A critic of the NEA and Harvard talks about the narrow-minded, shock-obsessed contemporary art scene.
Lynne Munson’s “Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance” is unusual in its use of the word “intolerance,” which refers not, as one might expect, to Rudy Giuliani and Jesse Helms, but to the atmosphere of political correctness that prevails in the art world itself. It’s unusual too in not being polemical, scholarly or comprehensive. Munson’s goal is clearly to avoid scattershot opinionating. She wants instead to focus on describing what has become of the art world — and to explain how it got that way.
To do this, Munson has put together a collection of journalistic portraits of some of the institutions — the National Endowment for the Arts, museum bureaucracies, art history at Harvard — that characterize the contemporary art world. The result is a small book of surprising weight and substance, provocative in the best sense. You might draw different conclusions than Munson does from her reporting, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a swifter, more fact-chunky short treatment of the framework within which the contemporary arts operate.
Munson herself is only 32, but she has deep-dyed conservative credentials. Bred in the Chicago suburbs, she spent a few teenage moments supporting Gary Hart, then found her path. At Northwestern, she majored first in political science, got bored with the lefty bent of the department’s faculty and switched to art history. (While at Northwestern, she met and became friendly with Joseph Epstein, then editing the American Scholar, whom she describes as an “informal mentor.”) She also edited the Northwestern Review, a conservative newspaper. That led to a stint in Washington doing research assistance for Lynne Cheney at the National Endowment for the Humanities. When the Bush years ended, she moved with Cheney over to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
The idea for “Exhibitionism” came to her when she looked into pursuing her art history studies at a graduate level — despite being a Washington policy wonk, she’d maintained friendships with artists and art scholars. She quickly realized that what she was looking for didn’t exist. “A connoisseurial, object-centered education in art history is not to be had anymore,” she says categorically. So she decided to write a book about how this came to be. (She says that when she’s bugged by something, her impulse is to “get on the horn, get into the primary sources and find out who the best sources are.”) She spent three years in New York researching and writing “Exhibitionism.” Salon spoke with Munson during her book tour.
How would you describe the story you’re telling?
My goal was to put forward hard evidence as to what may have sparked the art wars — and to chart very carefully the kinds of changes that have taken place during the postmodern era that fundamentally altered the focus and mission of our arts institutions.
Pretend you’re on “Crossfire.” What two or three points do you want to be sure to get across?
That shock art is the safest kind of art that an artist can go into the business of making today. That the real mavericks of our time have been working quietly and carefully for years in their studios producing wonderful work few people have seen. And that even though the NEA is not the cause of the various ills we’ve seen, it is to a great degree an embodiment of the problem.
What is the “new museology”?
It’s a set of theories postulated by a group of art historians that suggest that museums should no longer operate as objective storehouses for great objects, openly accessible to whomever would like to come see them. The museum should instead be an institution with more activist goals that looks at society, and looks at the objects in its collection, and says: How do we want to change society, and how do we want to use these things to create this change?
But doesn’t the traditional museum impose a political agenda of its own? That of the status quo, for example?
This is the core argument of the new museology. I find it funny. Traditionally, museums used to organize their collections according to the region in which they were made, and often according to the chronology in which they were made. It’s hard to see where politics could have entered into it. Museums and curators organized their objects that way in order to clearly and objectively present their collections, so that viewers who were not well-versed in art history could just come and browse the collection. New museologists have tried to make that approach seem political.
Chronology and geography — I wonder if the new museologists see politics infusing those categories, or the people and institutions that would make use of such categories.
Their primary argument really is that connoisseurship, or the methods through which art historians have assessed and compared works, is some kind of “dead white male,” mystical method, through which European painting always ended up on top. Today curators are spending an enormous amount of their time concocting theories and revising how their collections are presented.
Is this why, when I go to a museum these days, I’m so often more struck by themes and curatorial gambits than I am by the art?
Indeed. And you’re often overwhelmed by wall labels that are larger than the artworks themselves.
Aren’t the new museologists, though, just making the curatorial point of view explicit? And isn’t that a good thing?
But what can the curator’s point of view be when you’re putting all the paintings made in Italy during a certain century in a certain room? I don’t understand how the argument can be made that that’s a politicized approach. To me, so much of this is common sense — the idea that one painting can be better than another, for instance. You go to the Louvre, and there are so many people in front of the “Mona Lisa” you can barely see it. Some of that has to do with fame, of course. But ultimately that fame is the result of people over centuries of time finding something of value in that work. The new museologists and the new art historians like to make all sorts of complicated arguments about how Leonardo only came out on top because of some political strategy that’s been perpetuated. But you go to the Louvre and you see those people standing there, and you see the painting yourself, and you just say no.
No one’s holding a gun to the heads of the people looking at that painting. I’ve always found that people who make the argument that everything is at base political are people for whom that’s true. What I quarrel with is their insistence that that’s true for me, let alone in a cosmic sense. In your view, is that what these new approaches represent — people for whom politics is always paramount?
These are people for whom politics is an end in itself. They often seem to be people who just can’t enjoy a thing in itself.
Harold Bloom identifies himself as a lefty, but he makes a similar argument — that the deconstructionists who have taken over literary studies are people who really don’t like literature or art. What they really like is power and politics.
I would agree with Bloom. I think similar thoughts when I see collectors who spend tons of money on work that’s simply no fun to look at. There are people who fill their houses with work — some of which is little more than propaganda — work that’s meant simply to make a statement that you can understand almost instantly. It’s like filling your house with posters. It doesn’t have anything to do with the enjoyment of looking at something. It seems to have to do with the desire to feel as though you’re supporting the points of view embodied in the work. I have no trouble with people enjoying politics. I’m very engaged in politics myself. But politics and art are two very different things and to confuse them is very dangerous for both.
How many American museums have adopted the new museology?
Probably the majority. And many in places where people would be surprised to see such changes: in Baltimore, for instance, and at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
You point out that something so banal as museum entrances have been affected by this.
Museum entrances used to force you to walk up a lengthy staircase under, say, a grand colonnade, or under a portico. It was a grandiose experience that took a minute or two to proceed through. It helped you focus your attention on transitioning from day-to-day things — cars going by — and focus instead on an experience of high seriousness. It helped you experience the museum as a place for contemplation.
It set a mood.
Today’s entrances make no attempt to set that kind of mood. Now, it’s a more continuous experience. The experience you’re involved in before you enter continues on the inside. You often see a gift shop, a cafe. You don’t have a sense of preparing for a higher experience than you were having before.
What does this reflect?
The argument that art is just another object in one’s regular experience. The new museology says, Listen, don’t hold this object up in any higher esteem than anything else — which makes it easier to make art objects part of everyday debates.
It demystifies the object, which can help you see it more directly. But it can also make you wonder why you’re bothering to look at it at all.
Is it so bad to be ever so slightly intimidated as you approach a wonderful Botticelli at the National Gallery? And to be quiet, and to look at it carefully and really take it in?
When you were thinking about pursuing grad studies in art history, you couldn’t find what you were looking for. What was missing? And what did you finally learn has happened?
Art history graduate programs used to be centered on helping students actively engage art objects and understand them, and to cultivate a level of fluency in approaching and understanding art objects. Art history is more focused now on theorizing. Many students, especially at Harvard, spend years studying art history without really being forced into an encounter with art objects. I’m afraid of the effects this is going to have on museums. Harvard, particularly, is a place that trained decades and decades of wonderful museum directors.
Is Harvard especially bad?
It’s one of the worst. But any program that used to have connoisseurship as a hallmark of its curriculum is either fully gone or considerably on the wane. When you trade away important values that have guided artistic creation and scholarship for centuries, you trade away your ability to pass any reasonable judgment on the quality of things, and to trust scholars and scholarship. It cedes to politics. It cedes to power, really, to use a word that’s particularly treasured by the left. For example: If you no longer teach connoisseurship in school, who fills the void? Galleries. Dealers.
So the administrators are taking over, and the emphasis on social critique is getting greater. How are these facts related?
To a certain extent, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, what art should be came to be redefined as: Art needs to have a social message; artists need to be social advocates; artists need to be using their work as a vehicle for something else. It became a very lucrative track for many artists to pursue, and it came to overshadow many other ways of working.
How much blame does the NEA deserve for the current state of the arts?
A lot of people blame the NEA for a lot of things, because it has lent credibility to trends that don’t deserve to have it. I don’t think the NEA is at the heart of the problem. But I do think it epitomizes the problem.
The “art wars” that you refer to seem to replay the same argument over and over. What is it?
We have one side that lines up along the battle line of censorship and the other side that lines up along the battle line of blasphemy. And they face each other and blast away. The rest of us get bored silly, learn nothing and get confused about what the state of things really is. The artists who provoke the battles become famous, and the people who participate in the battles send out a lot of direct mail and start new organizations.
I suspect that most lefties are convinced that the real reason for conservative attacks on outfits like the NEA is that conservatives just don’t like culture, and never have. Do conservatives in fact care about art?
I don’t really like talking about the arts in these terms. To me the arts are apolitical. I don’t think that someone with conservative eyes would see art any differently than anyone else. The arts deserve to be depoliticized. That’s the wonderful thing about the arts that so many people are trying to rob them of. The arts really do float above those kinds of debates.
Your history of the NEA is especially fascinating. I was surprised to learn that it was under Richard Nixon that its budget expanded dramatically.
That’s right. The agency essentially started in 1967. In 1969 the budget was $8.5 million. By 1974 it was more than $64 million.
I take it that the agency hasn’t grown more efficient over time in its use of its money.
In 1967, they were giving away $16 in grant money for every administrative dollar they spent. By 1996, they were giving away $4 in grants for every administrative dollar. You plant a bureaucracy, you water it, it’s well fed and it blooms. But it doesn’t bloom in a way that serves your mission; it blooms in a way that serves itself.
How much favoritism is there at the NEA?
There is a lot of garden-variety favoritism. But the more pernicious form of favoritism is a stylistic bias. Philip Pearlstein, a figurative painter, tells a terrific story. He was on a panel, and he sat there watching slides with his fellow panelists. At lunch, he was thinking over what he’d seen, and he realized that he hadn’t seen one representational work. In fact, he hadn’t even seen one work that was a four-sided canvas with paint on it. He remarked on this to some NEA staffers, and they explained that the NEA had asked a few of the panelists to come in the previous day and cull out all of the applicants they felt were not competitive. So he spent some hours going through the works that had been culled out. And he found among the rejects far and away the best artists in the whole lot. Many were painters, and not all of them were representational.
Meaning that, despite all the progressive talk, the kind of art the endowment supports has become more and more restricted?
The NEA when it first started was funding work in every stylistic category one can imagine. And then, even as the budget was getting larger and the number of grants was mushrooming, the kind of art that was being funded became of a narrower and narrower variety. When I looked at what was funded in 1995, almost every single artist was making art that was primarily geared toward social critique. If you’re a painter and you go about your task, and your work is about paint, or space, or process, or whatever, but it isn’t also driven by a desire to critique society in some manner, don’t bother applying to the NEA.
To what extent is the NEA guiding and dictating this? And to what extent is it simply responding to what artists are doing?
There are excellent artists out there who don’t do this kind of work and who have not received any of these grants. Perceptual painting, for example, has persisted through the postmodern period, and none of those artists have received any NEA grants. And many of them have applied for many years.
Americans can get terribly worked up about arts funding even though many of them don’t interact with the fine arts at all. How to explain this, especially when it’s a matter of mere pennies and when there are so many other flagrant examples of government waste and stupidity?
I think in part it’s the fact that the formula for being a successful artist today has come to include learning how to critique the American public itself. When you have a whole generation of artists who have cultivated careers bent on this task, on critiquing the public — in making fun of religion or patriotism, or of the expectation that the arts will be beautiful — shockingly, the public reacts. Well, if you poke an animal with a sharp stick long enough, it’s going to turn around and bite your hand. The fact that censorship is always the first argument raised in the art wars strikes me as amazingly hypocritical. It’s not only artists in this country who have free speech, it’s everybody else too.
What’s wrong with a little government welfare for the arts?
We have no proof, except for the very beginning of the endowment’s existence, that the government has actually helped the arts. I think the best situation is where well-run private foundations give grants that do not discriminate on a stylistic basis but on the basis of quality.
England, France and Germany have enormous cultural programs.
The Netherlands does too. It has warehouses full of the work artists have produced that it can’t do anything with.
Doesn’t it seem a little barbaric that a major country shouldn’t have a sizable cultural program?
I never assume the European example is a great one to follow.
Is there any reason to think that the NEA might one day be terminated?
Realistically, abolishing the NEA is a nonissue. If the Gingrich Congress couldn’t do it, it’s not going to be done. No one running for office is even talking about it.
What’s likely to happen to it?
I think until someone can determine whether we can achieve a considerable shift in the way the NEA goes about its fundamental business, and until we’ve determined whether many of the corrupting influences that have undermined the NEA can be reversed, it’s best to keep the NEA small, run it well and hope for the best.
Ray Sawhill works as an arts reporter for Newsweek. More Ray Sawhill.
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