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Exhibiting Contempt

Populism vs. democracy at the art museum.

Art museums are under pressure these days. There’s the constant hunger for money, exacerbated by the decline in government funding. There is brutal competition for donors and works of art. Since the onset of the culture wars, museums also have faced the hazard of political controversy and the chilling effect it can have on potential sponsors. Perhaps most relentless is box office pressure–the demand to boost attendance.

A recent New York Times article argued that these burdens have made the job of museum director less desirable than it might seem. Perhaps so. But that doesn’t excuse the way some directors have responded to these pressures: with a style of populism that is very different from a genuine democratic sensibility.

M useum populism is not quite the same as the blockbuster syndrome. Though devised and marketed on a large scale, shows like the upcoming Van Gogh exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington or the Monet retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston fall within the traditional boundaries of what these institutions display. They may not contain much that is conceptually fresh, but they do provide mass access to artistic masterpieces. You can’t really argue with that. The populist trend, by contrast, draws museums away from art their curators sincerely believe is great–or sometimes away from art entirely. The current, defining example is the “The Art of the Motorcycle,” now on view at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Other examples include the exhibition of landscapes by the traditionalist painter Andrew Wyeth that just closed at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Louis Comfort Tiffany show that just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Museum populism began with an unlikely figure: a patrician medievalist by the name of Thomas Hoving, who was the director of the Met from 1967 to 1977. Hoving is the guy who came up with the idea of flying huge banners over the entrance to the museum. He also essentially invented the blockbuster show. His tenure began with a splashy exhibition on royal patronage and built to the crescendo of “King Tut,” which visitors waited in long lines to see in 1977. In an entertaining book published a few years ago, Making the Mummies Dance: Inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hoving unabashedly recounts his own Machiavellian management and P.T. Barnum-style hype. But despite his excesses, Hoving was still in some sense a conventional-minded curator. It never occurred to him that you could herd even more people into an art museum if you didn’t force them to look at art at all. Thus it was left to the San Diego Museum of Art to mount, a few years back, a Dr. Seuss retrospective, and to the Whitney to mount a fashion show titled “The Warhol Look” last year.

Conservative critics such as Jed Perl and Hilton Kramer, who predictably have decried the motorcycle exhibit, might reflect upon the fact that the populist approach it represents grew out of the Mapplethorpe-National Endowment for the Arts controversy of the late 1980s–which they started.

Charged with being out of touch both with popular morality and with popular taste and punished with a loss of funds, museum directors have been trying hard to demonstrate that they are not elitist, difficult, and obscure. The best way to prove you’re not a snob is by not letting your museum seem empty. And the master of preventing emptiness, while at the same time cultivating it, is Thomas R. Krens, the director the Guggenheim.

The hallmarks of Krens’$2 10 year tenure have been aggressive global expansion–there are now three Guggenheims in Europe in addition to the two in New York–and the box office smash. In the last few years, the museum’s main branch, the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright corkscrew, has mounted huge retrospectives of less difficult contemporary artists, such as Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. Where modern art ceases to be popular, Krens ceases to display modern art, at least in a main-event manner. Last summer, Krens cooperated with the Chinese government in mounting an exhibition titled “China: 5000 Years” that fell well outside the museum’s charter. But with aggressive promotion, including advertising in Chinese language newspapers, the museum set new records for itself, drawing an average of nearly 3,000 visitors a day. The commercial success of “The Art of the Motorcycle” has dwarfed that. Nearly 4,000 people a day are paying an obscene $12 per head to see the shimmering machines, making it by far the best-attended show in the Guggenheim’s history.

An exhibition on motorcycle design at the Guggenheim would be defensible if it made a better argument for either the cultural significance or the aesthetic importance of the machines. Industrial design is a stepchild of fine art, and the cross-fertilization of high and pop is an important part of the story of artistic modernism. But the exhibition doesn’t make the case. The basic message of the show is: Motorcycles are really cool; here are a bunch of really cool motorcycles. It includes too many machines–114 in all. Some of these are undeniably eye-catching, but by the end, the nonaficionado is bored silly. Part of the problem is that, as you might expect from an exhibition direct-marketed to motorcycle clubs, the approach is design-technical rather than design-aesthetic or design-cultural. The information plates that accompany the exhibition and the catalog text both seem pitched at pre-established fanatics. Here’s a snatch from the catalog entry for the 1914 Cyclone, one of a few truly stunning bikes in the show:

The hallmark feature of the 61-ci V-twin Cyclone engine is its shaft-and-bevel-gear-driven overhead-cam and valve arrangement. The motorcycle also contains a number of other important features that presage modern high-performance engine technology: a near-hemispherical combustion chamber, the extensive use of cage-roller and self-aligning ball bearings, and a precise, recessed fit of the crankcase, cylinders and heads all contribute to the engine’s exceptional performance. Even with its modest compression ration of 5.5 to 1, it is estimated that the Cyclone produces 45 hp at 5000 rpm.

As curator of the exhibition, Krens lays on this technical specification as a defense against the charge of unseriousness. But in doing so, he more or less eviscerates his own claim that these machines belong in a modern art museum, as opposed to one focused on design, transportation, or history.

P erhaps ironically, museum populism comes with a tendency toward corporate exploitation. BMW is the sole sponsor of an exhibition that includes BMW motorcycles, including a current model. In its defense, the Guggenheim points out that there are only six BMW bikes, fewer than the number of Hondas or Harleys. But the point is not that the sponsor influences the content of the show. It is that the sponsor influences the fact of the show. That a company like BMW can get brownie points for art patronage by promoting its own product is part of the reason that this exhibition took place, instead of the one examining 20th century art at the end of the millennium, which it replaced. The current Tiffany show at the Met is sponsored by Tiffany. Everywhere, the border between the museum and its gift shop is growing more porous. At the Guggenheim SoHo, you can’t enter the galleries except through the gift shop.

The Guggenheim has been busy rationalizing its decision to mount the motorcycle exhibition. Krens, a motorcycle enthusiast and the owner of two BMWs, contributes an utterly unpersuasive introduction to the catalog, in which he breezily declares that the distinction between the unique work of art and the mechanically produced object is now “irrelevant.” In other words, it’s open season for guys like him. Others are embracing this philosophy of complete categorical breakdown. The Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art just hired its new head away from Disney. In interviews, Robert Fitzpatrick, who styles himself director and CEO, has said he wants to make the museum friendlier to visitors. According to my sources, he recently stunned his curators by proposing to fill the galleries with potted plants (they draw bugs–no good for paintings).

Resisting empty populism doesn’t have to mean a haughty elitism. An aesthetic democrat says that more people could profit from the experience of art if those who ran museums thought more creatively about how to converse with their audience. A populist says that if you drop what is difficult in art, you can get more people to pay attention. The democrat at the helm of a museum, a symphony orchestra, or a publishing house tries to expand his audience while challenging it. The populist, by contrast, panders to his audience, figuring out what it likes and then delivering it in heaps. Where the democrat exhibits respect for the public, the populist exhibits contempt.