Exhibiting Contempt

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

Exhibiting Contempt

Populism vs. democracy at the art museum.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.



Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?