Are the people who run our museums aware that their solicitude for museumgoers sounds a lot like condescension? A few weeks ago, Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums, explained that the Metropolitan Museum of Art “can be intimidating” for people who don’t “already know something about art and have a familiarity with the place.” Thomas Campbell, the Met’s very own director, is singing the same song. “We have to recognize that a great many of our visitors don’t know their way around and they don’t know much about art.” I realize that Campbell and Bell are well-meaning fellows. They do not want to be pegged as oblivious elitists. What they may not realize is that their ready-for-prime-time populism is another form of elitism—maybe the worst kind of elitism. When I read these remarks by Campbell and Bell I have the sneaking suspicion that they regard the museumgoing public as the little people, dumb as rocks, a blank slate with no inherent taste, insight, or sensibility. When museum people start to talk about improving the public—there is now a field known as “visitor engagement”—the unspoken message may be that administrators and bureaucrats do not really believe in the public.
Thomas Campbell, who is now in his third year as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a curious case. When he expresses a desire to “demystify the museum through digital means,” he sounds like many museum directors around the country who have turned their institutions into well-oiled corporate machines that downgrade the value of curators, not to mention the value of art. The strange thing about Campbell is that he never would have been hired as director of the Met had he not, as a curator at the museum who mounted landmark exhibitions of Renaissance and Baroque tapestry, proven that intellectually and artistically demanding material can be embraced by a large, heterogeneous museumgoing public. The man seems to be running away from his own experience. So here we have Campbell, in an article by Randy Kennedy published a few weeks ago in the New York Times, posing in the Met’s modern and contemporary galleries, with an Andy Warhol portrait of Chairman Mao looming behind him. Why is he posing with Warhol, when the essential wonders of the Metropolitan include paintings by Rembrandt, Bruegel, and Duccio, spectacular medieval ivories, and eighteenth-century period rooms?
My worry is that Campbell now believes Warhol is what the public—the public that doesn’t “know much about art”—wants to see. Isn’t this a form of condescension? And an inexplicable form of condescension, considering that only a few years ago Campbell proved that museumgoers could go wild for tapestries designed by Bernaert van Orley, an artist about whom this supposedly easily intimidated public knew absolutely nothing. Campbell is in danger of losing track of the difference between the pop celebrity world (Warhol’s natural habitat) and an authentic democratic populism, which must be grounded in the belief that people are inherently insightful. In the Times article, Campbell’s willingness to be photographed with Andy’s Mao fits quite neatly with the information that in December he “seemed to be everywhere at Art Basel Miami Beach, the contemporary-art bacchanal.” Now this is an odd kind of populist credential, because of course the dinners and parties at Art Basel Miami Beach are VIP events, frequented by very wealthy collectors, who tend to regard museums as vehicles for leveraging the value of their private holdings. It is not reassuring to hear that Campbell might be auditioning to be one of their courtiers. The type of collectors who buy the latest Jeff Koons moments after Art Basel Miami Beach opens would enjoy knowing that Campbell remarked at a press luncheon that the Met’s new show of guitars is a “teenager’s wet dream.” Art for grownups is not, by and large, what the art world wants to see.
The gist of Randy Kennedy’s article in the Times—like the gist of most of what’s written about Campbell—is that the new director is very different from his predecessor, Philippe de Montebello, a man as principled as he was political, whom commentators are too quick to turn into a cliché of the grand seigneur. The real story about Thomas Campbell, however, is that Campbell the director is in danger of rejecting the values that Campbell represented as a curator. Of course these are early days for Campbell, whose job was made no easier when he took over at the Met just as the economy was tanking. This is why, when I first read Randy Kennedy’s article a few weeks ago, I thought I would let it pass. The other evening, though, I found myself looking at a volume of essays, Tapestry in the Baroque, the result of a symposium held at the Metropolitan at the time of Campbell’s second tapestry show in 2007. I was reminded all over again of the richness of thought and feeling that went into that great event. And I could not help but wonder at the Campbell of today, who is dreaming of a new, fully wired Metropolitan, and seems less interested in the art than in making sure that everybody is walking around the galleries with their iPads. I was particularly struck by an essay in the Baroque tapestry symposium by a French art historian, Pascal-François Bertrand—“A Question of Scale: Was It Necessary To Weave Poussin’s Paintings?”—that highlights the simplifications and even distortions imposed on Poussin’s works, originally created for a tiny group of connoisseurs, when they were reconfigured within the more official and public context of large-scale tapestry. Bertrand is far too elegant a historian to describe this as dumbing down, but his essay is a reminder that we must always fight to preserve the essential artistic values. And if the arbiters in seventeenth-century France were inclined to run roughshod over some of Poussin’s subleties, the situation is surely no less dangerous today, and may well be considerably more dangerous.
Thomas Campbell faces daunting challenges at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I would agree with him that the Met needs to embrace the wired world. That is a no-brainer. Mostly, though, this great institution must remain wired into its own traditions. With his tapestry shows, Campbell was building on the Met’s longstanding celebration of the weavers’ art. What resulted were two astonishing, epochal—and popular—events. Thomas Campbell ought to remember that among the many reasons he was offered the loftiest museum job in the United States was because he was not known for posing next to Andy Warhols or making the rounds of Art Basel Miami Beach.
Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.