After two and a half days of rushing between sessions to catch art historians, artists and critics speak on topics ranging from "Walt Disney and American Visual Culture" to "The Beauty of Pain, " many of the 6, 000 or so attendees of the College Art Association annual conference, Feb. 12-15, 1997, were undoubtedly ready to sit for a while and consider art's "mystery." Those who were zonked from jogging between the New York Hilton's two floors of meeting rooms, patrolling the publications booths for discounts and an editor for one's next book, or flinging their curriculum vitae at interviewers, retreated to the deep leather of the downstairs bar. But devotees of the CAA's annual professional circus attended its customary Friday night convocation to see who was rewarded for good work--and this year, to hear what, in his convocation address, the director of New York's Metropolitan Museum, Philippe de Montebello, had to say.
Among those recognized, Suzanne Preston Blier won the Charles Rufus Morey Award for a Distinguished Book in the History of Art for African Vodun: Art, Psychology and Power. This year's Frank Jewett Mather Award for Art Criticism went to Christopher Knight. In his acceptance, the Los Angeles Times critic noted that the CAA prize was the best retort to a negative review of his anthology, Last Chance for Eden, published last fall in the CAA's Art Journal. Ceramics sculpture made a strong presence with Ken Ferguson winning the Distinguished Teaching of Art Award and Peter Voulkos the Distinguished Award for Lifetime Achievement. The Award for Museum Scholarship went to "Metropolitan Lives: Ashcan Artists and Their New York, " an exhibition organized by Rebecca Zurier, Robert Snyder and Virginia Mecklenberg for the National Museum of American Art. That show's installation embedded the early 20th century urban scene paintings within an elaborate display of related newspaper clippings, diaries and contemporaneous artifacts, a structure that was significantly contrary to the procedure soon to be advocated by de Montebello.
Speaking with what must be the most mellifluous voice among directors of American museums, the lean, handsome de Montebello immediately conveyed both authoritative assurance and a distinct vision for the Metropolitan. This was refreshing, but it was also amazing. During the past 30 years there has been a widening embrace of what art is, who's making it, and who and what it's addressing, so that "border-crossing" is the norm and "indeterminacy" is the key word for value. Other than from the Christian right and certain members of Congress, one rarely hears someone in an art forum so sure about what's naughty and what's nice. Noting that he had discussed art history issues in a previous CAA conference session, ("Authenticity in Art History, " 1994), he said he would here address the Museum's relation to its audience.
"We must remain true to the art" was de Montebello's main claim, which mandated a resistance to what he views as a "new imbalance" in the museum-visiting experience: "the medium has begun to dominate the message." Decrying a "pendulum swing" toward "entertainment, " the Metropolitan's director objected to both computers and other new media in museums and a recent New York Times article (2/6/97) likening museums to "suburban malls." People now go to both for safe socializing, shopping, to hear concerts or lectures and to see the latest blockbuster displays. The Times reported that the American Museum of Natural History is extending that similarity with their 7 a.m. aerobics classes among the dinosaur skeletons and Saharan dioramas (akin to shopping malls' speed-walk programs for senior citizens).
Proclaiming that this fund-raising project produced in him "a shudder of unease, " de Montebello objected to museums' programs being "market driven rather than mission driven." Acknowledging that because of his own institution's after-hours parties, it has been called "Club Met, " he defended these, saying there weren't "art-extraneous--they all involve looking at works of art." The goal of such events at the Met, he said, is to instill "security and confidence in works of art" despite the issues swirling around them. As for the market, museum is in "as healthy state as it's ever been...visitors now flock to the Metropolitan in larger numbers than ever before...surveys show that they are mostly satisfied visitors....[yet in art history] the quality and essence of the experience of the work of art itself is too infrequently central to discussions of works of art."
True, the anti-formalist backlash of recent decades has inverted analysis of the work of art so that its subject matter, the social and political circumstances of its making, or of its maker, now receive more prominent attention than matters of its color, form or style. But this adherence to the "essence of the experience" elides the distinction between inviting wealthy joggers into the galleries and integrating ancillary artifacts into an exhibition. Historical contextualization, elaborately presented in "Metropolitan Lives, " descriptively brings the art out into the world and can dramatically enhance the art's "essence."
Yet the audience of art professionals would undoubtedly agree with de Montebello's next objection to the operating principle that "that museums are fun." They're not playgrounds. "Art, ; he asserted" doesn't yield its messages in a 'blink of an eye.'" He dislikes "strategies to reassure art visitors that the museum experience is not something to be dreaded. In our increasingly prosaic and materialistic world [we should emphasize] the mystery of art, not aim...to demystify it....We should accentuate the fact it is removed from daily experience."
With his resonant tenor and forceful manner, de Montebello was mushing ideas of museum marketing and exhibition presentation into an indigestible paste. Those of us who have spent our lives studying and/or making art certainly don't want the sanctity of its repository demeaned as an exotic place for sit-ups or, as the Whitney Museum did in the middle of an installation of meditative Edward Hopper paintings, turned into a blaring multi-media theater. (I, for one, still look to museums for a little peace and quiet.)
But it's delusional to think that works of art were not made by somebody at some particular time and place, with contingencies of time and space, love and money, death principles and life forces, etc. These aspects are manifested not only in works of art, but in the more prosaic forms of material culture, and when the two are juxtaposed, dynamic revelations of a period can occur. Of course, the museum institution itself is not immune to these forces, and is fact a product of them.
We can think of de Montebello as conservative in the best sense of the world, to protect the experience of art by keeping at bay the incursions of both popular culture and multi-media exhibition enhancements that don't substitute for the real thing. But can we still pretend that art is in unaffected by the constraints of quotidian living? The best goal seems to be to enter the preserve of the museum and when leaving, to know more about art and life.
SUZAAN BOETTGER is an art historian and critic in New York.