A smug, self-satisfied interview with Metropolitan Museum czar Philippe de Montebello is featured in the current number of The New Criterion, marking that magazine’s 25th anniversary and anticipating the 30th anniversary of Monte’s Met reign. The questions were asked by New Criterion editor Hilton Kramer.
Let’s deconstruct de Montebello’s newest pronouncements; all quotes are his own.
"I can remember the days when I wrote all my own audio guides, when I wrote, or at least substantially reworked, the introductions to catalogues. Now, I read them quickly, and if I see nothing that is egregious, I go ahead and sign off on them." Has there been a single, more egregious interference with looking at the Met’s masterpieces than some mesmerized moron lingering in front of a picture while Monte drones for him alone in his earpiece?
"If we had another billion dollars in the endowment, we would review these ancillary activities" (i.e., corporate private parties). "Money has to come from somewhere, and we don’t have federal funds. We have to raise it privately, mostly, and from the city." Don’t you just love that "from the city?" As if New York and its taxpayers, who have genuflected before the Met for decades, are just a pecuniary afterthought?
"It’s all expansion within the cube of the building; it’s all reworking interior spaces." The Met’s octatrapezoidal encroachment on one of the most traversed and beloved stretches of Central Park has been an arrogant travesty and an eyesore that cannot be undone.
On contemporary: "We strongly believe in the continuity of art, that it doesn’t stop at any point in time, so we have Cai Guo-Qiang on the roof, we have Kara Walker." Shed a tear for Cai, a true original who has been ill-served by the New York liberal-capital elite, whether firing off Fourth of July duds in Central Park or serving as poster boy for the Chinese contemp bubble at the auction houses.
"Oh, I love Harvard. I was an undergraduate in art history. Sydney Freedberg was also an important influence on me -- somebody we really loved and a wonderful person. He ultimately ended up at the National Gallery." Monte implicitly underscores the Met’s traditional contempt for the National Gallery, which has a far better Renaissance collection than the Met, vis. Monte’s follow-up: "Considering the depth of our collection. . . you’d want Renaissance sculpture. Where is Ghiberti? Where is Donatello? Where is Verrocchio?" Well, you could always try the Frick.
Then, there’s precious bit of cant: "I’m just constantly learning from the curators. . . My staff is better than I am, for which I am grateful." Never in the history of the Met have its curators been more hamstrung by conflicts of interest, particularly in the Old Master area. Knowledgeable observers tell us that ancillary masterpieces are frequently placed in classic shows at the Met for market purposes and allegedly for services rendered. De Montebello’s highfalutin’ disinterestedness is the greatest sham of all.
On his predecessor, the controversial Thomas Hoving, Monte opines, "He would actually say, ’Curators get in my way!’ The curatorial forum here was created as a reaction to this occasional disdain." Curatorial circle-jerking is the greatest plague on the international art world today, a cesspool of political correctness in service to elite market forces, of and for which de Montebello is the Cultural Playmate personified.
Last but best: "The thing about the Met is its huge breadth -- that remains its greatest strength." One so strong and enduring that a solitary wanderer can still find him- or herself before an artist’s soul, unencumbered by audio guides, corporate partying, closed expanding galleries and the foppish pretensions of "high art," the overrated de Montebello’s sole legacies.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).