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December 8, 2000; 7:35am EST     WELCOME Sign On

Memo to Art Museums: Don't Give Up on Art


WHAT do art museums want? The question is a recurring one, raised at different times for different reasons. But lately it has acquired a particular urgency because the answer, it increasingly seems, is that they want to be anything but art museums.

A poster for Pink Pop Cosmetics from the Shiseido Corporate Museum collection. (New York University Grey Art Gallery)
Just look around. The lineup of fall shows suggests that museum professionals, driven by the desire to be financially secure, wildly popular or socially relevant, opt for one of two alternatives: exhibitions that look like upscale stores, or exhibitions that look like historical society displays.

This may well be the museum quandary of the oughties: how to live with outrageous success and maintain an identity as a museum; how to preserve and possibly improve the experience of art as art for ever larger and more diverse audiences; how to benefit from cutting-edge academic theory without reducing the centrality of what the art critic Dave Hickey calls "the visible arts." In short, how to avoid mounting exhibitions that are terminally afflicted by what looks like a certifiable fear of art.

Today's museums are under attack from art-theory ideology on one side and commerce on the other. In their exhibition programs, at least, they often behave less and less like museums   —   that is, places where the goal is the visual, largely private experience of art objects. More and more they are in danger of becoming places where larger social and historical patterns are either consciously or unconsciously played out, where people of all ages are given cursory lessons in history and morality, or where consumer desire is stoked by merchandise orchestrated into artful displays that may or may not be sponsored by the maker of that merchandise.

This fall has brought the spectacle of a major New York museum acting like the world's longest store window. That would be the Guggenheim, with its overproduced, undercurated "Armani" exhibition spiraling down the ramp. Although the show was sponsored by In Style magazine, it coincides with a reported $15 million donation   —   read rental fee   —   from Mr. Armani, a gift that the museum claims is completely unrelated.

Similar if smaller in scale was the sorry sight of a small respected university museum suddenly turning itself out like a commodity showroom. That was "Face to Face: Shiseido and the Manufacture of Beauty," on view in September and October at New York University's Grey Art Gallery and Study Center. This exhibition-as-department-store-makeup counter was sponsored by Shiseido, the Japanese cosmetics giant, and contained material drawn entirely from the company's archives, including ad campaigns and its meager art collection.

At the other, equally dubious, extreme is the exhibition as historical society. These shows don't replace art with desirable design commodities, as the Armani show does; they treat it instead as an artifact, just another manifestation of "visual culture"   —   and sometimes a corrupt, suspect one at that. In this approach, all objects are created equal, all present equally significant amounts of history, none should be "privileged" above the others.

The major example in this category is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's museumwide millennial celebration, "Made in California: Art, Image and Identity, 1900-2000," an ambitious, elaborately researched and presented undertaking that mixes paintings, sculpture, photographs, film, video and newsreel, ceramics, clothing and furniture with rock concert posters, protest broadsheets, travel brochures, orange-crate labels, racist pamphlets, newspaper clippings and much, much else. The show, on view through Feb. 25, reduces much of the art within its borders to illustration, often reprimanding it for ignoring oppressive labor practices or the destruction of the natural environment.

Equally problematic, if less overtly politicized, is the Metropolitan Museum's "Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861," a discordant array of painting, sculpture, photographs, furniture, documents, clothing, ceramics and glass. The show, which is uncharacteristic for the Met, reflects plenty of material success but is short on genuinely significant objects or artworks.

And, not surprisingly, in a time as rampant with hybridization as ours, there are also exhibitions that fuse the two extremes. The prominent model here is the Brooklyn Museum of Art's "Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage," an exhibition that veers between product showroom and up-to-the-moment historical society, with little in the way of art in between. Similar events loom on the horizon. In May, the Met will open "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years   —   Selections from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum." The show is being organized by the museum's Costume Institute but will occupy the large Iris and Gerald B. Cantor galleries on the museum's second floor. And the Brooklyn Museum will devote an exhibition to "Star Wars" sometime in 2002.

These shows make one wonder whether this season might be remembered as a turning point for the art world, when an important, largely destructive shift in the nature of the art exhibition and the curator's craft reached full flower.

They represent the failure, for one reason or another, simply to let art be art, to honor its specialness and mysteries and allow it to work its effect. One gets the feeling that for many people in charge of museums and exhibitions these days, art is not enough. Its powers of communication are not to be trusted. Putting outstanding examples of it on view without either extensive commentary or high-concept production values can no longer be justified. That is the message of the "Made in California" exhibition. If a fetishized substitute can be found, and presented with theatrical grandiosity, so much the better, as demonstrated by "Armani." Since a majority of Americans don't like art, the logic seems to run, it must be the museum's job to give them something else.

The extremes to which museum exhibitions are being pulled and the disdain for art that infuses those shows become apparent by comparing the hefty catalogs for "Armani" and "Made in California." "Armani," the book, includes some 20 essays and appreciations by various critics, curators and journalists discussing topics like Armani and gender, Armani and architecture, film, textiles and so on. Large-type testimonials by 19 celebrity clients, including Annette Bening, John Travolta, Lee Radziwill and Pat Riley, imply a new twist on an old philistine quip: I don't know much about art, but I know what I like to wear. Photographs record Mr. Armani's various homes and offices, Emporio Armani billboards in Milan and the features, up close, of beautiful models. A sense of Aryan perfection pervades. Most plentiful are images that suggest fashion magazine spreads and ad campaigns, decorously stripped of distracting type.

The Armani catalog's egomania and sense of luxurious privilege contrasts strikingly with the "Made in California" catalog's rudimentary Marxism and often overt hostility to art and the people who make it. Although the exhibition includes work by hundreds of artists, as well as architects and designers, the catalog treats them as ciphers in history, providing no biographical material beyond date of birth. It also portrays those who don't make socially conscientious art mostly as dupes, pawns or co-conspirators in collusion with the state's agribusiness, tourist industry and the other "boosters" who are the true villains of California history.

In the introduction, Stephanie Barron, the County Museum's vice president of education and public programs and senior curator of modern and contemporary art, who presided over a committee of the museum's curators and outside historians in organizing the show, makes this astounding statement: "In general, questions of cultural or historical relevance took precedence over issues of aesthetic innovation." The exhibition relentlessly bears her out.

For justification, Ms. Barron quotes a recent study of museum audiences claiming that "new and returning visitors" are attracted by "compelling stories and opportunities that manage to engage all the senses." Such findings, even if they are true, may thrill the installation artists among us, but so what? Put a painting next to a video monitor showing just about anything, and the video monitor will win most of the time. For stories we can go to the movies; for sensory inundation, we've got Times Square, Las Vegas and the Epcot Center. Museums need to be alternatives to all that.

Ms. Barron also writes, "By exposing the museum-going audience to exhibitions that present art in relation to its social, political and historical context, the public will grow to value artworks as more than timeless, transcendent or universal objects of beauty that speak for themselves." What she doesn't say is that rather than contextualize things in a way that might allow the objects to speak for themselves, or the viewers to think for themselves, "Made in California" favors labels that provide explicit, heavily biased interpretations, often putting words in the artworks' mouths and then judging them accordingly.

It is hard to decide which catalog presents a more frightening, if hilarious, set of symptoms.

It didn't have to be this way. To some extent, these shows indicate that in the age-old debate between the formalists and the contextualists, and between the guardians of high culture and the champions of pop culture, the latest round is being won by the proponents of context and pop. But perhaps an either-or viewpoint no longer applies.

Despite the disastrous nature of these shows, the ideas behind them are not intrinsically bad (the exception is the Grey Art Gallery Shiseido show, which seems to have been beyond hope at conception). "Hip-Hop," "Made in California" and "Armani" were fatally compromised less by concept than by execution. With a little more curatorial will, imagination or faith in art, each could have been a lot better, or at least managed to edge into the realm of museologial credibility. It's up to the curators.

The "Hip-Hop" show could have been much improved had it not pandered so clearly and narrowly to those who are already fans of the music. It could have done much more in terms of fashion and art   —   both graffiti art and other work done in the south Bronx in the 1980's. It could have made more extensive use of the often innovative music videos that helped disseminate hip-hop worldwide, a shortcoming underscored recently by a weeklong showing of Beastie Boys' music videos at Gavin Brown's gallery in Chelsea. Such corrections could have made the show more appropriate to a serious museum setting, more appealing to a broader audience and actually more representative of the hip-hop achievement.

MADE in California" exemplifies the one-sided view that elaborating an object's context or dismantling the so-called canon requires the suspension of notions of quality. There are a great number of wonderful, even "innovative" things to be ferreted out in this exhibition   —   some of them by artists history has overlooked. Such is the achievement of California art in this century. But enjoying the show requires largely ignoring the haranguing, implicitly dictatorial labels and text panels, which, overall, suggest that only art that precisely reflects social realities deserves our respect. I would also recommend skipping the exhibition's final section (1980-2000), where the sense of the curators' need to right a century's worth of social wrongs and aesthetic biases (against craft, for example), results in a one-of-everything display that looks like a really, really bad Whitney Biennial, circa 1976.

The show's premise that California culture is distinguished from the rest of the country's by its natural landscape and the fertile combination of Latino and Asian influences seems perfectly credible, although the state's role as a font of popular culture may deserve equal billing. (The show is an inadvertent argument for the regional nature of all art.) But fulfilling these premises would have meant relieving art of its social responsibilities and looking at it on its own merits, in terms of its innovations and (gasp!) greatness.

The notion of alternative standards of quality might have led the curators to include   —   in addition to big names like Richard Diebenkorn   —   innovators like R. Crumb, an obvious omission, or for that matter the dozens of female cartoonists of the underground comics that Mr. Crumb did so much to establish. Less obviously, they might also have included the work of Martin Ramirez (1885-1960), a Mexican laborer who spent half his adult life in a northern California mental hospital, creating some of America's greatest folk art, or of Rosie Lee Tompkins, an African-American quiltmaker from Oakland whose efforts, seen in a recent solo show at the Berkeley Art Museum, rank head and shoulders above the examples of textile art in "Made in California," and in fact demolish the category. In other words, this exhibition could have presented a viable alternative history of California art that offered serious competition to the more familiar "canonical" succession of names and isms.

As for "Armani," the designer's $15 million gift wouldn't seem half as sleazy if the show were better. There are other instances in which the taint of self-interested sponsorship has been superseded by the quality of the shows, including the Met's Cartier and Fabergé shows   —   brought to you by Cartier and Fabergé   —   and the Guggenheim's own "Motorcycle" show, sponsored by Harley-Davidson, which I expected to hate and instead loved.

WHILE some people may want to see these exhibitions, as well as the Boston Museum of Art's "Guitar" exhibition, as signs of the downward spiral under discussion here, they belong to a tradition of design exhibitions that, in this century, dates back to the Museum of Modern Art's design shows of the 1930's.

The Cartier, Fabergé and motorcycle shows maintained a sense of curatorial professionalism. The pathetically egomaniacal overkill of both the "Armani" catalog and exhibition suggests that Mr. Armani had much too much to do with both. The show is excessively full, installed according to theme or color rather than chronology and top-heavy with recent designs, including two final galleries crowded with pathetic attempts at punkish deconstruction, from his spring 2000 collection. Nearly 250 of the 450 ensembles date from 1995, another 160 from 1990 to 1994. If Mr. Armani is so desperate to be seen as an artist, he should have allowed himself to be treated as one. That would have meant taking a back seat to the curators who, one hopes, would have selected a smaller show, included earlier designs and his work for other labels, and emphasized his development with a chronological installation. As it is, once you've looked at all the bead work, the show reduces to an exceptional Robert Wilson installation.

I'm not sure that Mr. Armani's development merits a museum exhibition, especially a museumwide one. He seems to be less an innovator than a brilliant tailor. But the Guggenheim should have made a far better case for his achievement, in part to put the best possible face on accepting his money.

Art is long; museum exhibitions, luckily, are relatively short, subject to various intellectual fads and staging trends, which is why they are such interesting symptoms. We're not talking about actions so grave as the deaccessioning of artworks. Yet something essential is being sold off, an institutional integrity, if you will. Under threat from the blindness encouraged by commercial imperatives and intellectual zealousness is the existence of museums as museums, as essentially different from the rest of society, as nutritionally necessary sites for experiencing the profound and crucial "otherness" that is art, that makes the "visible arts" important and unique.

At a recent weekend symposium on the role of the curator in contemporary culture, organized by the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, Dave Hickey made the interesting point that "the discourse of art is about conflict of interest."

It's a great idea, metaphorically, and it seems applicable to the museum experience on all levels, macro to micro, institutional and social to personal and psychological. Museums are places where all sorts of interests are in continual conflict and negotiation: those of the different artworks, styles and aesthetic viewpoints on display; those of art and artists versus society; those of the different branches of the museum's staff; those of the conscious versus the subconscious. Any work of art worth looking at provokes conflicting interests within the individual viewer. Learning to listen to them and sort them out is one of the joys of looking at art.

But I think Mr. Hickey's original meaning hewed more closely to the traditional definition of the term: in museums, monetary and aesthetic interests   —   the power of money and the value of art   —   are constantly and repeatedly pitted against each other. Within their walls, we cannot help but see that a great deal of money has been spent so that we can look at things that are beyond price, yet things that also affirm, strange as it may sound, that some of the best things in life really are free.

Until recently this conflict has tended to be resolved in favor of art, regardless of how much we all complain about museum architecture, about the encroaching gift shops or growing crowds. But as the exhibitions discussed here suggest, it is entirely possible for art to lose the contest, at least temporarily, if it is not put first   —   before sponsors, before attendance figures, before historical narratives   —   and if the curator's mysterious, creative work is reduced to the level of the art historian, the social historian or the store-window designer.

Museums abandon art at their peril. We needn't worry about their lending their vaunted imprimaturs to dubious forms of visual and material culture or inferior artworks. Any museum that does so often enough will lose that imprimatur. A few more shows like "Armani" and it won't matter how many architectural masterpieces the Guggenheim can afford to build; they will just be rentable exhibition halls. Buildings don't make museums; art and only art does. It is art, speaking unequivocally for itself, that creates a museum's imprimatur in the first place. The debt of museums to art and artists down through time cannot be overestimated, can never be repaid; it is an obligation that can only be respected, abided by and learned from.

And as we are once again being reminded, it can also be profoundly betrayed.

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