The announcement last month that Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1977, planned to retire at the end of 2008 was not unexpected. But it was nevertheless a sad event. For Mr. de Montebello, now 71, is not only the museum’s longest-serving director, he is also one of the most distinguished museum directors anywhere. Some of Mr. de Montebello’s accomplishment can be measured in brick and mortar. During his tenure, the exhibition space has nearly doubled in size (without altering the footprint!). His latest triumph is the new 57,000-square-foot Greek and Roman Galleries which opened last April to universal acclamation. Many museum directors have a well-developed “edifice complex.” They seem to believe that expanding their institution’s footprint is the same thing as improving it.

Mr. de Montebello never made that mistake. Most of the Met’s new galleries are splendid. But Mr. de Montebello’s lasting legacy is something more intangible: his unwavering commitment to artistic excellence. “I believe in good, better, best,” he said in an interview in the September 2006 New Criterion, “and I believe the museum’s role is precisely to help people make those distinctions. You know, the term ‘masterpiece’ for a time was actually politically incorrect?” In an age when museums have more and more become politically correct purveyors of one or another form of aesthetic pathology, Mr. de Montebello has courageously resisted the blandishments of the socially enfranchised pseudo-avant-garde that, for decades, has populated the established art world with one repellent fad after the next.

Not only did Mr. de Montebello keep the Met on the high road of artistic excellence, he also spoke out effectively at critical moments when the tsunami of artistic garbage threatened to overwhelm us. We think, for example, of his 1999 op-ed in The New York Times about “Sensation,” the pathetic congeries of off-the-rack outrage that became a momentary cause célèbre among the art ladies of both sexes when Rudy Giuliani denounced it as “outrageous,” and full of “sick stuff,” and threatened to stop city funding of the Brooklyn Museum where this carefully calculated exercise in naughtiness occurred. (Remember: pictures of the Virgin Mary festooned with cutouts from pornographic magazines and some clumps of elephant dung, pubescent female mannequins studded with erect penises, vaginas, and anuses, fused together in various postures of sexual coupling, etc., etc.)

Mr. de Montebello had some appropriately tart things to say about the objects on view in “Sensation,” but, as he noted, the really disturbing thing about the exhibition was that people were “so cowed by the art establishment or so frightened at being labeled philistines that they dare not speak out and express their dislike for works that they find either repulsive or unaesthetic or both.” Exactly right. But it almost goes without saying that Mr. de Montebello was pilloried by the art establishment for throwing his lot in with the philistines and daring to criticize “Sensation.” What other major director would have had the wit and the pluck to exhibit such independence of mind? We can think of none.

What does the future hold for the Met? It is difficult to be sanguine. Naturally, a “search committee” has been organized, but what plausible candidates are there? One person rumored to be on the short list is Gary Tinterow, a longtime curator at the Met, and a talented one, too. But in recent years Mr. Tinterow has gone out of his way to demonstrate how tractable he is, how willing to compromise aesthetic excellence for the sake of appealing to whatever trashy “genius” the art market happens to favor this season. As James Panero noted on our weblog “Armavirumque,” Tinterow’s enthusiasm for and acquisition, on long-term loan, of one of Damien Hirst’s dead-fish-in-a-tank-of-formaldehyde pranks does not bode well for the Met should Tinterow step into the director’s shoes. All in all, alas, the prospects that have been whispered about so far are pretty discouraging. How disquieting it must be for Mr. de Montebello, who has spent more than thirty years holding the line and upholding high standards. Like Louis XV, he has reason to mutter “apres moi, le déluge.”

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 26 Number 6, on page 1
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