WOID XIX-31. USEFUL IDIOTS
Reading the New York Times is like looking at Baroque art: it's all so grand and principled, a Banquet of the Gods, while underneath it's all petty, personal intrigue. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern you know there's something hidden, but in the end you wonder why someone had to go to all the trouble. Last Monday, August 3rd, was a case in point: the Times, on its own front page, brought to a breathless, waiting, world the news that MUSEUM VISITORS DON'T FOCUS ON THE ART!!! 1
Oh my Guggenheim! Michael Kimmelman, senior art critic at the Times, spent an "idle morning" hanging around the Louvre in Paris, just to prove museum visitors aren't serious about Art. As Henry James once commented, "That perhaps was the moral of a menaced state of health - that one would sit in public places and count the Americans." Two weeks later - on the front page of the Sunday Times, no less - he informs us that in addition to not being serious about art, visitors occasionally do really mean things, like joining a neo-Nazi group and beating up on immigrants, especially if they happen to live in Dresden, which happens to a) be in East Germany, and b) is one of the great centers of Baroque art.
So, nu? For starters, how does the speed of someone walking through museums correlate with what they learn, or know? I work in a museum, and if you see me walking fast some days it's not because I don't pay attention, it's because I'm very, very good at looking - it's what I'm trained for, Michael. And don't you know, besides, that many museums, like the Louvre or the Rijksmuseum, set up smaller galleries next to the more frequented rooms, so serious visitor can avoid the throngs around the Mona Lisa or the Night Watch? Check out the Simon Vouets on the floor above the Mona Lisa: no shortage of serious students there, and nary a swastika.
So why these articles, and why on the front page? "The answer," Kimmelman says, "may be no less useful for being familiar." Translation: "Yeah, I know, the message is trite: but there's a reason." Message: It is a truth universally acknowledged, as of this past week, that most museum visitors are ignorant and shallow and have short attention spans, and that they come to the museum to get the kind of entertainment you can get at an amusement park. Plus, they're mean and kind of scary - it must be true, you read it in the New York Times.
It's no big secret, even to Jack Rosencrantz in the Bronx, that there's a close connection between Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Chairman emeritus and still active on the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., Publisher of the New York Times, in New York also. (I'd tell you what that relationship is, but it's, ummm, kind of personal.) The pages of the Times are to the Family what Monteverdi's operas were to the petty courts of Italy: a public stage for their personal interests. What other major newspaper would print an editorial denouncing the positioning of a mangy shark in formaldehyde at the Metropolitan, at a time when the curator responsible for the positioning was being considered for the post of director at the Met? 2 But to grasp Michael's point you've got to work your way down to the last two paragraphs of his first denunciation:
"Leaving, [two visitors] caught sight of a sculptured effigy from Papua New Guinea...which appeared as if it were taunting them.
They thought for a moment. ‘Nyah-Nyah,' they said in unison. Then they blew him a raspberry."
Why does this scene seem familiar? Oh right, it's an accurate description of the latest series of ads put out by the Met with the slogan: It's Time We Met!: slick photographs of young folks wandering through the Met, making faces at the bronze griffins or pretending to look like a Bodhisattva, possibly blowing raspberries - which, incidentally, is a New York custom so rare in France that Kimmelman's use of that expression brought a puzzled query on a blog for French translators. But, as the French say, Qui veut noyer son chien l'accuse de la rage: Any stick will do to beat a dog.
Funny thing is, the Met's own audience doesn't think of itself as stupid, let alone as a howling mob of skinheads. The Met's ad campaign kicked off with a competition: fans were encouraged to contribute their own photographs of people having fun at the Met, and I regret to say that I did not participate, though I thought fleetingly of submitting a picture of a drag couple making obscene gestures in front of the Franz Hals Revelers, or perhaps a shot of a woman getting a ritual tongue-piercing in the Mayan galleries, or a bearded kid pretending to be crucified.
Too late now, the results are in, and it must have been a terrible disappointment to those who think that people come to museums to make raspberries - even in places where raspberries are actually made. (The French, by the way, make raspberries on little babies' stomachs, which is the kind of thing that babies love.) Naturally, first prize went to a picture of a kid playing air guitar in the Gallery of Musical Instrument, but the rest were - damn, didn't these people understand they were supposed to be mean and stupid and racist? Instead, participants sent in shots of light pouring the Frank Lloyd Wright windows, of young people taking notes, of a quiet child in an empty gallery. 3 It's enough to drive an arrogant snob to despair.
Except the Family doesn't think of themselves as arrogant snobs, but as "Proponents of Populism:" that seems to be the name preferred by the cultural elites who have decided that the People must be served - must be served a pile of steaming shit. Their problem is, that having decided that the People must be so served, they have to prove to themselves (not to the People, who have their own ideas), that this is what the People want - a subject for the object, as we say. This is where Kimmelman comes in, a specialist in this kind of thing, the author of a book that argues that being stupid, provincial, and ignorant is all you need to appreciate art - or, as the new director of the Metropolitan Museum put it, "Coming to the museum is not a big deal....It's just fun."4 Sure it is, but the reason people go to the museum instead of going to the Fun House is, it's a different kind of fun.
Of course, it's possible Kimmelman meant to disparage this type of behavior, not encourage it; but in its obsession with the redemptive power of art (or lack thereof), the second article runs dangerously close to the "politics of cultural despair" that according to Fritz Stern, furtively encouraged the rise of Naziism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.5 What's so disturbing in either article is the author's ambivalence towards those mean, lowly masses that are to help the Met's trustees ouf of a deep financial hole of their own making. It's interesting that the passage about the strawberry comes at the very end of his article, which is where experienced journalists stick the stuff they think the editors might want to cut.
In the long run it doesn't matter whether Kimmelman is for the meanies or agin' em : his intention is to conjure out of his imagination the type of visitors the Masters of the Met imagine must be out there. As any admirer of Monteverdi's Incoronazione di Poppea knows, you can't always get what you want, unless what you want is what the Gods wanted from you all along.
Dumping the Shark. Editorial, July 20, 2007, A22
Quoted in Robin Cembalest, "Reshaping the Art Museum." Art News, June, 2009.
Fritz Stern. The Politics of Cultural Despair Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961, 1963.