Exhibiting Contempt

Culture and technology.
Sept. 6 1998 3:30 AM

Exhibiting Contempt

Populism vs. democracy at the art museum.

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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.

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