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Pop culture in museums is mostly about commerce

May 6, 2001

A spate of amazingly foolish exhibitions at American art museums is raising a grave question: Are these museums determined to conduct their own meltdown? To entice the young and the nostalgic, the once-staid Boston Museum of Fine Arts ran a big exhibition of 130 guitars, thus turning itself into a gigantic Hard Rock Cafe. New York’s Guggenheim museum put on a blockbuster show on motorcycles, with catalog tributes from Hunter Thompson and Dennis Hopper. (The New Republic called the show “a dark day in the history of American museums” and “a pop nostalgia orgy masquerading as a major artistic statement.”)

The Miami Art Museum featured William Wegman’s gag photographs of dogs in high fashion clothes. Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art staged a big exhibition on Disney theme parks. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art felt the need to honor the American sneaker (“Design Afoot: Athletic Shoes, 1995-2000″).

A big exhibit on the “Star Wars” film saga, essentially a traveling ad to drum up publicity for the fifth movie in the series, is touring art museums, including those of San Diego, Minneapolis, Houston, Toledo and Brooklyn. The Brooklyn director, Arnold Lehman, is an old hand at exploiting pop culture. When he headed the Baltimore Museum of Art, he installed shows on Dr. Seuss, jukeboxes and Looney Tunes cartoons. At the Brooklyn Museum of Art, he staged a big hip-hop show, borrowed from Cleveland’s rock ‘n’ roll museum. Other art museums presented major shows on “Thirty Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Rock Style.”

Many art museums now turn themselves into department store windows, displaying the clothes of fashion designers like Giorgio Armani (the Guggenheim) and Christian Dior (The Metropolitan, which also planned a Coco Chanel show, but abandoned it in favor of a show on Jackie Onassis’ wardrobe).

What does all this have to do with art? Not much. Curators are caught up in a slide toward mass entertainment and marketable product. More and more, the process of broadening appeal has come to mean dumbing-down and looking to pop culture for the lowest common denominator. The huge financial success of the “Star Wars” and motorcycle shows points the way toward more and more money-driven decisions. (The Guggenheim is building a huge, 63,000-square-foot exhibition hall in Las Vegas, which will open with the motorcycle show.)

Since the pop exhibits cost money to attend, and the permanent collections often don’t, the message being blinked is that the pop stuff is exciting and important, while the high art isn’t. And the amount of money that can be raked in opens the door to shady practices as well as lower standards. The Guggenheim did not reveal that it had accepted $15 million from Giorgio Armani before staging the Armani exhibit.

Part of the problem is that curators are afraid of straying too far from current popular tastes. Social critic Heather MacDonald calls this “cringing curatorial populism.” This fear of quality has roots in ideology as well as in mass marketing. The current generation of museum curators, mostly reared in the 1960s’ ethic of opposition to authority and tradition, bought into the postmodern idea that art museums have been part of the stuffy, elitist, Eurocentric power structure that must be overthrown.

According to postmodern theory, artistic judgment is a mask for power; there are no masterpieces, and even quality is suspect. If the problem is that aesthetic standards have been imposed from above, the solution must be to heed the judgments of ordinary citizens — in other words, to elevate pop culture.

“When standards become relative, everything becomes art,” Lynne Munson writes in her new book, “Exhibitionism,” “and politics (or any other non-art priority) is left free to guide the mission of the museums.”

In general, curators seem to accept the postmodern ideology and some take it more seriously than others. The Seattle Art Museum, which keeps its European and American art out of the way on the top floor, is one of several museums that hired Fred Wilson, essentially to mock its permanent collection. Wilson is an “installation artist” and “museum deconstructor” who rummages around in permanent collections and stages displays to show how racist and intolerant museums are. The most political of the nation’s current exhibitions is probably the Los Angeles County Art Museum’s “Made in California.” Ostensibly a tribute to the state, the show is largely a sour depiction of California’s founders and elites as pure villains.

As critic Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times, “Today’s museums are under attack from art-world ideology on one side and commerce on the other.” In many ways, their decline parallels what happened to the colleges: an ideological loss of faith in the classics, accompanied by a loss of standards and a consumer-oriented dumbing-down. Those allegedly villainous elites whose money largely supports these museums ought to pay more attention to what’s happening.

From → Politics

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