It’s cheap. It’s fast. It offers great shopping, tempting food and a place to hang out. And visitors can even enjoy the art.
—“Glory Days for the Art Museum,”The New York Times, October 5, 1997

Since 1970, the number of art museums in the United States is said to have increased by more than 50 percent. There’s hardly a self-respecting town or hamlet that feels complete these days without some sort of museum or “arts center.” At the same time, established institutions have embarked on an extraordinary building frenzy. Is there any major museum that has not lately added, or at least has plans to add, a wing, pavilion, suite of new galleries, performance space, or sculpture court into which is decanted the mandatory restaurant, gift shop, retail outlet, gourmet coffee emporium, and interactive video learning center with a high-speed connection to the Internet? Under Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim Museum has gone even further. The word “Director” had hardly dried on Mr. Krens’s door before he put his policy of museological Manifest Destiny into action. There’s the boxy new building towering over the museum’s original Frank Lloyd Wright structure on upper Fifth Avenue, of course, as well as the renovated loft spaces downtown at Prince Street and Broadway known as the Guggenheim Museum SoHo. Then there are the various colonial outposts of the Guggenheim, including, most recently, the one-hundred-million-dollar titanium-clad folly by Frank Gehry in Bilbao, Spain.

I had occasion to think of Mr. Krens and his empire—or “galaxy,” to use the term he seems to favor—when I attended a two-day symposium on “Reimagining Museums for New Art” at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, one weekend at the end of September. As was wholly appropriate, the slick spirit of Thomas Krens was very much palpable in that picturesque, well-heeled corner of the Berkshires throughout the festivities. After all, Mr. Krens had come to the Guggenheim from the Williams College Museum of Art, just a short walk from the Clark Art Institute.

It was while he was at Williams that Mr. Krens developed his distinctive, and widely imitated, approach to directing museums, an approach that combines entrepreneurial savvy with inveterate trendiness. It was then, too, that Mr. Krens hatched—or brooded over, anyway—the idea of converting a huge abandoned factory complex in the neighboring blue-collar town of North Adams into the world’s biggest museum of contemporary art. When he got to the Guggenheim, the idea of collaborating with the planned Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, as the project was called, occupied a prominent place on his busy agenda. The state of Massachusetts committed thirty-five million dollars to the project. For his part, Mr. Krens sold off a Kandinsky, a Chagall, and a Modigliani from the Guggenheim’s “permanent” collection in order to buy works—or, in some cases, plans for works—by Donald Judd and other Minimalists with which to decorate the facility.

By the early 1990s, Mass MOCA seemed as illusory as the so-called “Massachusetts Miracle” over which Michael Dukakis had presided as governor of the state. But it turns out that Mass MOCA wasn’t dead: it was merely lying in wait. As Joseph Thompson, the new director, explained in his opening address at the Clark, enough money has so far been raised to renovate two hundred thousand square feet—about a third—of the old factory complex. Following collaborative designs by Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi, and the venerable firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, this portion of Mass MOCA is scheduled to open in a little more than a year with a vast array of galleries, restaurants, performance spaces, and numerous tony commercial clients.

Mr. Thompson, a museum director very much in the mold of Thomas Krens, was irrepressibly cheerful and enthusiastic. Mass MOCA, he promised, would revitalize the economically ravaged town of North Adams not merely with its myriad new businesses but also by luring the many tourists who visit Tanglewood and other cultural attractions in the Berkshires to North Adams to experience the wonders of postmodern art in Mass MOCA’s acres of galleries.

I believe that a large dollop of skepticism is in order. In the first place, it is extremely doubtful that many of the tourists who journey to the Berkshires for the beauty of its scenery and the pop-classical music programming of Tanglewood are going to be much interested in the Minimalist art of Donald Judd or cutting-edge video pieces by David Byrne.

But even more dubious than such pragmatic considerations is the idea of the museum presupposed by Mr. Thompson’s sales pitch. Like many museum directors these days, Mr. Thompson wants two very different sorts of things. He speaks at one moment like a chamber of commerce cheerleader, dispensing visions of benign gentrification and urban amenity. But what is meant to bring about this yuppie paradise is the kind of “transgressive,” often politically charged art that disdains the bourgeois values that the museum is presumed to be nurturing. The result is an exercise in cynical hucksterism. “Art” is the talisman before which the public is meant to bow down and open its pocketbook. But the vast majority of the art in question is as repugnant to the public as the public—though not, of course, the public’s money—is to the “artists” responsible for such art.

As the subsequent presentations at the Clark symposium made clear (if any further clarity on the subject were required), one thing conspicuously missing from the new museology is any concern with aesthetic value. Art was a commercial resource to be marketed and exploited as aggressively as possible; it was also a megaphone for various socio-political sentiments; art as an aesthetic phenomenon either did not come into the discussion at all or—on the few occasions when it it did slip in—was promptly castigated as unacceptably elitist.

The roster of speakers at the Clark included European and American museum administrators, a sort of performance artist called Rirkrit Tiravanija, a businessman, and an academic. It would be bootless to say much about most of the presentations. For anyone familiar with the sociology of the contemporary art world, it was simply business as usual: commercial acuity laced with political animus. Michael Dorf, who founded a nightclub and popular Internet web page called the Knitting Factory, was easily the most articulate and amusing speaker. But it was by no means clear that what he had to say about making money from the Internet had anything to do with art. Mr. Tiravanija recited a manifesto by Claes Oldenberg while playing rock music and flashing slides depicting his “work,” e.g., pictures of people making a meal and eating it in a museum. Among other enlightening things, he told the audience that he did not see why an institution that was supposed to serve the public should ever be closed.

Mr. Tiravanija belongs to that large and growing body of artists and critics who are bent on breaking down the distinction between art and life. Thus he exhibits a replica of his apartment, invites people into it, and calls it art. (It was not surprising that Mr. Tiravanija should later advise the audience to “forget the object.”) Similarly, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, an academic at New York University with the marvelous title of professor of performance studies, announced in the course of her paean to the making of a gigantic quilt commemorating victims of AIDS that “simply everybody is an artist; one doesn’t have to be a professional.” The only distinction between art and life such artists and critics are sure to maintain is the one determining who gets paid for declaring that there is no difference between art and life.

Easily the most noxious presentation was by Declan McGonagle, director of the newly created Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. Mr. McGonagle is an academic radical straight out of central casting. Like some of his brethren in the IRA, his favorite words seem to be “negotiation” and “renegotiation,” by which he seems to mean “capitulation.” The museum as traditionally conceived, Mr. McGonagle told us, was the product of nasty things like “industrial capitalism” and a “privileged, white, Western European” view of the world and of art. Like banks and nation states, he said, the traditional museum was obsessed with “fixing value.” “Fixing value” was something Mr. McGonagle was very much against—at least unless it was he who got to do the fixing. “Exclusion in support of excellence,” he told us, “is simply not an option in Ireland, or anywhere else.” He did not say what he thought about exclusion in the name of political orthodoxy. Mr. McGonagle generously allowed that the antiquated, politically incorrect image of the museum he excoriated should not simply be denied. Instead, it should be brought to “the table for renegotiation at the end of the twentieth century.” Adamantly opposed to the “hierarchical narrative” put forward by museums as traditionally conceived, he looked forward to a new kind of museum that would collaborate in the “construction” of a new “narrative,” challenging tradition and undertaking a “fundamental renegotiation of cultural and political identity.”

As an example of the kind of “negotiation” he had in mind, Mr. McGonagle described a project he supported that consisted of billboards emblazoned with legends like “Execute God,” “Blast God,” and “Kill God.” In part, he said, this was an effort “to see if it was possible to make religious art at the end of the twentieth-century.” With evident glee, he described the reaction of “fundamentalist Catholic” organizations who attacked the project, vandalized the billboards, and “accused us of blasphemy”—a comment that elicited titters from an audience far too sophisticated to believe in anything like blasphemy. Mr. McGonagle professed to be surprised by the Catholic reaction. “We didn’t seek the controversy,” he said—an observation that, since Mr. McGonagle is not a stupid man, I have to put down to simple bad faith.

Most of what one heard at “Reimagining Museums for New Art” was the usual postmodern boilerplate. Nevertheless, the event was unusually dispiriting, partly, I suspect, because it was held at the Clark Art Institute, a handsome small museum in a handsome setting that, until fifteen minutes ago, was content to preserve and exhibit its collection and assist serious art historical scholarship. But the Clark has clearly decided that being a serious museum is not enough; it must also be “with it”: which means, in part, sponsoring symposia where the traditional role of the museum is “interrogated” by academic art administrators whose chief interest in art is as a money-producing form of political theater.

It is a very odd situation. On the one hand, museums everywhere seem determined to transform themselves into an extension of the entertainment and recreation industry. On the other hand, behind the coffee bars, video arcades, and Matisse T-shirts, more and more museums are committing themselves to a radical revisionist program that would have us view all art through the lens of political activism. The result is what we might called cappuccino radicalism.

A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran an article on the front page of its Sunday Arts & Leisure section called “Glory Days for the Art Museum” by Judith H. Dobrzynski. Ms. Dobrzynski informed readers that “It looks as if the 90’s are the age of the art museum in the United States, perhaps even the golden age.” Although she contrasted the contemporary “glory days” with the “dark ages” of yesteryear when museums encouraged “contemplation” and existed “primarily for elite visitors,” Ms. Dobrzynski did acknowledge that “the age of museums is not to be confused with the age of art or the age of art appreciation. Much museumgoing is not about art at all. It’s simply social… . It’s entertainment, not enlightenment or inspiration.”

Indeed. The problem, as seen by Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one of the few sensible voices heard in the museum world today, is that what gets lost in this orgy of marketing and entertainment is the experience of art. “The trouble,” Mr. de Montebello observed, “is that works of art, for the most part, are not fun. In fact, they can be difficult, challenging, even provocative, and they don’t yield their message in the blink of an eye—which is what is expected of people looking to have fun. Seriousness, uplift, knowledge and, naturally, pleasure are what art museums are meant to provide.” Of course, Mr. McGonagle & Co. would be quick to agree that works of art can— indeed, should—be “difficult, challenging, even provocative.” But the challenge they want art to deliver is fundamentally a political not an aesthetic challenge. And as for aesthetic pleasure … well, that depends entirely on the sort of discriminating excellence that Mr. McGonagle and his fellow radicals insist should be dispensed with. “As each day passes,” Mr. McGonagle said in the course of his talk, “it becomes clearer and clearer that we are at the end of something.” If he is right—and I fear that he may be— what we are at the end of is the museum as an institution dedicated to the defense of the values of civilization.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 3, on page 77
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