The death last month of Thomas Hoving, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967–1977, brings us back to that tumultuous period in the history of our greatest museum and, indeed, in the life of American culture generally. Mr. Hoving was one of those figures whose incandescence depended absolutely on the limelight of the stage he occupied. Without the platform of the Met, Mr. Hoving’s star quickly set. Long before his death at seventy-eight, he had receded from the narrative to the bibliography of his time. His editorship of Connoisseur magazine (1981–1991) was memorable chiefly for risible radio ads in which (for example) he would make the case for baked Alaska. His memoir Making the Mummies Dance (1993) is a score-settling exercise in self-congratulation, painful to read.

Yet as director of the Met, he was—or at least he seemed at the time to be—a cultural colossus. His sense of showmanship (a word that is inevitable in discussions of his activity) and grandiosity fueled his tenure at the Met with something new in the hitherto staid world of museums. It was the glittering, though brittle, spectacle of celebrity. Tom Hoving did not coin the word “blockbuster,” but the term is indelibly linked with his stewardship of the Met, and for good reason. It was he who first firmly insinuated the word (and the accompanying suite of cultural and social expectations) into the lofty precincts of the museum.

It seems so long ago now. But it is worth recalling the atmosphere of calm seriousness that once surrounded the word “museum.” Until recently, a museum, as the word implies, was a house of the muses. It was a monument whose relevance was calculated by the extent of its compact with the past. A museum was a Janus-faced enterprise. It stood in the present to preserve the past for the sake of the future. Hence its nimbus of other- or, at least, un-worldliness. A museum, especially a museum like the Met, was at once a refuge, an oasis, a treasury.

It is not quite right to say that Tom Hoving changed that. Rather, he incarnated the Zeitgeist that, by the late 1960s, had already set about changing so much in our culture, including the museum and, beyond that, the larger world of art. Michael Kimmelman, writing in The New York Times, described Mr. Hoving as a “populist.” This is true. But Mr. Kimmelman betrays his deep filiation with the Hoving spirit when he goes on to observe that

Mr. Hoving also believed that art museums were public repositories of wonderment, and in a sense his most revolutionary idea was that everybody should be able to see what he thought was great art, as he saw it.

I don’t mean simply that people should all have equal access to great pictures. I mean he wanted people to feel that same outsize thrill he felt standing in front of a picture, that same connoisseur’s rush that comes from knowing that something is terrific.

“Public repositories of wonderment.” “Outsize thrill.” “Rush.” “Terrific.” Mr. Kimmelman unwittingly touches upon one of the knottiest aspects of Mr. Hoving’s legacy. For such terms belong, or once belonged, more to the lexicon of the amusement park or fun house than to high art. Mr. Hoving helped to erase that difference, to obliterate that boundary. It is significant that “flash” and “fun” were among his favorite terms of commendation—aesthetic commendation.

In 1976, shortly after Mr. Hoving’s departure from the Met was announced, Hilton Kramer wrote about the “Hoving Era” for The New York Times. It used to be, Mr. Kramer noted, that people would visit a museum such as the Met in order to absent themselves, if but momentarily, from the “ballyhoo culture” of everyday life. It was part of what the Hoving Era wrought to have obliterated or at least sharply attenuated that distinction. “The paradox of the art museum today,” Mr. Kramer wrote,

is that it has felt itself obliged to adopt some of the methods—which invariably means, some of the values—of this ballyhoo culture in order to preserve and propagate what in reality exists at a very great spiritual distance from it. It is a paradox that has both its tragic and its comic aspects, and it is worth remembering … that we see in all this the essential paradox of democratic culture, with its struggle to sustain excellence and accessibility on more or less equal terms.

There is no doubt that Thomas Hoving did a great deal to transform the Met. He organized some marvelous shows, acquired some great works of art, and vastly expanded the physical plant of the institution. He saw himself less as a curator than an impresario of culture. Hence his habit of deaccessioning works of art in order to pay for something new.

So much about the current museum world bears the stamp of Tom Hoving’s instigations. The lights are brighter, the crowds larger, the museum stores far more numerous and bustling. Above all, Mr. Hoving helped to change the tenor of the Met. He helped, as Mr. Kramer put it, to create a “large blur—a huge question mark in the mind—where there formerly existed a clearly perceived distinction [between] high art … and vulgar imitations and commercial substitutes.” In this, the Met in the Hoving Era occupied a lugubrious vanguard. King Tut. Scythian gold. Crowds and blockbusters galore. It “led the way in erasing a precious distinction … between the authentic and the inauthentic in art.” Although Mr. Hoving’s successor, Philippe de Montebello, conspicously managed to restore a large measure of dignity to the museum, the Pandora’s box with which Mr. Hoving conjured will never be closed.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 5, on page 1
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