If you think of art museums, you probably imagine them as places filled with beautiful things, hosting so-called blockbuster exhibitions, and throwing glitzy, sometimes cheesy parties.
They are all that, but they are much more. These beautiful things are our collective cultural heritage, symbolizing who we are and where we come from. They are also transmitters of cultural values. If you’ve been appalled by the destruction of cultural heritage by Russian invaders in Ukraine, by similar depredations by the Taliban and Islamic State, or by the eco-radicals who stuck to paintings in European museums this summer, chances are you will understand the beauty and significance of what has been threatened or lost has been shaped by a visit to an art museum.
These exhibitions are engines of scholarship, opportunities to deepen our knowledge of a particular subject. They are the primary means by which the public learns about art history. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that art museums have played a role in the intellectual and cultural life of the nation on a par with that of colleges and universities.
Like higher education, art museums face a crisis of purpose. They are now widely seen as shameful relics of the era of Western colonialism, whose proper social role is to advance a progressive agenda. The doctrine of art for art’s sake, the idea that aesthetic values alone should guide their operations, is increasingly giving way to political ideology. As a result, they are undergoing the greatest transformation since the 1960s, when the art museum as we know it – popular, populist and unmissable – was born.
The art museum is a creation of the Enlightenment, born out of a desire to understand the world through the collection, classification and display of its specimens and artifacts. They were built with the belief that cultural treasures do not belong to the elites but to all citizens and should be available for the edification and enjoyment of all. The first museum boom in the United States occurred between the Civil War and World War II. These institutions are triumphs of national identity and democratic culture. The first, because museums were born from the conviction that this country could never be taken seriously on the world stage if it did not have art museums on a par with those of Europe. The latter because, particularly since the 1960s, they have brought the greatest quantity of the greatest works of art to the greatest number.
In their early days, art museums were disorganized and often contained works of dubious quality, sometimes outright fakes. From the beginning of the 20th century, a process of professionalization began, at the center of which was know-how. Aspiring curators trained by closely studying individual works of art – their appearance, style, physical composition and history. They acquired a discerning eye that enabled them to determine the authenticity, authorship, artistic quality and historical significance of a work. Harvard once offered a graduate course in connoisseurship that produced some of the nation’s greatest museum directors, including Alfred H. Barr Jr., founding director of the Museum of Modern Art.
You can see the craftsmanship in action on “Antiques Roadshow”. But in too many museums, connoisseurs have been replaced by curators, ideologues for whom aesthetics are less important than ensuring we see art through progressive lenses. This trend has been around for a long time, but in recent years the “great awakening” has made it dominant.
The nature and extent of this transformation can be measured by comparing the statements of two leaders of the same establishment 15 years apart. In 2005, Philippe de Montebello, then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, wrote an editorial for the Journal titled “Why Should We Care?” His answer: “Works of art, embodying and expressing with graphic force the deepest aspirations of a time and a place, are direct and primary evidence for the study and understanding of humanity. ” Fast forward to 2020, when current manager Max Hollein told The New York Times: “There is no doubt that the Met and its development are also bound up with a logic of what is defined as white supremacy. “
The politicization of art museums is so pervasive that there is hardly an institution or aspect of museum practice that is exempt from it. It is now common for labels accompanying portraits as disparate as those of colonial America and 18th century France to include information about the sitter’s connection to slavery, however tenuous.
Last year, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston held an exhibition of mythological paintings by the great Renaissance painter Titian built around one of his collection entitled “The Rape of Europe”. It shows Jupiter, who has turned into a bull, abducting Europa, who is sprawled on his back and clinging on for life.
It was the first time in some 500 years that this mass-commissioned group of paintings had been seen together, and Gardner’s painting is considered the greatest Renaissance painting in America. Still, the museum turned the exhibit into a #MeToo moment. He commissioned contemporary artists to create works and scholars to write commentaries that, as he said, would “address issues of gender, power and sexual violence” that are “as relevant today as they are.” were in the Renaissance”. He even created a support page on his website for anyone “triggered” by the exposure.
Last fall, the Baltimore Museum of Art held a major exhibition of works by Henri Matisse, among the greatest of all modern artists. One of his recurring themes is “the odalisque,” a female studio model costumed, sometimes quite minimally, in Middle Eastern attire and posed in a setting intended to evoke a harem. In the wall texts, the museum made sure that visitors understood that this made Matisse both a sexist and a colonialist.
Commissioners do not hesitate to bite the hand that feeds their institutions. In 2020, the Met commemorated its 150th anniversary with an exhibition celebrating its many treasures and the donors who had helped the museum acquire them. Among the latter, two of the most important were the department store owner Benjamin Altman (1840-1913) and the sugar magnate H. O. Havemeyer (1840-1907). After describing their contributions to the museum, the wall texts informed visitors that the fortunes that made these generous deeds possible were built on “intolerable” and “harsh” working conditions, respectively.
One of the notable characteristics of this revolution is that it comes from within as well as from without. Exhibit A is the remarkable article written for the British magazine Apollo in 2018 by Kaywin Feldman, now director of the National Gallery of Art. At the time, she was the director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and her article included a list of her museum’s eight core values. At the top was “gender equality”. The list continued in the same vein until we finally got to “art essentials” at No. 8. The director of one of the country’s leading art museums placed art first. bottom from its list of core institutional values.
Outside the walls, this program is promoted by professional bodies such as the American Association of Museums, the media and major foundations, which are so committed to progressivism that no museum can hope to obtain a grant if it does not not follow their line. In 2019 Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times titled “Museums Must Enter the Future”, in which he describes them as “contested spaces” where on the one hand you have “administrators who profit from a distorted economic system that protects and promotes inequality” and on the other hand “the people whom the system excludes and exploits”. Two months after its broadcast, Mr. Walker was elected to the board of administration of the National Gallery.
To pick up on Mr. de Montebello’s question, why should we care? Because the taxpayers’ money that supports these institutions is for heritage preservation and disinterested scientific research, not for political brawling. And because the public is cheated out of an experience that only museums can provide.
What happens when we look at a work of art? There is no single answer to this question, but an almost universal answer is wonder. Take a familiar example: Michelangelo’s statue of David in Florence. Standing in front, you don’t need any artistic training to understand that you’re looking at something that started life as a big boulder; that it was fashioned into one of the world’s greatest masterpieces using the most rudimentary technology, a hammer and chisel; and that it was accomplished by someone who didn’t own an iPhone or attend an Ivy League college.
You are surprised. How did Michelangelo create something of such visionary design, breathtaking beauty and surpassing technical achievement? How could a mortal have done this?
At this time, you are placed in an altered relationship with the past, your own time, and hopefully your sense of yourself. You realize that highly functional and extremely talented people have walked the Earth before you. And you begin to wonder whether, despite your comfortable assumptions, the current era truly represents the pinnacle of human achievement. You might even feel a little humiliated.
At the same time, the idea that you are staring at a rock quickly fades away as you are stepped out of your everyday world and into the imaginary universe created by Michelangelo. What is there that caught David’s attention? Why is his forehead creased? How come he appears tense and relaxed at the same time? Again and again. It is a unique and wonderful experience only one art can provide.
The new ideological approach upsets all that. The richness and complexity of the art is reduced to a few crude slogans. Works of art, springboards to the great eras of the past, are transformed into fields where the battles of the present are fought. The past itself, revered since the Renaissance as a source of inspiration and a benchmark of excellence, is portrayed as fatally, if not irreparably flawed. The driving force behind all of this are the curators, who have arrogated to themselves the status of superior beings, empowered to pass summary judgment on artists, art, its institutions and its supporters. There is no humility, only moral vanity.
On September 13, 2001, the Met reopened two days after the attack on the World Trade Center. The next day, The New York Times reported that as of 4 p.m., 8,270 visitors had passed through its doors, “more than normal for this time of year”. These people did not come to be lectured about colonialism and gender equality and the like. They came to connect with beauty, creative imagination and our common humanity. We must insist that our art museums return to this ambitious mission derived from the Enlightenment. Otherwise, something precious and irreplaceable will be lost.
Mr. Gibson is editor of the Journal Arts in Review.
Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8