More and more people are going to museums and galleries, but why? They don’t seem to know — and nor do the institutions’ curators
Though my interest in art has intensified over the years, museums lure me less and less. My problem, doubtless, is the ever larger and more enthusiastic crowds. Despite this reluctance, personal obligations recently forced several museum visits on me, in several cities, too: my hometown, New York, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Dallas, and elsewhere. Each visit left me with the same four powerful impressions: The institutions seemed more eager than ever to push their collections, and visitors seemed remarkably eager to consume. At the same time, I got the feeling that the visitors wanted something other than the museums were offering. Strongest of all was the sense that neither party had given much thought to what the exchange ought to involve.
With a background in economics, I naturally had a hankering after something more concrete than feelings. Without statistics to hand, I did my best on this front by engaging visitors and, when I could, museum staff in conversation about their expectations and intentions. Unscientific, I know, but instructive nonetheless. A few visitors, though a very few, expressed a serious interest in the exhibits. A minority of them put my art background into the shade and quickly. Most of the visitors I encountered spoke of doing the “kids” some good, though what good remained vague. Some referenced an obligation to see a special exhibit that had received a lot of publicity, though no one seemed quite sure of the nature of that obligation. Many of the museum people acknowledged that most visitors had little serious interest but hoped the visit might “plant a seed”. Other officials emphasised what might be termed a multicultural angle. They hoped to expose people to different perspectives. Some administrators spoke cynically about tolerating the crowds and the expanded gift shop as a way to finance the collection, though for what purpose they never made clear.
I had hoped for something else. I wanted the museum people to give me a hint of why they chose to emphasise one exhibit over another or, more important, why their curator valued one work over another. Especially when the relativist, multicultural talk got thick, and the professionals, unbidden, emphasised how no one piece was inherently superior to another, I felt a powerful impulse to ask, “Then why this particular stuff?” Usually I resisted that urge. It seemed too aggressive in the circumstance. When frustration forced out the question anyway, some condescend and some tried to clarify. Nothing satisfied. When I asked something like this of visitors, I hoped, in vain, for something along the lines of a response that had deeply impressed me in my youth.
When in college, in what now seems like the Pleistocene period, I had a summer job near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Because my work obligations produced a gap in the middle of the afternoon, I frequently went over to the Met. I started with the mildest of interest. I went mostly because the Met was a lot cheaper then, more comfortable than the street, and did hold some small interest. It also held promise as a place to meet girls. That last plan failed, but I did repeatedly run into the same young man. Eventually we acknowledged each other and in time even exchanged a few words. I explained my presence. In return he offered his reasons. I quote from an inaccurate memory: “Some admirable people think highly over this stuff,” this obviously disadvantaged youth said. “I figure, if I hang around it enough, I’ll see what they see.” Without critical support, his quest seemed doomed to failure. It seemed to me an admirable effort nonetheless. I got nothing close to this on my more recent visits.
I say his quest was likely to fail, because he seemed to strive for what people much better equipped than he struggle to do. He seemed to want a guide to what made art great, why one piece belonged on the Met’s walls and another did not. He knew that the decision involved something beyond personal taste, his or the curator’s. He intuitively rejected the now popular notion that all is up to the individual and that no one thing is inherently better than another. In my more recent museum chats, I could get neither visitors nor museum officials even to begin to address what made one piece particularly worthy. The curators clearly had acted on it. Otherwise the walls and cabinets would be a hodgepodge, and they were not. But no one allowed the conversation to go too far in this direction or even seemed interested in taking it that way.
Remembering him amid my more recent impressions, I set out on a quest of my own. I found precious little guidance. Material on particular works abounds, but there is almost nothing in general. It is, I suppose, the nature of the beast. Art, whether graphic, musical, or literary, deals with profound subtitles. These cannot help but baffle clear analysis. If one could cover the ground analytically, humankind could skip the art altogether and get by with essays. I did, however, find a measure of satisfaction in an unlikely place. Hannah Arendt, hardly an art historian or critic, offered something in an essay, “The Crisis of Culture.” She wrote in the late 1950s and her concern dwelt less on the judgments of curators than on what she called “mass society.” Even so, she gave more of an answer to my question than most. Still, even her towering intellect struggled, fell sometimes into circular arguments, and ultimately offered only the barest outline.
At base, she argues that art, to be considered great, must have the ability to speak powerfully over time to different generations, despite their different tastes, fashion senses, and moral priorities. In saying this, there is no suggestion that great art must be old. Age may make it easier, since viewers know that it has already passed the test of many generations. The question, however, centres less on what has passed than on whether the art — graphic, musical, or literary — will speak profoundly to future generations. Theoretically, it should be possible to make that judgment even before the paint is dry on the canvas or the ink on the manuscript. Practically, however, the skill is rare. It demands that the judge remove himself or herself from his or her own milieu, never an easy matter. The difficulty involved is so great that those who can accurately forecast such durability win the world’s admiration, so much so, in fact, that too many make positive judgments on this score too frequently.
Arendt had hardly unearthed something new. Links between great art and notions of timelessness are at least as old as civilisation. The writings of ancient Greece sometimes seem obsessed with it, though in a slightly different way than Arendt expressed it. It is hardly surprising that the Greeks would look for what perseveres through time. Their circumstances, the circumstances of any ancient people, had to make them acutely sensitive to the impermanence of everything else. Their daily life brought them frequently against the mortality of all living things, certainly more frequently than modern life does. Their circumstances made them more aware than modern people of nature’s ever-changing character. Such feelings appear again and again in their poems, aphorisms, and philosophical works. These emphasise especially, and with some sadness, how the acts of men or women, personal or great, disappear almost immediately unless some artistic effort — a poem, a history, a statue, or a great body of laws — gives them permanence. Without the art, and the Greeks considered law-giving an art, future generations would have no knowledge of what had passed, no matter how great, passionate, or heroic in the moment. Since only art abides and everything else passes, the ancients could not help but see imperishability as part of art’s defining essence.
Even as this notion of timelessness resonates, it still leaves a question: What in art gives it this quality? Arendt refers to that something as “beauty”. Disappointingly, her essay fails to characterise explicitly what she meant by the word. One can only draw possible meanings from the context of her discussion. Beauty, whether in a portrait, a landscape, an abstract, a poem, or a sonata, fosters imperishability, she seems to say, by creating a tension between two powerful but contrary feelings. One is the natural human desire to possess what is beautiful. The other involves a subtler sense that possession would somehow destroy the beauty that so attracts. This second, almost opposite sense impels the individual to create an atypical distance from his or her personal, subjective feelings, what our ancestors might have referred to as assuming a “disinterested” appreciation. By prompting this distance, the beauty at once offers additional insight into the individual’s subjective feelings even as it yields a sense of what perhaps the artist might have felt or what other viewers, listeners, readers might feel. Subjective feelings become more vivid while the individual glimpses something bigger than self, something that perhaps hints at immortality.
Kant, in his Critique of Judgment, makes a similar case. He characterises this second feeling as liberating people from their individual “subjective, private conditions” and in so doing enlarging their “mentality” (eine erweiterte Denkungsart). The sense binds individual feelings to those of others and in so doing also binds the viewer, listener, reader to them. He refers to this welcome feeling as a “common sense”, not in the phrase’s modern colloquial meaning of everyday wisdom, but rather as those familiar feelings and values a person holds in common with others in his or her culture, “a faculty of judgment . . . of all others”. Sir Roger Scruton writes something similar when he describes great art as rewarding imperfect human beings with the sense of a more perfect “icon”, to use his word, one that stands at a distance from our subjective selves and resonates with the values a person holds in common with others even as it makes each person’s inner life that much more “lucid”.
Pericles adds another take on the matter. In the speech that Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War puts in his mouth, the great Athenian leader speaks of the city’s art as an expression of Athen’s great culture. It is apparent in the context that Pericles says more here than that Athens, unlike other cities, allows its artists to express themselves as they will, though it does. Rather, he says that the city’s greatest art gives expression to something bigger than an artist’s inner feelings. It speaks to the common culture of the city, something that draws Athenians together and so will live on after the feelings of the moment fade. Barbarians, he acknowledges, have a sense of beauty, but because they lack the discipline of common feeling, their art tends toward voluptuousness. Pericles, like Kant after him and Arendt as well as Scruton still later, argues that for art to last and achieve greatness, it must have this ability to connect a person’s subjective feelings to those that he or she shares with others in their culture. Other efforts, no matter how appealing in the moment, will fail as great art if they fail in this respect.
Some people resist this notion of common feeling. They describe the tension with possessiveness as a special sort of rapport with the artist or the work. While this notion seems to pull in a very different direction from the descriptions of Kant and Scruton, it nonetheless has similar essentials. It still takes people beyond their subjective feelings to something outside themselves, to something larger and more durable than everyday feelings, even though the sense binds them to a much smaller group.
This perspective, whether turning on common feelings or a special singular rapport, makes considerable space for critics and curators. Only people with education and discernment can hope to identify the existence of this contradictory tension. Only they can effectively mediate between the viewer, listener, reader, on the one hand, and on the other, the artist, who creates from internally generated impulses, and especially the immortality afforded by common feelings with others in the larger culture. Under this influence the Greeks actually came to distrust the artist. They feared that his interest in self-expression could draw people away from the common sense of their culture, produce something voluptuous, and possibly undermine their precious common values. They demanded the critical mediation as a kind of protection for the people. How else can one explain the Athenian arrangement in which a board would judge competitions among new dramatic works? Such critics, unlike the modern kind, did not exist to say whether a work was bad or good or even effective. Rather they judged whether it was misplaced and so was unlikely to achieve imperishability within their culture.
All this seems to stand in stark contrast to more modern approaches to art. Rather than cultural ties, popular attitudes stress originality, the artist’s inner force, and subjective individual responses to it. They insist only that the work offer an honest expression of the artist’s feelings. The culture’s common sense or that of the viewer simply interfere. Still, nothing in this modern approach precludes the ability to create the imperishability of great art as described by Kant, Arendt, Scruton and others. The arguments put forward by these people do not insist on a public standard, much less censorship. They are quite willing, as was Pericles, to let the artist follow his or her vision. That may or may not create an imperishable beauty that speaks to future generations. Critics and future generations will determine that. The only efforts that are doomed to failure are these that contrive to attack the common feeling among people. They certainly fail to capture inner artistic feelings, even if they do tap inner political feelings. Meanwhile they actively reject an effort to speak to future generations.
Nor does this emphasis on common culture clash with the modern insistence that no one culture or artistic tradition is better than another. Though Pericles, Kant, Arendt and Scruton write in terms of a Western culture, none makes any claim of superiority. Even Pericles avoids such claims. His harshest criticism is that barbarian artists fail in terms of their own culture. Neither do such views suggest, implicitly or otherwise, that people of one culture cannot appreciate the great art of another. Few would deny that aspects of beauty and common feeling can transcend even the most disparate cultures. Thucydides, through Pericles, asserts as much. Ironically, it is some multiculturalists who argue the contrary, especially those who object to what they call expropriation when people from one tradition attempt to capture the feeling of another. These claims effectively deny cross-cultural understanding and would box each culture into itself. If these views do not assert superiority, they surely call for a separation. Kant and these others make no such exclusionary claims.
However incomplete this characterisation of great art, it does offer a practical guide to exhibitors, be they museum directors, librarians, publishers, or music directors. It should also inform visitors, readers, or concertgoers. The most fruitful path, for the art itself and those who would bring it to others, would emphasise art’s lasting role and its ability to touch simultaneously on our personal feelings as well as something larger than ourselves, something we hold in common with others or at least some others. With this in mind, Arendt warns of two destructive trends. One she calls “cultural philistinism” and the other is a confusion between art appreciation, in any form, and entertainment. In identifying and explaining these dangers Arendt offers guidelines for all involved.
When she wrote in the early 1960s, she saw little risk of cultural philistinism in the United States. She saw it as largely a European phenomenon. She traced its origin to the growth of a well-to-do commercial class in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Though this class possessed means, its members nonetheless lacked social standing. They turned to art, mostly collecting, in order to gain cultural polish in the eyes of others. These people, she makes clear, had no real interest in the art itself, its timeless beauty, its ability to bond one to another in the culture, and certainly not to glimpse immortality on earth. Rather, they put art to their purely practical ends, in this case to gain social standing. Their motives remain purely utilitarian, and since the very definition of philistinism is an inability to appreciate anything except the utilitarian, she saw a crass philistinism in these people. Beyond silly, she saw it as a dangerous distraction from the feelings art can create and so a force that undermines its immortal nature.
Arendt saw America’s different social relations as protection from this. They, she argued, free the new classes of means of any need for such pretences. American artists, without this impediment, are, she claimed, better able to reach the essence of great art. She saw this especially in the literary sphere and referenced Melville and Whitman. Her take may have been true of the 19th century and perhaps even the first half of the 20th century. Since then, however, the practice of cultural philistinism, as she described it, has acquired a considerable following in this country, so much so that by the 1970s it acquired its own American label, “culture vultures”. They flock to cultural events, museums and other venues less for the art than to burnish their image. I met many suspects on my tour. The European danger that Arendt identified has metastasised here.
The entertainment confusion is certainly as prevalent in America as in Europe, perhaps more so. Of course, the desire for entertainment has always existed. It differs from the draw of great art and has long lived in society parallel to it. To that extent, it remains harmless to art. Arendt saw danger, however, when entertainment, in its relentless and ever-expanding search for material, begins to co-opt great art. She saw the danger growing in the tendency of what she called “mass society”, and what moderns might call “mass culture”, to make entertainment out of everything. The resulting commodification distracts even people who should know better from the meaningful feelings brought by art and so moves all away from that larger sense of what she, Kant and Scruton wrote. If such a loss is not guaranteed, the imposition of entertainment certainly increases the risk that it will occur.
This reasoning then charges museums, libraries and serious musical venues to avoid two temptations in their quest for an audience. One is to expunge as much as possible that which caters to the culture vultures. The other is to avoid using art for entertainment instead of for its own sake. Should they fail on the first effort, they may generate a cash flow for what they consider better purposes but only at the risk of corrupting those purposes. Should they fail at the second and allow entertainment to abuse the art, they are less likely to “plant a seed”, as some museum people told me, than block any lasting relationship with the art. I am well aware that these warnings would foreclose primary ways in which many supposed cultural venues support themselves, but there must be other, less risky ways to do this.