Museums should not fear the art snobs
By assuming that the entire public is good enough to be in the museum, the Met could become a centre of human wisdom for everyone
By Mark O’Neill. Comment, Issue 223, April 2011
Published online: 13 April 2011
“Does the Met’s director think the public is stupid?” This question was posed by Jed Perl, an art critic, writing in The New Republic magazine (www.tnr.com) in response to an article in the New York Times about Thomas Campbell’s plans as he enters his third year in charge of that august institution. Campbell intends to use new technology “to reach every patron, from the first-timer to the seasoned scholar”, as “text, narration and images can be conveyed unobtrusively to those who want it”. Combined with his interest in contemporary art and his view that “many visitors do not know much about art”, this has led Perl to warn that the director is taking the museum in a “dangerous” direction which would compromise “essential art values”.
Perl’s warnings are typical of attacks on museums which seek to renew their relationship with society, and hence their legitimacy as public institutions. Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery was refurbished to critical and popular acclaim in 2006. The London Observer said that it was “not so much a museum of culture as of life itself…part National Gallery, part V&A, part British Museum and Tate—all in one building”. In contrast, the Burlington Magazine, an English art journal, saw Kelvingrove as “a quest for the lowest common denominator”. Exponents of such views do not make an argument, but use words like “tradition”, “essential” and “inherent” to imply that they are obviously correct. Like Perl, they usually make three, highly questionable, assumptions.
The first is the conflation of lack of art education with stupidity. Perl was not, presumably, born an art critic and it seems self-contradictory to judge as stupid people those who do not “inherently” share the knowledge he has spent a lifetime acquiring. Cultural meanings are learned, acquired through education and, indeed, the ability to see form can be trained. This elision of insight and education is not an accidental confusion, it is a pernicious sleight of hand which allows the desire to limit a public good to a narrow social group to masquerade as support for “essential art values”. The word for this is not elitism, which has an association with excellence. It is snobbery.
The second is implicit in the way that Perl represents the statement about people’s lack of knowledge about art as a judgment of their human merit. It is not; it is an empirical statement of fact, revealed by many surveys. And this includes surveys not simply of the general population but of “museumgoers”. This is hardly surprising. Art history is not a core subject in schools and the range of art on display in museums like the Met is vast; a Renaissance polymath would struggle to know about it all. Why then would Perl feel that an educational approach would be “condescending”? Can he not just ignore information he already possesses? Perhaps his real fear is that people would think the introductory information was for him; they might think that he is one of the stupid. Being a “museumgoer” is part of Perl’s identity—and he wants to be sure that this identity is not conferred on anyone unsuitable. In its first year after reopening, Kelvingrove attracted 3.2 million visits, for one glorious year ranking 14th in the world. Sixty per cent of the city’s population of 600,000 visited on average three times each. Perl and The Burlington may view this wide appeal as unfortunate, but in fact these are citizens who actually own the collections. In America ownership of collections is usually vested in museums themselves, but their social legitimacy—and tax exempt status—depends on this ownership being a trusteeship on behalf of the public. Those opposed to increased access in fact have difficulties with the basic principle of the public museum.
The third assumption is that the preferences of Perl and his kind constitute the only museum tradition. In fact it was only with the emergence of aestheticism and competition from universities in the late 19th century that curators started making exhibitions for each other and for people of their class. Most earlier Victorian museums were educational institutions (not just institutions with education departments). In Britain, both the Liberal Henry Cole (founding Director of the V&A) and the Tory John Ruskin created museums that aimed to achieve the widest possible audience in the name of public education. The Met was founded “for the purpose…of encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts, and the application of arts to manufacture and practical life…and, to that end, of furnishing popular instruction.” In 1920, the Met’s president Robert de Forest wrote that it was “a public gallery for the use of all people, high and low, and even more for the low than for the high, for the high can find artistic inspiration in their own homes”.
The arrival of Campbell provides a great leadership opportunity for the trustees and management of the Met to lend its authority to this older tradition and recover the museum’s mission as an institution of public education. The introduction of new technology and the provision of points of entry for people who are not art critics are only the beginning. Far more intellectually demanding—and interesting—would be if the Met set itself the task of reinventing museums for the 21st century. After 9/11 many directors said that art museums could support intercultural understanding and provide spiritual solace. They also said that they would focus more on local people than tourists, building deeper relationships with more diverse audiences. Many of these claims turned out to be opportunistic and few followed through. But the needs which prompted this vision of museums are more pressing than ever. In practical terms this would mean representing cultures from the inside—telling the stories of what the objects meant and mean to the peoples who made, used or worshiped them, in addition to the curatorial voice of history and provenance. Innovations based on these principles are taking place in museums from Detroit to Manchester, from Glasgow to Gothenburg. But because of its amazing collections the Met has a greater opportunity than any museum in America to embed in its displays inspiring access and great scholarship, universal values and moving human stories, great beauty and profound insight. There is no point in being half-hearted about this, for fear of sniping from the likes of Perl. By assuming that the entire public is good enough to be in the museum, the Met could become a centre of human wisdom for everyone—with the exception of those who lack the generosity of spirit to share the museum space with the public. n
Mark O’Neill is Director of Policy, Research & Development, Culture and Sport Glasgow, including the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery
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