Discover more from WOID
NOT AN INFLUENCER.
But it’s good to have been a prophet. Now back in my own land, I’m starting up where I left off: at the Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, and others close by.
Some of my prophecies have come true, some not. Back in 2009 I wrote:
“One of the most surprising aspects of the new global museum is the contempt and arrogance with which visitors are treated.” [Werner, Museum, Think , 2014].
That’s still true in Europe, where museum personnel from director down to guards see themselves as servants of the State and the capital they manage as something to defend from the unworthy. The petty functionary who harasses you at the Louvre is pretty much the same as those who hassle you at the border: they believe they’re acting in the name of the Nation, whose norms happen to be the norms of capitalist exploitation [Werner, “The Seurat and the Shitty,” 2013].
At least that’s changed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Eight years ago I wrote about the politics of exclusion practiced there; of the Museum’s draconian and illegal admissions policies. [Werner, Jump Jim Corot, 2014].
Not so much at the Met, now, which has returned to its 1873 promise to be “virtually free to the people.” [Werner, Jump Jim Corot, 2014]. Today once more, New York residents, among others, get free admissions to the Met. You can reserve your tickets online, so Black folks can get their tickets without feeling pressured or humiliated at the box office, or made to feel like free riders or moochers, as they’re used to at the polls and the museums. Museum admissions fees are what the poll tax is to citizenship, only it’s cultural citizenship.
Has the Museum Scrooge seen the light? A goose for Tiny Tom? There’s an eighteenth-century ditty, “Phyllis plus avare que sage.” It tells of the sweet shepherdess who demands a hundred sheep for a single kiss. Swain not interested. The next day, upon reflection, she offers a single kiss against a sheep. Still no takers. Then how about free admission to the Kissing Booth? By the time her song is sung she’d gladly give a hundred kisses for a single sheep, but her lover’s getting his kisses elsewhere. That was the Museum’s nightmare back in 1873: people wouldn’t come if you made them pay, to the point where the ability to insouciantly pay became the condition for cultural citizenship. That’s the museum’s worst nightmare today, the equivalent of people not coming back to work, not because they don’t have to but because they don’t want to. It’s been that way since the Internet took off: why get the stuff in person when it’s available online, and “virtually” free?
What we see here isn’t charity, it’s a realignment of two divergent systems for the exploitation of artworks. The trustees’ fiduciary responsibility is to ensure the institution’s economic soundness, thus the flimsy rationale for paid admissions. But the trustees’ traditional interest lies in using the Museum to hike up the value of their own capital, the sculptures and paintings that legally belong to them as trustees, or their own private investment in similar artists or artists with stylistic or narrative qualities similar to their own preferences. The Met still owns a large collection of pictures of American locomotives because many of the early trustees were railroad magnates, thus pictures of the locomotives they owned, and pictures they owned of the locomotives they owned. In all ages the ruling taste is the taste of the ruling class and let’s face it today: the ruling class isn’t going to strengthen its authority by displaying its skills in acquiring locomotives, or even Pollocks. Maybe they should switch to rap. Oh, right…
A few years back I got a letter from the Director of Collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reminding me that the Museum had no objection to my lecturing there so long as my lectures served to enhance the value of the holdings. I won’t name names, except that this name rhymes with a fish that gets a free ride by attaching itself to the underside of sharks. This was no different from my previous experience when I left the Guggenheim:
“For all of us, the guards and staff and lecturers who took their job seriously, content mattered all along: the content of the art and the content of the museum, and the wider social implications in varying degrees. By the time I left content mattered in the back office, also: it was important that there be none, just reverie. By then there was no interest in art, or art criticism.” [Werner, Museum Inc., 2009].
No different from the time I decided to try out for Gallery Guide at the Museum of Modern Art. I was acing the audition — I mean, come on! — but did I want the job? Halfway through I tossed a slow ball at the auditioners: I suggested that the dating of a particular canvas by Cézanne had to be subjective, as is true for most of Cézanne’s work. Their faces fell. Thank you for your time, etc.
The legitimacy of museums once rested on their claim to offer a unique experience, which in turn strengthened their authority to define and monopolize what constituted Art and how it should be viewed. Today the crux of confrontation has shifted: no longer the legitimation of the Museum as arbiter but the legitimation of information itself and concurrently, the deligitimation of all competing or negative information,
“non-violent methods such as participation that undermines the morale or offers to engage in discussions.” [ Gray, “An NSC Staffer Is Forced Out Over a Controversial Memo,” 2017].
As a couple academics recently complained in their quaint academese:
“We appear to be well in the midst — or are perhaps already in the wake — of yet another ‘turn’ in the Humanities, this time away from the paradigms of critique, theory, and complication to practices that increasingly privilege surface reading and the critical modesty of description over interpretation.” [St. Clair & Bray, “Failure is Our Greatest Option” (Conference Announcement), 2022].
Because it really doesn’t matter what the information is, so long as it serves to enforce legitimacy; so long as it abandons all claims to criticism for description. In the land of the Positivist the critic is a Commie.
And there’s a good side to this: The Met’s research library, which was already one of the best, is still outstanding and accessible, because the only purpose of writing and research in Art History now is to strengthen the authority of the institutions of Art. There’s a problematic side to that as well, because the Museum, like Society at large, is undergoing a “Spetsy” crisis similar to the crisis that unfolded along with Stalin’s rise to power: could one trust the specialists to come up with the correct interpretations? [Werner, A cuppa’ Joe, 2015].
Back in the day, when I led my students around the galleries I had to warn them about two potential problems: one was racism, either structural or direct; another one was the hostile, hurt reaction of other visitors, that someone might be critical of Art, especially someone who didn’t seem to belong. Now as then the task of the critic, the lecturer, the curator, or even the humblest visitor is to validate the investment, and the humblest visitor can understand that. Especially the humblest visitor. Nowadays the Artkarens are gone—at least from the Met. Museums and their enforcers don’t care what you are, or who you are, or what you think. They don’t need an audience, at least not a questioning audience, that’s not where validation comes from any more. If you must have an opinion go on Twitter or start a blog, where it can safely be dismissed. The Museum’s task is not to foster discourse around Art, it’s “Content Moderation.” Do what you want, say what you want, pay what you want, nobody gives a damn. The casualness with which any one of those may be conducted today is liberating:
“The very fact that their share could at best be enjoyment, but never power, made the period which history gave them a space for passing time.” [Benjamin, “The Flaneur,” 1983].
Let’s do lunch.
And yet, there have been times when not caring was an affirmation of faith. Perhaps it’s time, again, to submit oneself to that passionate and insulated indifference, a Critic in the Era of High Capitalism.
Why should I care? Because I’m supposed not to. And what is there to care about? Les bijoux perdus de l’antique Palmyre…
May 7, 2022