The decision by the Metropolitan Museum, around the time Thomas P. Campbell replaced the long-serving Philippe de Montebello as director, to embrace contemporary art “all in,” raised the question of what the museum could contribute to the conversation that was new in a city with three other major museums—not to mention countless other outlets—already deeply involved in collecting and displaying contemporary art. In various public statements, museum staffers made clear that the Met would leverage its extraordinary encyclopedic holdings of past art to provide a deepening context in which to understand the art of the present. This sounded promising—no artwork is an island, so to speak—and led one to expect that in exhibitions and installations, present and past would be seen more or less on equal terms, each one illuminating the other even as their unique qualities were still allowed to shine, much in the manner of displays at such institutions as the Phillips Collection in Washington and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Or the Getty at the moment, where a first-century A.D. obelisk has been placed at the center of the circular entrance hall of Richard Meier’s building to announce its new show, “Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World,” setting up a powerfully resonant dialogue between ancient and modern.

Campbell duly hired Sheena Wagstaff, the chief curator of Tate Modern and a graduate of the Whitney Independent Study Program, to head the newly renamed department of Modern and Contemporary Art, and two years ago the Met formally rolled out this new initiative with the mega-exhibition, “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible” in the Whitney Museum’s former Marcel Breuer–designed headquarters on Madison Avenue, which the Met had leased for eight years. The show combined Old Master, modern, and contemporary works to explore the idea of non-finito throughout the history of art.

Wagstaff seems determined to march in lockstep with other curators.

It was hard from that to get a clear fix on how Wagstaff conceived her mission, since the show was so confused on so many levels. This was partly the result of Wagstaff having had to take over the project after the departure of the original curator for a job at another institution. With her latest high-concept effort, “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body (1300–Now),” however, we are left in no doubt at all. And it is not a pretty picture.1 Far from setting the Met apart from other institutions in her approach to contemporary art, Wagstaff seems determined to march in lockstep with them, for the exhibition bears all the familiar hallmarks of contemporary art shows everywhere: a trendy progressive political agenda; self-consciously “edgy” and “transgressive” inclusions; and a militant indifference to distinctions of high and low art. Early on in the press preview, someone I ran into asked me, “Why do I feel like I’m in a Whitney Biennial?” My first reaction was to think that this was the last comment the Met would want made about their show. But the deeper I delved, first in the show and later in the catalogue, the clearer it became that Wagstaff and her team would likely regard that question as the highest form of praise. This is not good news for the Met.

Working with Wagstaff to organize “Like Life” was Luke Syson, the head of the Met’s department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts; his research associate Elyse Nelson; Brinda Kumar, an assistant curator of Contemporary Art at the Met, and Emerson Bowyer, a curator of European Painting and Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. To explore the ways in which “artists have sought to replicate the literal, living presence of the human body,” they have assembled some 120 works spanning seven hundred years from a variety of public and private collections here and abroad. To say the show casts a wide net barely describes it. Among the things we see are sculptures by Donatello, Canova, Gérome, Klinger, Rodin, Degas, Magritte, and Hans Bellmer; a fourteenth-century Italian reliquary bust; German religious sculpture from the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries, and Spanish from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries; an eighteenth-century wax bust of a monk, hair, beard, cowl, and all; and chryselephantine busts from nineteenth-century France. Contemporary artists include John Ahearn, Duane Hanson, Jeff Koons, Yayoi Kusama, Ron Mueck, Charles Ray, George Segal, Kiki Smith, Yinka Shonibare, and Isa Genzken.

In keeping with the spirit of postmodernism that animates the entire enterprise, there’s also a good deal of non-art here, too: medical specimens; articulated mannequins and various automata, including, borrowed from Madame Tussaud’s, a reclining figure of Sleeping Beauty whose chest rises and falls as if she’s actually breathing. This probably shouldn’t surprise us given the overall drive of this effort, summed up by Syson at the conclusion of his essay, which is to get us to “move past the tyranny of good taste.”

Installation view, “Like Life” at the Met Breuer. Photo: the Metropolitan Museum of Art

At the core of “Like Life” there’s an interesting idea: the dominance of the Greco-Roman tradition, and the unpainted marble and bronze figurative sculpture that grew out of it and exists at something of a remove from daily life, has blinded us to a kind of parallel tradition of pigmented sculpture, made for a multitude of different reasons and purposes, but all of it intended to elicit a more vivid sensation of human presence than that in marble and bronze. Indeed, we get a clear glimpse of the promise a show like this holds in the juxtaposition of two busts by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one in marble, the other in painted wax, of the same subject: Louise Adele Gould. After her death, her widowed husband commissioned the marble. But finding that too cold and remote and wishing for some more lifelike evocation of her presence, he asked the artist to redo it in wax. The material’s softness, translucence, and coloring, along with the painted hair and clothing, create a kind of Pygmalion effect. It’s a fascinating display, one that illuminates a heretofore obscured aspect of an artist, an art form, and a corner of art history. Unfortunately, by the time we reach it, about a quarter of the way through the show, it’s been game over for quite a while.

By the time we reach Saint-Gaudens it’s been game over for quite a while.

The trouble starts immediately, when in the opening wall text to the exhibition we read that “the sculptures on view embody dramatically shifting attitudes, some profoundly disturbing, toward gender, race, class, sexuality, and religion,” and nearby, in the wall text introducing “The Presumption of White,” the first section of the show, a reference to “the long period of Western imperialism.”

But it is in the catalogue that Wagstaff really goes to town. At the outset she explains, reasonably enough, that beginning in the Renaissance, “the glorification of freestanding white classical marble statuary . . . [w]as the epitome of fine art sculpture.” Then a few paragraphs down we read that:

Unsurprisingly, non-Western sculpture . . . was rarely considered fine art until the twentieth century, and then in often problematic ways. Color could thus be construed as ideological, folded into racially motivated justifications for colonization, while the elevation of whiteness perpetuated through Western aesthetics and civilization above all others reached its apogee in the mid-nineteenth century, when European countries were at the height of their colonial power.

And so, in one easy step she goes from certifiable fact to sweeping, unsubstantiated denunciation of the Western canon as racist and colonialist, a proposition that becomes the foundation of her curatorial agenda. It is one of the many easy elisions one finds throughout the catalogue, where facts and logical argumentation take a back seat to the scoring of ideological points.

Politics, in the form of a faux-populism, runs through Syson’s essay, too. Polychrome sculpture has been “judged too easy and too popular to be good art, high art, or even art at all,” he writes, citing Duane Hanson as an example of an artist dismissed by unnamed “establishment art critics” because his art was deemed “ ‘too literal,’ a pejorative term.” This would have come as news to the late Kirk Varnedoe, who in 1985 published a monograph on Hanson. At the time, he was on the faculty of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and a few years later was appointed to succeed William Rubin as Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. One could hardly ask for a more “establishment” endorsement than that.

Politics isn’t the only problem with “Like Life.” One notable feature of “Unfinished” was the freewheeling approach to definitions, categories, and the terms of the discussion, which reached a hilarious low when one of the curators, writing in the catalogue, declared, “Whereas a few [works] are literally incomplete, the vast majority were, in fact, brought to a satisfactory state of completion—yet they still count as unfinished.” The same problem turns up here. Marc Quinn’s Self (1991) is a self-portrait bust fashioned out of several pints of his own blood, frozen and displayed in a refrigerated case. The wall label attempts to cast it as an updated version of the nearby Renaissance reliquary bust. It’s nothing of the kind, but rather a textbook example of the postmodern aesthetics of “abjection” wherein the artist highlights what is off-putting, gross, or repulsive, particularly as it relates to the human body.

Installation view, “Like Life” at the Met Breuer. Photo: the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In fact there’s a good deal of abjection in “Like Life,” as if the curators’ aim was as much to shock, disconcert, and repel—gratuitously— as it was to illuminate a byway of sculptural history. Thus, in addition to Quinn’s work, we have possibly the most gruesome “Flagellation” ever made, from Germany in the seventeenth century; Paul McCarthy’s recumbent self-portrait, naked below the waist; Maurizio Catellan’s sculpture of the assassinated John F. Kennedy in an open coffin; nearly a half-dozen works depicting internal human organs in a way that leaves nothing to the imagination; and black-and-white film footage of the disfigured faces of World War I servicemen. No wonder the show puts people in mind of a Whitney Biennial. (Tellingly absent, however, are Allen Jones’s lifelike sculptures of scantily-clad women in S & M attire posed to function as pieces of domestic furniture. Clearly, in the #MeToo era, certain forms of transgressiveness remain too hot to handle.)

The deeper problem in “Like Life”—because of what it says both about how Wagstaff sees the Met’s contemporary art mission and about her stewardship of pre-modern art in relation to contemporary—is what you might call the great leveling that takes place. Rather than being able to speak with their own voices, works from disparate periods are stripped of their individual identities by being juxtaposed in a spurious equivalence. This is vividly in evidence in the display of Jeff Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) next to a Judgment of Paris figure group from the Meissen porcelain manufactory in eighteenth-century Germany. The placement gives the Koons, a piece of upmarket kitsch, a kind of Old Master pedigree while transforming the Meissen group, a work of the highest intellectual, technical, and aesthetic refinement, into a camp emblem. Only minds indifferent to the deeper meanings of works of art could consider such a display a respectable curatorial proposition. And it is far from the only such example.

We must now write off the Met as a reliable guide to contemporary art.

It’s impossible to overstate what a watershed this exhibition represents for the Met. Aside from rare episodes like Tom Hoving’s “Harlem on My Mind” show in the 1960s, the museum has always kept politics out of its programming and ensured that aesthetic values are paramount. That it has now joined with the others in regarding art, to paraphrase Clausewitz, as politics by other means, should give pause to all who care about art and the Met. Will we now be hearing about the “whiteness” of Picasso and Braque in the Lauder gift? Will those masterpieces of Cubism be disfigured by allying them with contemporary objects with which they couldn’t have less in common in order to advance the curatorial agenda du jour?

Much as it pains me to say it, the only conclusion to be drawn from “Like Life” is that we must now write off the Met as a reliable guide to contemporary art and its relationship to that which preceded it. Unless, that is, Quincy Houghton, recently hired from the Getty to serve as Deputy Director for Exhibitions, is prepared to demand an end to political tubthumping and insist on a level of intellectual rigor befitting a museum of the Met’s stature. This seems unlikely to happen, however, given the Met’s choice of a new director. The day after his appointment was announced last month, Max Hollein, currently the head of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and a protégé of Thomas Krens, telegraphed his support for mixing art and politics when he told The New York Times that “Museums these days are one of the few areas where you can have a complex cultural discussion in a non-polemical way.” So, we must look to the National Gallery, where, in both special exhibitions and collection installations, Harry Cooper, the museum’s curator and head of the department of modern art, has over the last ten years set the standard for showing the art of our time alongside that of the past.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 9, on page 36
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