‘Disheartening and interminable’: a great gallery humiliates itself

By John McDonald

Caravaggio. The Musicians, 1597.Credit:The Metropolitan Museum of Art

While the NSW lockdown rolls on, Queenslanders can go to Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art and view the blockbuster exhibition, European Masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It’s almost certainly the most impressive show to reach our heavily barricaded shores this year but the pandemic has made it hard to imagine anyone will be travelling north before it winds up on October 17.

Perhaps the closest view of the Metropolitan Museum we’ll get in 2021 is the three-part PBS series Inside the Met, which may be sampled on ABC iview. Having ploughed my way through the entire 143 minutes, I emerged feeling disheartened at the ways in which even the greatest museums are being refashioned by the economic and social pressures of our demented age.

To those lucky enough to see the GOMA show it’s the exceptional quality of exhibits that remains in the mind. As a highlights package of European art from the 15th century to the 20th, it showcases all the big names, notably Titian, Caravaggio, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Poussin, Turner and Monet; as well as masterpieces by artists such as Piero di Cosimo and Georges de la Tour, who might be less familiar to Australian audiences.

At the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane: Caravaggio. The Musicians, 1597.Credit:The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The pressure that all art institutions feel to be more open to the work of women artists is reflected in portraits by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun and Marie- Denise Villers, neither of which required any special pleading by way of gender politics.

The commitment to excellence has been part and parcel of the Met’s rise to greatness. I wish I could be sanguine about its immediate future. The series, Inside the Met, funded by wealthy donors, was made to celebrate the museum’s 150th anniversary in 2020. Intended as positive propaganda it should still have been an engaging portrait of a world-renowned institution. Instead, the entire thrust was to present the Met as a beacon of political correctness, fighting for its survival in a challenging environment.

Each episode was less than an hour long but felt interminable. Meandering sequences followed “ordinary” people as they visited the museum, wandered around and said unremarkable things. Curators and conservators spoke at length about what they do and how much they loved their jobs. In theory, this should have been interesting. In practice, there were too many neat little speeches about the money required to fund each department.

Marie Denise Villers, Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes (died 1868)1801Credit:Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Worst of all in this respect was the executive floor, where the speeches sounded rehearsed, although after years of fundraising it may simply have been second nature.

Leader of the pack was President and chief executive, Dan Weiss, who had a lot more to say than Director, Max Hollein. At great length, Weiss gave us his thoughts on topics such as fundraising and philanthropy, leadership and social justice. Nothing controversial, all tailored to present a respectable, thoughtful image.

Inside the Met spends no time on the history of the museum and is haphazard in its view of the collection. The three episodes focus on the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York; a new emphasis on social justice in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests; and the museum’s constant need for funds, to be harvested from donors big and small. These were presented as life and death issues for the Met:

“With the future unknown was its survival in question?”

Well, no, not really. With a US$3.3 billion endowment, the Met is one of the wealthiest, most well-supported museums in the world. If it requires even larger amounts of cash that’s because maintenance, expectations and ambitions are so high. It costs a lot to keep up appearances.

Unlike continental museums that are largely supported by the state, American museums – and most other local institutions – are dependent on constant injections of private money from those wealthy patrons and businesses who pay so little tax. Australian governments, both state and federal, would love to emulate the United States in offloading the funding of cultural matters onto the private sector, effectively turning arts and heritage into a user-pays affair.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is one of the wealthiest, most well-supported museums in the world. Credit:REUTERS

As the museums are obliged to find ever-greater sums, fundraising becomes a core business, no less important than exhibitions and acquisitions. This has a predictable impact on other activities. Shows that might be historically important but unlikely to draw audiences are shelved. Crowd-pleasers and blockbusters become essential sources of revenue, with popularity being the ultimate measure of success. Wealthy patrons are cultivated, even to the extent of putting on shows of their collections. Curators are required to spend a significant amount of their time sucking up to donors. Events such as the Met Gala, with its cast of this month’s celebrities, become publicity bonanzas. New gimmicks are being dreamt up all the time such as “Date Night at the Met” – as if a couple needed an excuse to visit the place!

Lady Gaga arrives at the Met’s Costume Institute benefit gala for the “Camp: Notes on Fashion” exhibition 2019.Credit:AP

In the second episode of Inside the Met, devoted to social justice issues within the museum, staff speak about the urgency of addressing imbalances of race and gender. We watch as a comfortably middle-class African-American mum takes her two small daughters to the museum to ask them, in my view, ideologically blinkered questions about the works on display. She points out that in Emanuel Leutze’s iconic painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851) there are no women in the boat. We are also reminded that Washington was a slave-owner, which in many peoples’ eyes obviates all his other achievements.

New gimmicks are being dreamt up all the time such as “Date Night at the Met” – as if a couple needed an excuse to visit the place!

To further demonstrate how right-on it has become, the Met has commissioned works by contemporary Cree artist, Kent Monkman, who parodies Leutze’s picture in two large paintings in which gender-bending indigenous figures play starring roles, with Washington being replaced by Monkman’s own creation, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle – a non-binary alter-ego of the artist.

A classic now questioned: Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851Credit:Getty

Monkman’s large, vibrantly coloured paintings have a striking presence, but the idea of works that “reverse the colonial gaze” is one of the artistic clichés of our time: a feel-good exercise that makes the woke crowd feel virtuous and infuriates the traditionalists. While not qualifying as a raging conservative, I’m repelled by the opportunistic virtue signalling involved in this sort of commission and saddened by the way it reduces Leutze’s painting, let alone the complex figure of Washington himself, to a set of vulgar political taboos that need to be swept away by today’s critically aware hipsters.

While not qualifying as a raging conservative, I’m repelled by the opportunistic virtue signalling involved.

Such exercises feed the pernicious belief at the heart of cancel culture that we are in some way morally superior to everything that has gone before and are thereby entitled to dismiss the bulk of history, art and literature. It’s a cocktail of pathological narcissicism and intellectual laziness, mixed with a dash of pure spite. If any institution should stand as a barrier against these tendencies it’s the Met – or indeed, the Louvre, the Prado, the Hermitage, or the National Gallery in London.

The Two Sisters by Jean Honore Fragonard, c1769-70. Credit:Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

A public museum should not be complicit in any reconstruction of art history that degrades work of significance and promotes mediocrity simply on the grounds of race or gender. Above all, museums need to be defenders of the idea of cultural excellence. We can’t banish or shame great artists because of attitudes that were acceptable in their day but are now found reprehensible. It’s a bit late to be shocked by Degas’ anti-Semitism, or Gauguin’s taste for under-age Polynesian girls.

Rather than cravenly offer up its own icons on the bonfire of political correctness a museum needs to reconsider its policies in a measured fashion. If there has been a wilful neglect of women artists, this can be remedied. If gender issues have become a hot topic, they can be factored into rethinking exhibitions and displays. It’s no outrage to begin integrating indigenous art into canonical displays of western-style art. But if the museum is not to alienate more viewers than it brings on board, these things need to be done gradually, with sensitivity. Inside the Met shows us a major institution racing to humiliate itself, cocooned in a bubble of self-congratulation.

On display in Brisbane: Paul Cézanne till Life with Apples and Pears, c1891–92. Credit:Metropolitan Museum of Art

The signs are everywhere in Australia that we are hastening down that same path. I’m not convinced museums should be too eager to add alternative Indigneous place names to every wall label, regardless of the ethnicity of the artist. What does it mean to say that an artist of Anglo-Celtic or Jewish heritage comes from Gadigal country instead of Sydney? Or Narrm instead of Melbourne? Not only is this confusing for the unenlightened who imagine that every artist in the show must be Indigenous, it risks trivialising the indigenous artist’s relationship with country. In terms of understanding their work it may not matter much that Mitch Cairns hails from Sydney or Lauren Berkowitz from Melbourne, but it’s crucial that when we look at Nonggirrnga Marawili’s paintings we acknowledge her origins and continued presence in Yirrkala.

The Art Gallery of NSW is demonstrating the same obsession with fundraising that has permeated the Met’s operations. Credit:Jenni Carter

The Art Gallery of NSW is moving in this direction with little consideration of all the angles involved. The Gallery is also demonstrating the same obsession with fundraising über alles that has permeated the Met’s operations. Seemingly every event, every contact between the gallery and potential donors, sponsors or simple well-wishers is now charged with the need to extract money or restrict the way money is spent.

If there’s a threat to great art museums today it springs from a dual embrace of the wealthy and the woke at the expense of everybody else.

Shows that are not money-spinners will be radically under-resourced, with neither catalogues nor official openings. The annual Archibald Prize used to be celebrated with a massive party to which all and sundry went along. Now it’s an invitation-only function for featured artists and a guest, plus an anointed group of sponsors and donors. I don’t think this can be blamed solely on the pandemic. Many long-term supporters have been alienated by the impression of meanness and exclusivity generated by these policies, so foreign to the democratic ethos of a public museum. It’s ironic this is happening at a time when the gallery is going all-out to boast its social inclusiveness.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pygmalian and Galatea, c1890. Credit:Metropolitan Museum of Art

What one sees in Inside the Met, and in the evolution of our local art institutions, is a growing lack of civility. By this, I mean an ideal of citizenship that leads to a bedrock assumption that a public art museum is there for all comers: old and young, rich and poor, black and white, left-wing and right-wing; male, female and every other gender variation. At root, this puts the ball back in the government’s court because it’s a dreadful abnegation of responsibility to see culture as a non-essential service that may be left to rich, arty types who like that kind of thing. In the long-term, the arts have an incalculable importance in shaping our values and sense of identity.

When we look to the museum today, the greatest need is for dignified self-evaluation. Important institutions such as the Met and the AGNSW are reaching the point where fundraising is less a means to an end than an end-in-itself. They try to ameliorate this impression by jumping on all the social justice bandwagons, as if any hint of economic rationalism might be concealed by the musky fragrance of political piety. It risks being the worst of both worlds, yoking the heartless priorities of finance to the dubious moral imperatives of the politically pure. If there’s a threat to the survival of the great public art museums today, it springs from a dual embrace of the wealthy and the woke at the expense of everybody else.

European Masterpieces from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York is at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane until October 17. Inside the Met is on ABC iview.

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