that Miss Baas, hoping to integrate the museum’s offerings as far as possible with the college’s art-history and studio-art curricula, intended to give priority to refining rather than expanding the museum’s collection.

Throughout the dedication festivities, one was reminded that Dartmouth, no doubt partly because of its isolation, is possessed of a fervent, proprietary affection for alma mater that is rare even among Ivy League institutions. The unclouded praise that the Hood Museum elicited from all quarters reinforced one’s appreciation of that fact. Yet while the Dartmouth “family” is justly proud of its new possession, there is something deeply troubling about the phenomenon of the Hood Museum and the publicity that surrounded its dedication. For the outsider, at least, both raise serious questions about the nature of Dartmouth’s commitment to the educational and cultural tradition it was founded to preserve.

Indeed, the real importance of the dedication of the Hood centers not so much on the virtues or liabilities of the museum itself, but on the significance of the entire event for Dartmouth’s avowed role as a steward of the traditional values and standards of a liberal-arts education. These values and standards, it is worth reminding ourselves, have always insisted upon a firm distinction between art and entertainment, between scholarship and journalism, between the academy and the marketplace—in short, they have insisted upon a firm distinction between high culture and popular culture, and have taken the former as their sole legitimate concern and raison d’être. At Dartmouth, this venerable tradition is neatly epitomized by the college’s motto: vox clamantis in deserto, “a voice crying in the wilderness.” This edifying tag from the gospel of St. Mark underscores Dartmouth’s inherited view of itself as an outpost of culture and a custodian of the values of a traditional, liberal-arts education in an environment largely indifferent to such endeavors.

Unfortunately, the events surrounding the dedication of the Hood Museum force us to question the extent to which Dartmouth’s commitment to these traditional ideals remains intact. Of course the president of the college, David T. McLaughlin, assured us in several speeches of the college’s continuing allegiance to its heritage. But one had to wonder about the nature of that allegiance. Does Dartmouth’s turn to the contemporary art scene for its convocation speaker signify a fulfillment of its traditional educational mandate? Does its turn to the journalistic marketplace for its main lecturer really represent continuity with the cogent standards and values of a liberal-arts education? Haven’t these roles traditionally been reserved for distinguished scholars? Or consider its entry into the trendy precincts of postmodernist architecture for its architect, or the blatant celebration of its relation to the ethos of Hollywood movies: are these consistent with an affirmation of the cultural standards to which Dartmouth considers itself heir?

One had to admire the care, thoroughness, and politesse of the public-relations effort that broadcast news of the dedication and orchestrated the spate of events that boosted it. Nevertheless, one must consider the significance of such polished displays of public relations in light of the traditional vocation of a liberal-arts college tucked away in Hanover, New Hampshire. What does it mean that Dartmouth’s voice crying in the wilderness has become a clarion, a sophisticated dispenser of press releases and publicity photos? Near the beginning of his classic essay on “The History of Art as a Humanistic Discipline,”[2] Erwin Panofsky noted that the humanist not only “respects tradition” but that he “looks upon it as something real and objective which has to be studied and, if necessary, reinstated.” For Panofsky, the visual arts form an integral part of the tradition that the humanist aspires to study and preserve. But what one witnessed at the dedication of the Hood Museum was not at all an affirmation of the arts understood in this traditional, humanistic sense—understood, that is, as the legacy of man’s most deeply and subtly felt encounters with the visible world. Rather, one witnessed a celebration of the prestige of art, of the patina of culture and refinement that mere association with art—especially the “brand-name,” au courant art of an established figure like Frank Stella—can impart to an institution with the requisite financial and social resources.

This emphasis on the prestige of art and the tendency to look outside the rigorous confines of its own traditions was nowhere more dramatically evident than in Dartmouth’s choice of Paul Goldberger as the main speaker for the dedication. Mr. Goldberger does indeed write voluminously about architecture for The New York Times. But his title as “architecture critic” is, alas, something of a misnomer. For among other things, the term “critic” implies the attempt to maintain an attitude of critical independence with respect to one’s subject. In this sense, Mr. Goldberger’s writings on architecture can be said to bear roughly the same relation to architectural criticism as the writings of a political advocate do to political criticism. Their content appears to be determined largely, if not wholly, by an unwavering loyalty to the reputations of a few powerful figures in the world of contemporary architecture.[3] In this context, one thinks particularly of Mr. Goldberger’s tireless efforts on behalf of Philip Johnson. Such efforts have not, of course, gone unnoticed. If Mr. Goldberger has labored hard for a chosen few, these few have in turn been instrumental in establishing his own reputation. Nor is this surprising: what better way for these important figures to assure their continued influence than through the architecture critic for The New York Times? This process achieved a giddy climax of sorts last year when Mr. Goldberger was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “distinguished criticism,” an award that anyone familiar with Mr. Goldberger’s work can only regard as a travesty.

Mr. Goldberger’s lecture for the dedication, aptly entitled “Architecture, History, and Confusion,” was essentially a brief for the postmodernist or (as he preferred to call it) “Romantic modernist” aesthetic, an aesthetic that champions playfulness in architecture and refuses in principle to distinguish between serious art and popular culture. This crucial dimension of Mr. Goldberger’s position was somewhat obscured, however, by his rhetoric. History, he told us, is what is most on architects’ minds today. Rejecting the chilly, demanding geometries of modern architecture—perhaps best epitomized by the work of Mies van der Rohe— contemporary architects are engaged in an attempt to recapture a sense of history, ornament, and tradition, an attempt, as Mr. Goldberger put it, “to evoke, literally or interpretively, the architectural forms of the past.”

Part of this impulse to recoup history, according to Mr. Goldberger, is a new desire for “permanence” and continuity, a desire that expresses itself variously in the historic preservation movement, the historicizing ornamentation of postmodernist architecture, and the resurgence of interest in more lavish, lasting building materials such as granite and marble. The much-touted celebration of “contextualism,” of self-consciously accommodating architecture to the buildings and landscape that surround it, also belongs here. The postmodernist impulse in all its varieties testifies to what for Mr. Goldberger was the main problem with modernism: its failure to create “a sound, workable vernacular,” an everyday style that people really feel comfortable with. Postmodernism attempts to remedy this lack by abandoning the “dogmas” and “formulas” that modernism is said to have been enslaved to, plundering the entire inventory of architectural styles in search of pleasing or playful or dramatic forms. As an example of the kind of thing he had in mind, Mr. Goldberger cited Philip Johnson’s RepublicBank Center in Houston, accurately describing it as the “only Flemish Renaissance skyscraper in history with a Romanesque face.”

There is much that could be said about Mr. Goldberger’s presentation. Here I will limit myself to what is most deceptively seductive in it: the false dichotomy he draws between an anti-traditional modernism and a tradition-loving postmodernism. We all hear talk of modernism’s “rejection of history,” its revolt against tradition, and so forth, all of which was strikingly expressed in the Viennese architect Adolf Loos’s insistence that “ornament is crime.” But what this leaves out is the extent to which modernism has remained passionately involved in the question of what might constitute a legitimate, living tradition in the modern age, a tradition that could affirm the past yet remain faithful to the novel exigencies of a world in which advances in engineering and technology have drastically and ineluctably revamped the process—and the products— of building.

It is of course true that modernist architecture began in part as a reaction against tradition, especially against the tradition of nineteenth-century historicism; but it was primarily because modernism continued to take the question of tradition so seriously that it placed itself in opposition to a tradition that it judged to be spiritually bankrupt. If we must criticize modernism for failing to create a workable vernacular, we must at the same time praise it for having the courage and honesty to face up to the difficulties involved in the task. And the truth is, of course, that postmodernism is no closer to creating a genuine vernacular than was modernism. Nor are its proliferating historical extravagances any more “traditional” than a Miesian glass box; they are simply more arbitrary.

The problem of arbitrariness—which is central, I think, to any serious assessment of the phenomenon of postmodernism— emerged with special clarity in Charles Moore’s talk on “The Future of Memory.” Moore is a gentle, pacific man who wants his architecture to please and contribute to the tranquility of his clients. His main objection to modernism, he said, was that it was too “macho,” too bent on “making statements” and obsessed with originality. He favored a quieter, more relaxed architecture that could freely draw on the past without having to take the past too seriously. Thus he described a large round window that he designed for an Episcopal church in California as “a rose window for high church people who wanted a rose window,” but one with rectangular mullions for low church people who were uncomfortable with ecclesiastical ornamentation. Moore’s description got a laugh, of course, but it is important to recognize the cavalier approach to tradition that his handling of the church window implies. It underscores the truth of Mr. Goldberger’s observation that Moore has done as much as any architect to blur the distinction between high art and popular art. In point of fact, the window in question is neither “a rose window for high church people” nor a plain mullioned window for the more Protestant in the congregation; playing with and alluding to both, it exhibits an arbitrariness and frivolity that excludes it from any genuine tradition.

In the end, perhaps, it is honesty, more than any stylistic device or any social or architectural program, that is the defining mark of the modernist movement in architecture. For what really distinguishes modernism from postmodernism is not that one is more “historical” or “traditional” than the other, but that modernism is possessed of a moral seriousness that postmodernism deliberately, gleefully abandons. It is precisely this rejection of seriousness—which means also a rejection of honesty—that endows postmodernism with its playful character and allows it to treat tradition as a more or less neutral storehouse full of stylistic tricks. With this in mind, one can appreciate the appropriateness of the term “Romantic modernism” (or “neo-romanticism,” which also enjoys a certain vogue) as a favored synonym for “postmodernism.” For the architecture it describes is indeed Romantic, at least in the sense that Nietzsche meant when he criticized Wagner as decadently Romantic, as an actor who trafficked in “poses” and “histrionics.” “What he wants is effect and nothing but effect,” Nietzsche complained, noting that “What is meant to have the effect of truth must not be true.” Postmodernism, too, is addicted to “poses,” to “histrionics,” to “effect,” which helps explain why so many of its creations have a strong element of kitsch or Camp about them.

The postmodernists would have us view modernism as simply one architectural movement among others, a movement that has had its day and is now on the wane. But in its deepest sense, modernism is not a movement but a moral achievement, an achievement that has become an ingredient in any art that aspires to be more than mere entertainment. And while the phenomenon is hardly confined to Dartmouth, what in the end was so dispiriting about the events surrounding the dedication of the Hood Museum was the spectacle of even this distinguished enclave of the liberal-arts tradition being party to an impulse so inimical to the values it was founded to preserve and nurture. The lonely voice crying in the wilderness, alas, has learned to speak in the glittery, insubstantial strains of cultural chic.

 

  1. Dartmouth’s most famous artwork is undoubtedly The Epic of American Civilization (1932-1934), a powerful if somewhat melodramatic cycle of frescoes by the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco, who was brought to the college in 1932 by the Department of Art. These frescoes reside not at the Hood but across campus on the walls of the reserve reading room at Baker Library. Go back to the text.
  2. Reprinted in Meaning in the Visual Arts; Doubleday, 1955, pp. 3-4. Go back to the text.
  3. Actually, “unwavering” is not quite accurate, either, as Mr. Goldberger’s volte-face on Michael Graves’s proposed design for expanding the Whitney Museum of Art demonstrates. When the design was made public, late last spring, Mr. Goldberger delivered himself of breathless praise for the scheme. By the end of the summer, however, Mr. Graves’s design had aroused sufficient public animosity that the project was clearly in danger. This Mr. Goldberger must have discerned, for at the end of August we were presented with another article on the subject. Now Mr. Goldberger criticized Mr. Graves’s proposal, blithely maintaining—with no explanation for his change of heart—more or less the opposite of what he had asserted in the spring. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 3, on page 45
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