The Problem with Art Museums (1995)



 After World War II, the art galleries achieved more power in taste-making than the museums. There was much discussion that the museums no longer knew their function, aside from being the "dustbins" of history (as if there's anything wrong with providing a haven for artistic greatness of the past). All of the "exciting", "avant-garde" art was being shown by the galleries. How were the museums to grab "market share" of the art audience dollar? Simple. Show the same art as the galleries, along with money-making, "block-buster" shows by safely-dead artists like Vincent Van Gogh.


 Art museums once were considered the repositories of the greatest accomplishments of humanity, the most beautiful and timeless statements of mankind's attempts to express its destiny. Whether humanity was viewed as beautiful or ugly, good or evil, from the differing perspectives of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goya, Bosch or Breughel, the paintings and sculpture were great, the aesthetics significant, the content profound.


 No more. The museums sank to the level of the galleries, each trying to outdo the other in touting the most artificial, extreme, perverse or bizarre manifestations of personal, artistic, societal and ethical collapse. We're not just talking of small, local museums. We're speaking of the major art institutions of the nation and the world. How could we not expect the smaller museums to do the same, with that example? How could we not expect artists and art lovers to become confused, disillusioned and dispirited by such corruption of institutions that should have seen as their highest function and responsibility, the protection of timeless standards of excellence? If the supposed caretakers of the highest standards are themselves debauched, what do standards mean anymore?


 Maybe garbage strewn on the floor is art as important as the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Maybe all the drips and splats and stripes are as profound as the genius works of Raphael, Caravaggio and Vermeer. A 2 x 4 bolted to a steel I-beam must be "great" sculpture; dribbling masses of red, yellow and black as significant a statement of art and humanity as Cezanne's card players and portraits of his wife. This must be so because such debilitated works are exhibited under the imprimatur of the very museums that house timeless works of genius and human enlightenment.


 Far too many, inside and out of the art world, agree to play the game; agree to agree that the art we see produced today is genuine, is significant, is profound, when it isn't. That it is the equivalent of history's great art, just different in style. On the contrary, most contemporary art is inferior, manneristic and trivial in its reliance on debilitated formula rather than life. It is a debased and dehumanized expression, unable to acknowledge or come to grips with the timeless challenges of aesthetic excellence and questions of human destiny that have always been asked and answered, each in their own time, by the great artists of the past.


 The eternal charade of "The Emperor's New Clothes" is played out over and over again.


 It isn't easy to redirect the course of art, but those who still aspire toward a more significant, lasting art should continue in their efforts. Galleries should show as much significant art as they can and still survive. Why can't an effort be made to lead art-loving customers toward significance in art, rather than the superficiality and artifice that are presently being extolled and sold? There must be a way that money and art can co-exist without the former corrupting the latter, which seems the road most taken.


 Customers and collectors alike should work at learning more about what makes art good or bad, and not fall back on uninformed responses and assumptions. We seem to think we are somehow automatically granted artistic understanding at birth, the way we wake up and realize we have a navel. We are too quick to tell artists that the color of their paintings must match our drapes, when it would never enter our heads to tell the physicist what the nature of matter is, or a scientist how to send a spacecraft to Mars.


 Museums must regain their dignity and self-respect by exhibiting and acquiring art of substance. They must stop putting their stamp of approval on inferior art. Genuine is genuine. Ersatz is ersatz. Museums should be able to tell the difference. And, once they do, prefer the genuine over the ersatz, rather than vice-versa. Museums must lead through principle, not follow fashion. They too often think in safely channeled, academic terms of movements, styles, art historical references and sequences rather than the elemental fact that genuine art is -- and always has been -- made from the experience of life, at the highest levels of aesthetic excellence. If art or an artist are involved with artifice, no matter their reputation or what prices their work brings at auction, they will ultimately prove unworthy of inclusion in museums that still adhere to artistic ethics and values.


 In other words, museums need to rediscover the purposes of art and what it is that makes great art great.


 Historically, this is why significant artists are ignored, why the Pissarros, Cezannes, Van Goghs and Gauguins of the world have to struggle so. The museums and other art powers are too busily involved in their narrow, upper-echelon art and social milieu. Few have the time, interest or the courage to find out what is really happening beyond the fashions of the day. Materialism and lazy-mindedness dominate the art community.


 It is arduous to truly try to understand art. It requires an energetic, dedicated and active mind that seeks to grasp the difference between what is worthwhile, original and genuine in art, and what is trite, empty, flashy or bizarre, though it may command the headlines for the moment.


 Perhaps the contemporary espousal of falsity over significance in art (and in society, we might add) will never change. But if it does, it will be the result of individual efforts of inspired artists, collectors, critics, gallery owners and directors, museum curators and directors -- weary of meaninglessness and mediocrity -- who come to understand that what we do to create a more genuine art and a more humane art system, will not only help art, but -- through the example of re-instituted ethics and values -- can resuscitate an expiring world.


Copyright by Don Gray


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