Flashbacks September 2008

Art for Art's Sake

In an age of commercialization, a look back at a century of Atlantic writings on the intrinsic value of art museums.
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In recent years, many art museums have been accused of focusing more on the bottom line than on the art itself, favoring glossy, money-making impressionist and pop art fodder over sophisticated, challenging, or unusual fare. Jed Perl makes note of this in The Atlantic’s October issue with “The Man Who Remade the Met,” part farewell to the Metropolitan’s director Philippe de Montebello and part clinical study of the changing nature of America’s art museums. Perl laments an art climate in which…

…museums have found themselves increasingly hemmed in by sharp cuts in corporate giving on one side and a white-hot art market on the other. They have continued to grow in the face of these problems, in part by spotlighting their potential as tourist destinations. Their growth has been strategic, with marquee-style events—that new building plan, that blockbuster show—often masking a shrinking focus on the permanent collection and on the scholarly activities that add weight to an institution.

Perl points to the Guggenheim as an avatar of this trend, noting that the Frank Lloyd Wright building on Fifth Avenue, once an inexorable stronghold of art, has become “a rent-a-rotunda operation for trendy art events, while the museum’s permanent collections and scholarly mission are almost entirely sidelined.” How, one wonders, have so many of today’s art museums ended up as glorified ballrooms? And if not primarily as profit centers, what role should the art museum seek to play in society?

In July 1893, The Atlantic published an essay by Edward S. Morse addressing this very question. In “If Public Libraries, Why Not Public Museums?” Morse, a director of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology from 1880 to 1914, argued that museums exist to solidify classroom teachings and place them in a special context:

A museum adds dignity to a trifle. What seems a worthless object to the minds of the multitudes becomes at once endowed with interest when carefully framed or mounted, and clearly labeled. Furthermore, the object is seen to have a definite relation to other equally common objects with which it is associated; a lesson is learned, and sooner or later the observer finds an added interest in his studies, if indeed he is not aware for the first time of regions of thought utterly unknown to him before.

The museum visitor, then, must rely on the wisdom of others to know what is of importance, and works of art are imbued with significance through the process of hanging and labeling. In an October 1948 Atlantic piece, Walter Lippmann went further, insisting that museums also serve the purpose of protecting art objects from avaricious collectors and natural disaster. He wrote his essay, “The Museum of the Future,” after an eye-opening visit to the National Gallery in Washington, and in it he expounded upon the museum’s role as safety deposit box for the world’s treasures. Lippmann’s argument had extra significance in light of the fact that the world had just emerged from World War II:

There in Washington were the pictures from the Berlin galleries, refugees from the retribution Hitler had brought down upon Berlin, dug up from the salt mine in which they were buried, and now homeless wanderers—destined to return to the land which could become the vortex of the most terrible cataclysm in all history. … In the best of all possible worlds, the unique and irreplaceable possessions of civilized men—at least those that can be moved—will be preserved against the vicissitudes of nature, and the destructiveness of men.

Although Lippmann advocated shuttling artworks to safety during times of war, he favored keeping those same works safely enshrined at home during times of peace. In order to give people all over the world their “cultural inheritance,” he suggested dual museums in which real works would be exhibited in one wing and replicas of art from international collections would be shown in another. This solution, of course, raised new questions:

Is there something about a work of fine art which can never even in theory be copied? Is the work which the master himself put his hand to unique in its essence? And if it is, is this uniqueness in fact aesthetic? Or is it—assuming that an indistinguishable copy could be made—sentimental and historical?

Forty years after the publication of Lippmann’s piece, fine art replications had taken a different form: that of the museum souvenir. Ellen Posner, the former architecture critic for The Wall Street Journal, tackled the museum’s transformation from cultural center to shopping center. Her August 1988 Atlantic piece, “The Museum as Bazaar,” described a “Museum of the Future” very different from the one Lippmann had envisioned. Consumerism had vulgarized the art in museums, and works were no longer front and center in main-floor galleries but relegated to the dark depths in the belly of the museum. Posner, commenting on the construction of L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, recalled:

The building had to be split into two parts, so that access (not merely logistic but visual) to the shops would not be obstructed from any point. It had to be kept low so that the views from (as yet unbuilt) residential towers would not be obstructed. The configuration had to conform, along with everything else in the development, to the structural grid of the concrete parking garage that sits underneath it all. Thus an art museum designed by a world-famous architect in a city known for extraordinary quality of its light turned out to resemble, in one architect’s words, “a subway station,” and to have many of its galleries in underground darkness.

Museums, as Posner depicted them, were no longer the strongholds of art erected to protect art from what Lippmann called “the vicissitudes of nature”: they had become attractions more akin to shopping malls, with the stores on the ground floor and the art hidden in the basement. Posner made a case for more traditional museums, ones that still follow the grandiose “Palace” style of construction, but focus on the art.

This return to art itself, and the museum’s role in giving it context, are at the core of “Traveling Collections,” a piece published in the November 1995 Atlantic. The author, Carol Kino, a contributing editor at Art + Auction, discussed the impact that “old” art from the Whitney had when shown in an entirely different context at the San Jose Museum of Art:

Because San Jose’s galleries are relatively small, it was easy to grasp the back and forth between realism and abstraction, regionalism and urbanism, and to observe the ceaseless tussle between Europe and whatever other influences presented themselves. … A work like Max Weber’s Chinese Restaurant—a Cubist rendition of a New York eatery painted by a Russian Jew who had studied painting in Paris—looked different in a museum where a stand by the exhibition entrance offers brochures in English, Spanish, Tagalong, and Vietnamese.

Although the art on loan from the Whitney wasn’t new or revolutionary, the freshness of the venue revitalized it and gave it fresh meaning. This is the art museum at its most postmodern—a place in which art is reinterpreted based on local perspectives and made relevant again. As these cultural institutions evolve to meet the challenges of a changing world, one hopes that innovation will strengthen, rather than weaken, the integrity of their aims, and that service to art rather than to profit will be the order of the day.

Sam Pape is an Atlantic intern.
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