The shop seemed to be full of all manner of curious things—but the oddest part of it all was that, whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty, though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There
Few corporate ventures in the arts have garnered more public notice than the Equitable Life Assurance Society’s recent investment in art and architecture for its new corporate headquarters in New York. It was only to be expected, of course, that a project bringing together so many stellar figures from the arts—Edward Larrabee Barnes, Roy Lichtenstein, Sol LeWitt, Thomas Hart Benton, and Scott Burton, among many others— would attract considerable attention. If you invest in celebrated names, their currency and built-in publicity value is part of what you pay for. And the folks at the Equitable made no pretense of doing anything else when they set out to create—as one of their publications put it—an “unprecedented” blend of “outstanding contemporary fine art and upscale commerce.”
It seems that hardly anything “upscale” can proceed without poaching a bit on the prestige of art these days, and it helps to bear this in mind when attempting to understand the Equitable’s conspicuous entry into the art world. Naturally, the company’s two-hundred-million-dollar building must be seen first of all as a major real-estate investment. And though one hears the word “art” intoned repeatedly at the Equitable, what echoes throughout its halls and lobbies, throughout its art-laden executive dining rooms and exclusive restaurants, is not art but money. Art at the Equitable is at bottom a kind of decoration, a fringe benefit, an “extra” fitted to the structure in the hope of commanding higher prices.
This crucial fact was set forth with admirable clarity by Benjamin D. Holloway, chairman and chief executive officer of the recently formed Equitable Real Estate Group, Inc., a twenty-two-billion-dollar division of the Equitable. In an article that appeared last October in Art & Auction, Mr. Holloway—who is widely regarded as the entrepreneurial genius behind the Equitable’s coupling of art and real estate—assured us that he would like to think that the Equitable’s art program was undertaken “foremost for love of art”; at the same time, though, he candidly noted that its investment in art was also “a way of attracting the kind of tenant we want, at the rental prices we are asking.” In this sense, the Equitable’s arts program must be considered primarily a part of what Mr. Holloway described elsewhere as the company’s search for “new, varied and exciting ways to beautify the bottom line.” The situation was perfectly summed up by the subtitle to the article in Art & Auction: “Art, the handmaiden to real estate.”
Once the place of real-estate investment in the Equitable’s venture is acknowledged, its relation to art comes into sharper focus. Since attracting affluent tenants was the chief objective, there was never any doubt that the art to be used as bait would have to be drawn from the ranks of celebrated and fashionable artistic reputations. And in this regard, one can only commend the Equitable on the instinct that led it to enlist the curatorial advice and even the physical presence of the Whitney Museum of American Art for its new headquarters. (Mr. Holloway, incidentally, was recently named to the board of the Whitney.) For if one wishes to traffic in the artistically au courant without being distracted by questions of aesthetic substance, one can hardly do better than to entrust oneself to the taste and judgment of the Whitney.
And it must also be acknowledged that, though the Equitable is new to the world of corporate art patronage, it has acquitted itself handsomely of at least one traditional office of the patron: it has disposed of dazzling sums of money in the most expeditious manner possible. Having once embarked on its arts program, it quickly acquired dozens of paintings and drawings —including some very good ones—by artists of the stature of Milton Avery, William Bailey, Marsden Hartley, Alex Katz, and Fairfield Porter for display in its executive dining rooms. It provided commissions to Sandro Chia for a four-part mural for the bar of a new restaurant in the complex, and to Brad Davis for three large paintings for its main company dining room. Amidst a barrage of publicity, the Equitable also commissioned several works for its public spaces, including a sixty-eight by thirty-two-foot mural from the Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, sculpture from the British artist Barry Flanagan, large-scale “wall drawings” from the Minimalist sculptor Sol LeWitt, and specially designed furnishings and decorations from the furniture designer and “sculptor” Scott Burton. Additional publicity attended its single largest expenditure for art: the purchase of Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today, a ten-panel mural sequence that the regionalist painter undertook for The New School for Social Research in the early Thirties. The Equitable acquired the Benton murals from the New York art dealer Christophe Janet for nearly three and a half million dollars, plus cleaning and restoration costs. In a matter of months, the insurance company spent some seven and a half million dollars to adorn its public halls, lobbies, courtyards, restaurants, and its executive dining rooms with works of art.
Nor did the Equitable’s adventures with art stop there. It also provided the Whitney with two galleries on the ground floor of its new tower, and agreed to underwrite the museum’s installation and operating expenses for these exhibition facilities. Flanking the new building’s monumental entrance lobby on Seventh Avenue, the two three-thousand-square-foot galleries constitute the largest of the Whitney’s four “branch museums.” The south gallery is scheduled to mount five or six exhibitions a year, drawn largely from outside collections, while the north gallery will be used for long-term exhibitions of items from the Whitney’s permanent collection.
It is worth noting that until recently the Equitable has not been known for taking a keen interest in the arts. But with the construction of its new headquarters, the nation’s third largest life insurance company, managing assets of some seventy-seven billion dollars, instantly established itself as a prominent force in the world of corporate patronage. Building a new headquarters afforded the perfect opportunity to refurbish its corporate image. Looking, no doubt, to Mobil’s experience with Masterpiece Theater, to Exxon’s and Philip Morris’s sponsorship of various “blockbuster” art exhibitions, to IBM’s success with the discreet art gallery in the basement of its New York headquarters, the Equitable shrewdly concluded that there is no surer way to broadcast an image of beneficent high-mindedness and chic taste than to involve itself conspicuously in the arts.
Equitable officials like to stress that their contribution to the public weal is not confined to the particular works of art they have assembled. Comparing their new headquarters to Rockefeller Center, they point to the lavish arrangement of public spaces and amenities that the construction of the new building has made possible. The tower itself is a fifty-four-story, three-tiered structure of polished brownish-pink granite, glass, and limestone, featuring gigantic “Romanesque” arches at its base and crown. It is linked by an eight-hundred-foot corridor and galleria to the old Equitable building at 1285 Sixth Avenue, which was renovated as part of the project. Though still owned by the Equitable, the 1960 aluminum and glass tower, designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, has been rechristened The PaineWebber Building in recognition of the brokerage firm’s tenancy there.
Together, the block-long melange is known as the Equitable Center and Arts Complex: “one square block of art,” as an Equitable publication proudly proclaims. Standing on Seventh Avenue between Fifty-first and Fifty-second Streets in midtown Manhattan, the Equitable Center comprises over three million square feet of office space, museum and corporate art galleries, specially commissioned sculpture, murals, and other art installations, retail stores, urban plazas, and two restaurants (a third is planned). A private health club and a five-hundred-seat theater are under construction. Whatever else it may be, the Equitable Center, as a company press release cheerfully claimed, is certainly “one of the largest corporate art complexes ever developed.”
Yet if there is no doubt about the scale of the Equitable’s ambitious undertaking, what is very much at issue is the aesthetic substance of the endeavor. The Equitable has attempted to provide us with a landmark curiosity that, like Rockefeller Center, succeeds as a public attraction and as a real-estate development. And it may readily be granted that, as one reviewer observed, “the artists involved in the commissions couldn’t be happier.” But what, if anything, does this collection of incidental amenities and fashionable artistic reputations have to do with the life of art? This is the question that returns again and again when one contemplates the Equitable Center, and to answer it we must look more carefully at this effort to produce what has been described as “a monumental artistic environment.”
The first thing to be reckoned with in the Equitable’s scheme is the architecture. It probably came as a surprise to others, as it did to me, that the architect for the new Equitable building was Edward Larrabee Barnes. Mr. Barnes is a distinguished urban architect who has shown himself capable of designing buildings of considerable grace and integrity. Indeed, his best buildings in New York—the IBM headquarters on Madison Avenue at Fifty-seventh Street and the newly completed office tower at 599 Lexington Avenue, directly across from the Citicorp Center—are excellent examples of contemporary skyscraper design. Both are straightforward and elegant productions, rigorous without being austere. Above all, they completely eschew the historicizing, postmodernist frippery that has bewitched so much recent architecture.
Not all of Mr. Barnes’s New York buildings are of this caliber, however. His recently completed office building at Madison Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street, for example, impresses one mostly as a cruder, clumsier version of the building at 599 Lexington Avenue. And Mr. Barnes’s Asia Society building on Park Avenue at Seventieth Street is now generally acknowledged to be a failure. But the imperfections of these buildings pale into insignificance when set beside the new Equitable tower. For here Mr. Barnes seems to have abandoned any attempt at a cogent architectural design. Instead, he has contrived to produce one of the most pretentious and ungainly new buildings in New York. The proportioning of the building is both stodgy and enervated. The large, clunky base waddles out toward Seventh Avenue, while the tower rises in weary shrugs to its cookie-cutter top. Mr. Barnes’s abundant use of granite and Iimestone panels on the facade was no doubt intended to lend the building an air of gracious solidity. The effect, however, is quite the opposite: the entire skin of the building seems cheap, temporary, replaceable, as if a new, more fashionable façade might be stuck on at a moment’s notice.
Similarly, the hypertrophied arches at base and crown were obviously intended to create an impression of monumental grandeur, but they seem more like movie-set novelties. Inside, the huge, boxy atrium— five stories of anonymous emptiness—feels like nothing so much as an abandoned railway station. Even considered for what it is, an essay in postmodernism, the building is lackluster and without vitality—diffident in the midst of its ineffectual blustering. And given the record of Mr. Barnes’s accomplishments, one cannot help wondering whether he was working against his better instincts here, and whether the Equitable building is at least partially the result of his acquiescence in the client’s desire for chic, grandiose gestures and eye-catching effects.
In this context, it is worth questioning the extent to which the Equitable Center can legitimately be compared to Rockefeller Center. Clearly, the spokesmen at the Equitable are eager to establish the comparison. The notion that the Equitable Center is the successor to Rockefeller Center runs like a leitmotif through the Equitable’s literature on itself and—like so much about the venture—seems to have been taken over unscrutinized by the press. No connection is too tenuous to put forward. Hence: the Equitable recently acquired Paul Manship’s 1938 bronze sculpture Day; Rockefeller Center has Manship’s Prometheus on prominent display; ergo, Manship’s sculpture is (as a New York Times article put it) “one of the links between the building and Rockefeller Center.” The logic is totemistic: by acquiring the property of an ancestor, or even simply something that reminds one of him, one somehow also acquires his reality and strength.
The argument is specious, of course. But the Equitable’s acquisition of Manship’s sculpture does illustrate a signal principle at work throughout its venture into the arts: the blind attachment to current reputations. For it happens that Manship, whose popularity waned after his success in the Thirties, is now enjoying a considerable renaissance, riding on the same crest of sentiment that is carrying regionalist artists like Thomas Hart Benton to their current prominence. The fact that Manship’s sculpture is decidedly second-rate is apparently of no concern at all. What matters is his popularity, his name in the art world; that alone makes him an attractive property to the Equitable. And if he can be used to suggest some deeper continuity with Rockefeller Center, so much the better.
The Equitable has asserted its kinship with Rockefeller Center in other ways as well. Sometimes it is said that the Equitable Center is an “extension” of Rockefeller Center because the two communicate via an underground corridor. Alternatively, it is suggested that the Equitable Center, stocked with commissioned art and public amenities, is to the Eighties what Rockefeller Center was to the Thirties. But neither version of their kinship will wash. The Equitable Center is no more a real “extension” of Rockefeller Center than the Bronx is an extension of the Battery, although both are “linked” by tunnel. Nor can it be said that the Equitable Center is an updated version of Rockefeller Center, even if it has in some sense been inspired by it. Rockefeller Center was a pioneering triumph of urban design, an unprecedented and sensitively executed network of buildings, shops, plazas, and public attractions that transformed an entire neighborhood. Lacking any original vision, the Equitable Center is less a successor than a parody of Rockefeller Center.
Indeed, the notion of parody may be the real key to understanding the Equitable Center. What we see throughout the Equitable is a kind of parody of conventional “good taste,” an exaggerated, overblown conventionality that spoofs even as it imitates traditional forms of bourgeois elegance. This is nowhere more evident than in the contribution made by Kohn, Pedersen, Fox, Conway in designing the Equitable’s, offices, hallways, executive dining rooms, and boardroom. This firm of architects and interior designers has quickly achieved a prominent reputation over the last four or five years by producing postmodernist interiors that have all the schmaltzy, theatrical feel of opulent stage sets. They went all out for the Equitable, and the result is spaces festooned with the pseudo-classical mouldings, larger-than-life woodwork, and other decorative appointments in which the firm specializes. One gathers that the effect was meant to be stately. It manages instead to seem merely expensive—custom-made carpets whose diamond pattern is said to derive from Palladio, etc. The result is a style perhaps best described as Hollywood Biedermeier. But it’s really a hybrid of anomalous styles, an almost antiseptic exercise in architectural sentimentality—a concoction that is now the stock-in-trade of Kohn, Pedersen, Fox, Conway.
The ne plus ultra of this sensibility is the boardroom on the fiftieth floor of the tower. Or perhaps one should say the fiftieth floor and then some. Through its fifty-three-foot arch window, the oversized room commands a stunning view west over the Hudson River. A gigantic circular table—an apparently seamless, exquisitely crafted mahogany doughnut—sits on a plush, intensely green carpet. An impressive array of audiovisual controls are secreted against the wall in a large wood-and-glass booth that seems at first like an old-fashioned trophy case. The room is a study in bureaucratic bombast, possibly the one instance of American interior design that might have caused some embarrassment to Albert Speer. It would be almost funny, except that such a shameless appeal to power cannot but seem a little sinister; one could hardly imagine a more perfect setting for a contemporary Star Chamber. As one observer remarked, the absurdly grandiose circular table, focused unrelentingly on the inescapable green circle inside, gives a whole new significance to the idea of being “called on the carpet.”
Directly across from the boardroom is the company’s main dining room, which boasts a second large arch window facing east. Brad Davis’s Triptych, a series of three eminently forgettable Neo-Expressionist landscapes, is hastened into oblivion by the distracting activity of the room and the light flooding in from the huge arch window. Down on the forty-ninth floor there are a dozen or so executive dining rooms. (These are available for lunch by appointment to anyone on the Equitable executive staff, as well as to certain outside groups. Tours of the art are also available to the public by special appointment.) Got up by Kohn, Pedersen, et alia, in the best inflated haut bourgeois taste, each is named for the artist whose work is displayed in the room: Lee Krasner, Marsden Hartley, Alice Neel, and others.
Now, there are some very fine art works in what one is tempted to call the Equitable’s “dinner collection”; there is a wonderful seascape by Milton Avery, for example, an accomplished still life by Hartley, and some extremely droll portraits by Guy Pene du Bois. The Equitable’s collection also includes excellent paintings by Fairfield Porter—his Interior and The Forsythia Hedge come immediately to mind. And there is no reason to doubt that the artworks here and throughout the Equitable’s collection are as scrupulously tended and cared for as the Equitable spokesmen claim. But, distributed like bric-a-brac throughout these dining rooms and hallways, the paintings have no more aesthetic presence than wallpaper. The arrangement has achieved the visual equivalent of Muzak—often high-quality Muzak, it is true (what Equitable officials refer to proudly as “museum quality work”), but Muzak all the same: deliberately innocuous background “noise” meant to distract one from the concentration and receptiveness that any real aesthetic experience requires. The point is that the paintings are meant to be decoration; they are meant to be glimpsed —not seen, really—for an hour or two a day at most by a handful of busy executives who come to the dining rooms to conduct their business.
In effect, the paintings and drawings in the Equitable’s executive dining rooms are being held hostage. It is practically impossible for the viewer to wrest them from the merely decorative function they have been assigned, and one leaves convinced that it is only when they travel to other exhibitions that the Equitable’s artworks will have the chance to be seen and experienced. This is in fact true of the art throughout the building, but it is especially the case in the dining rooms, where the art tends to be superior in quality to the “public” art downstairs, and where the conference-room atmosphere in the dining rooms is so obviously inimical to the contemplation of art.
To speak of environments inimical to the contemplation of art brings one naturally to consider the place of the Whitney Museum of American Art at the Equitable Center. It is one of the many ironies of this whole endeavor that the Equitable and the Whitney were brought together by Mr. Barnes. Mr. Barnes, one recalls, is on record as opposing Michael Graves’s proposed addition to the main branch of the Whitney Museum. For many—including, one had supposed, Mr. Barnes himself—the Whitney’s embrace of Mr. Graves’s proposal to transform Marcel Breuer’s somber modernist building into a postmodernist birthday cake caused immense dismay. Perhaps more than any of the museum’s recent activities—more even than its artistically vacuous biennial exhibitions of contemporary art—this proposal precipitated a crisis of confidence in the Whitney’s artistic aims. Yet in 1983, when plans for the Equitable’s public art were taking shape, Mr. Barnes suggested that the Whitney be involved in the project, and one can only assume that he has continued to support its participation at the Equitable Center ever since.
What are we to make of Mr. Barnes’s endorsement of the Whitney as, in effect, the guiding aesthetic spirit for the Equitable Center? He has picturesquely described their relationship as “symbiotic"—which is fair enough, I suppose, though a kind of reciprocal parasitism might describe the union more accurately. What the Whitney gets, quite simply, is financial assistance and more space to exhibit its art. What the Equitable gets is the prestige of American art without the nuisance of having to bother about aesthetic quality: the Whitney is only too happy to certify the prestige of the artists it shows and the artists it recommends to the Equitable, and prestige, of course—reputations whose stock at the moment is high in the art world—is precisely what the Equitable is after.
Between the Whitney’s twin galleries and the not-for-profit artsy boutiques immediately adjacent to the galleries the difference is not large—either in tone or, for the most part, in the aesthetic quality of the objects displayed. Certainly, the public brings about as much aesthetic attention to the Whitney’s galleries as it brings to the “Scriptorium” or the “Treasury"—as the boutiques are pretentiously called—where one can search for a greeting card or a Mary Cassatt appointment book or an “authentic” reproduction of some folk-art necklace. Indeed, perhaps the chief difference between the boutiques and the museum galleries is that in one the items on display are for sale while in the other one is sold only the proverbial bill of goods.
Nor is the Whitney’s role at the Equitable confined to the galleries. In addition to establishing the largest of its branches in the new building, the Whitney has also provided the Equitable with expert advice on some of its public commissions. Not surprisingly, its exercise of “expertise” for the Equitable has consisted not in making aesthetic discriminations but in ratifying artistic reputations. It is to the Whitney’s “expertise,” for example, that we owe the choice of Roy Lichtenstein and Scott Burton as the artists to decorate the atrium.
When Mr. Lichtenstein began to paint his sixty-eight-foot-tall Mural with Blue Brushstroke last November, an Equitable press release quoted John Carter, president and chief executive officer of the Equitable, expressing his pride in having “one of America’s foremost artists”—he meant Mr. Lichtenstein—“paint a truly epic work for permanent display in our headquarters building.” Mr. Lichtenstein then thanked the Equitable for “providing me the opportunity to create a work on such a grand scale.” Much has been made of the size of the works of public art at the Equitable, especially of Mr. Lichtenstein’s mural; as every notice of the work has pointed out, it is “the artist’s largest work"; perhaps, as The New York Times suggested, it is even “one of the nation’s largest works of public art.” If size is a virtue, it is the only one that we can unhesitatingly attribute to Mural with Blue Brushstroke.
Even so, Mural with Blue Brushstroke, as large as it is, cannot effectively compete with the Equitable’s cavernous atrium. Whether because of the aggressively inhospitable space or because of its own lack of aesthetic force, the work impresses one less as a painting than as a species of garish holiday bunting. Billed also as “a compendium of the artist’s signature images and a grand summation of his career,” it is in fact little more than an enormous, brightly colored cartoon. And in truth, Mr. Lichtenstein’s works have always had the aura of clever camp about them, engaging one’s interest not for their artistic accomplishment but for their brashness, their punning play on what are essentially media images. In the end, he is less an artist than a pictorial gagster who has raided comic books and the gestures of modern art for his jokes. To call this Mural an “epic work” only compounds an already grotesque joke.
While Scott Burton’s contributions to the Equitable are less spectacular in scale than Mr. Lichtenstein’s, their aesthetic quality is equally dim. Atrium Furnishment, Mr. Burton’s major contribution here, consists of a large, semi-circular green marble settee, a circular marble table with a variety of aquatic plants set in a basin in the center of the table, and, across from the settee, a bank of some dozen tropical conifers. Mr. Burton also designed triangular planters and granite tables and seats for two outdoor plazas. In an article on his work that appeared in The New York Times, Mr. Burton is quoted as saying: “I don’t feel the need to establish it as art, as much as I feel the need to establish it as furniture”—a sentiment that one must applaud, really, because while none of Mr. Burton’s work at the Equitable is either very good or very bad when considered as plaza furniture or as decoration, it simply does not exist as art.
The inhospitableness of the Equitable’s atrium does much to belie the claim that its new headquarters provide New York with an attractive and truly public gathering place. Unlike the atrium at Mr. Barnes’s IBM building, say, the Equitable’s atrium is a thoroughly unamiable space. People do not congregate, do not linger, do not come to talk and relax there as they do at the IBM atrium. Nor could they. Mr. Burton’s uncomfortable Atrium Furnishment, exposed in the very center of the gaping atrium, is the only place to sit in the entire space. And one cannot help pointing out that Mr. Burton could learn something about the decorative use of trees and the practical use of furniture as furniture from IBM’s less fussy, more hospitable amenity. It turns out that the Equitable has copied Rockefeller Center in what is perhaps its least appealing respect; neither really provides the public with a place for civilized loitering indoors, despite publicity to the contrary.
While Messrs. Lichtenstein and Burton’s contributions to the Equitable can be taken as a perfect illustration of the kind of “expertise” one has come to expect from the Whitney these days, the Equitable has shown itself eminently capable of exercising its own brand of “expertise.” Consider its most publicized acquisition: Thomas Hart Benton’s America Today mural cycle. There has been a great deal of flummery written about these murals since their purchase and display by the Equitable. Finally, though, they remain what they always have been: a sentimentalized, somewhat crudely executed panorama of American life circa 1930. Ironically, some of the most insightful comments about them came from Benton himself. After the Equitable purchased the murals, it sponsored the publication of a glossy monograph, replete with full-color photographs, on the work. In an epigraph to the booklet, dated 1931, Benton remarks of America Today: “I don’t know whether it’s art or not and I don’t care. What I wanted to show was the energy and rush and confusion of American Life.” Later, in 1968, he summed up his attitude toward the work with the observation that “If it’s not art, it’s at least history.” Both comments are perfectly true, as far as they go, yet one can’t help pointing out that nearly three and a half million dollars is a poor bargain for a bit of pre-packaged Americana.
The fact is, of course, that the overwhelming majority of people passing through the Equitable have no specialized knowledge of or particular interest in art: they are people who work in the building, tourists, passers-by. One needs to spend only a few minutes sitting in the atrium to be convinced that many, perhaps most, of those who come to look at the art are as taken with the artsy paraphernalia they find in the atrium boutiques as they are with anything in the Whitney galleries or on the atrium walls. In this they may be showing astute judgment. Nevertheless, the thought that works like those of Messrs. Lichtenstein and Burton are held up to the public as examples of great art is a travesty. None of the art commissioned by the Equitable is of the first or even the second rank. Here again the press has been the Equitable’s willing accomplice, helping to man the bellows that keeps these reputations afloat. In The New York Times, for example, we are assured that “Every one of the large-scale commissions in the new building—by Scott Burton, Sandro Chia, Sol LeWitt and Roy Lichtenstein—is ambitious and worthy of serious attention.”
The thing to appreciate about the entire arts program at the Equitable is that it is concerned first and foremost with the prestige of art, not with its aesthetic substance. The Whitney’s imprimatur practically guarantees this, and the Equitable is not having it any other way. Messrs. Lichtenstein, LeWitt, Burton, Benton, and the others were clearly chosen because of the place they currently occupy in the professional art establishment. Ten years ago, when American regionalist painting was out of fashion in the art world, the Equitable would not have touched paintings by Thomas Hart Benton. Now, of course, things have changed. The winds of fashion have shifted in Benton’s direction.
This attention to fashion is crucial for the Equitable, because fashionableness constitutes its sole touchstone of aesthetic value. Think of the confusion that would ensue in an art world so awash with names and reputations if one were charged with choosing artists not on the basis of their current “market value” but on the basis of their aesthetic worth! The problem is, of course, that these reputations will change; they will soon fade and be replaced by other, equally ephemeral, equally insubstantial, reputations. And then, one may safely wager, the trustees of the Equitable’s art program will in their wisdom find themselves compelled to replace the works of art they have so enthusiastically touted. It must be some consolation to know that they can always unload their “outmoded” works on the Whitney. Newer, more recognizable, more au courant names will be offered to the public until these, too, fail to provide the expected return in prestige and are replaced in turn.
The whole idea of an “expected return” brings us back to the real purpose of the Equitable Center: real-estate development. As a real-estate venture, the Equitable’s new building must be considered something of a risk. It intrudes upon a dilapidated section of town whose sidewalks are still not free from the sordid influences of Times Square a few blocks south. Rents for premium office space in modern buildings in the area are reportedly hovering around thirty dollars per square foot. But the Equitable is counting on its panoply of art and other amenities to fetch the forty or fifty dollars per square foot or more it is asking in the new building. A headline in the real estate section of The New York Times summed it up with cool accuracy: “Equitable Seeking Park Avenue Rents On Seventh Avenue.”
Equitable spokesmen tend to grow uncomfortable when it is suggested that their arts program was undertaken primarily for commercial or promotional purposes. And rarely since Mr. Holloway’s statements in that article in Art & Auction have they put their position quite so baldly. Having contrived to supply the neighborhood with so much “upscale” commerce and art, they seem bemused that anyone should begrudge them the monetary fruits of their efforts. There is certainly nothing wrong with real-estate development. And as far as improving the neighborhood goes, it will be readily admitted at least that real-estate values in the area are likely to rise. But what about the experience of art? The truth is that art is merely the means to an end at the Equitable. And one should be under no illusion that its “commitment” to art would survive if in the future other means proved better adapted to the goal of “beautifying the bottom line.” At the moment, the Equitable’s investment in art is probably a good gamble. The vicarious experience of art is in great demand and seems to be able to boost all manner of enterprises.
Still, for anyone concerned with the life of art, the Equitable Center cannot be anything but a melancholy and bewildering spectacle—melancholy because of the blatantly cynical uses to which art is put, bewildering because nothing at the Equitable is what it appears to be. We are presented with an arts center that is not really an arts center, masterpieces that are not masterpieces, architecture that is based on a phony appropriation of historical forms. As an experience of art, the whole thing is unreal, and leaves one with an impression not unlike that described by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass. Like Alice, one finds oneself in the midst of a crowded curiosity shop that, on closer inspection, turns out to be as empty and insubstantial as a dream.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 3, on page 24
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