The appointment of James Cuno to the presidency of the Getty at age 60 is many things. It is a rubber stamp to the role of public intellectual for a man whose media presence is silky smooth and who, in the public eye, has always liked to have it both ways, as interpreter of globalization and champion of the American heartland, opponent of cultural patrimony and quick deaccessioner, builder of the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago and bungler of many of the minor architectural details and conveniences of that wing.
It is an affirmation of careerism and an anticipation of what, in the 1960s, was called the Peter Principle, after a bestselling book which asserted that the princelings of America's corporate meritocracy always rose to the exact level at which their flaws would be best exposed. From Harvard to the Courtauld to Chicago and, now, to the Getty, Cuno has barely stayed in one place long enough to establish any accountability whatsoever, in the manner of college basketball coaches and hedge fund managers everywhere. No Alfred Barr is he!
It is an underlining of what the Getty brand has always been about, to wit, money, but a particular attitude towards money, a hoarding, secretive and suspicious attitude which can turn profligate in the strangest, most unexpected hands. Art, indeed connoisseurship itself, is at the ultimate a function of money from which creation can never be dislodged. Cuno earned the keys to the kingdom of Midas with his prolific fundraising in the Chicago of Hyde Park, the Daleys, Rahm Emanuel and (this could hardly have NOT been a consideration of the Getty), the Obamas.
Finally, the latest, and probably not the last, Cuno ascension (there is always the Met) is, above all, a sort of burlesque, for what Jimmy does best is to sing and dance for his supper at the trustees' table. He can strip off a veil or cover up, belt out a blues or whisper love songs in your ear. He is versatile and, yet, because he has never committed, for any amount of time to anything, a stolid cipher. As such he reflects the moral bankruptcy of the same patrons who have reduced America to a weapons and debt-instrument bazaar, in which its museums are nothing more than cynosures of elitist pride and the parties that celebrate them.
In such a man, cosmopolitanly shallow, the Getty has, at last, met its match.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).