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The dumbing down of the art world continues apace.

At first glance, the headline “Everybody’s an Art Curator” of this article had me thinking the Wall St. Journal was merely delving back into the ongoing use of the word “curate” for non-art things, as in, nowadays people “curate” their own bookshelves, etc. Anything that can be grouped or categorized along someone’s tastes or idea or theme is considered “curated.” I don’t care. Language goes through these changes.

But as I read the subheading and first paragraph, it was clear that the story was about the general public being invited into the traditional halls of real art and then making the decisions about what goes on there, beyond the kids’ hands-on sections (or outdoor billboards): we’re talking “curating” an art museum. This is for the sake of re-popularizing the museum experience. Keeping the doors open, really.

This isn’t that new or surprising. For years now museums have been trying out all kinds of novel ways to get the public back through their doors in this world of never-ending entertainment options. Encouraging non-art people to feel validated and involved in what has been, in our increasingly dumbed-down world, categorized as “elitist” is one way to solve the problem. Museum directors are pressured into tapping new crowds. Some of the “crowdsourced”  or interactive shows mentioned in the WSJ piece seem, in isolation, mostly harmless. It’s the slippery slope that worries me.

In my anxious mind, future ideas for museums who want to stay open no matter the cost to the art might include throwing a paint-ball tournament inside the galleries, or hosting an XFC match. Staging a public lynching. These things, too, are crowd pleasers.

I mention Mike Judge’s cult movie “Idiocracy” here (and elsewhere on occasion) because it’s so potent and visionary. “Idiocracy” was never a comedy to me; it’s a nightmare along the same lines as Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” and though I watched it only once when it came out in 2006, I think of it every day of my life. That is, I’m reminded of it every day. When anti-intellectual (read: populist) elements take over any sphere, it is guaranteed to turn into total junk. Some things are born from and/or head right into this vacuum, like NASCAR. But inviting the uninvested public to remake the art museum into their vision of fun is akin to “Idiocracy”’s corporate leaders deciding to irrigate all the nation’s crops with a sports drink called Brawndo, then watching them die and not understanding why.

For years I’ve been a proponent of the bait-and-switch method of getting art-shy people, and especially kids, into museums. Programs like drawing in the galleries, summer art camp, the occasional open-til-midnight gathering—education and social initiatives that might attract a family or parents who might otherwise overlook the museum as a place to bring their smart kid. Then the smart kid gets to wander around and find real art, and maybe talk to someone else about it, and bettered minds roll on from there. I get it.

But having the public vote on the content of exhibitions, even if the work comes from the museum’s own storage, betrays the trust of the artists, professionals, and actual art lovers who have understood these spaces to be protectors and promoters of the integrity of the work itself. Further, some museums are letting the public put their own idea of “art” onto the walls. No wonder artists are pulling their work out of these compromised places, or quitting advisory boards. No wonder curators are leaving the non-profit sphere and going private. Some museums, instead of providing respite from mindless pop drivel, are mutating into some combination of The Voice, Reddit, and Facebook.

Let me point out that no other serious profession seems to open itself up to this “the public knows best” mentality as much as that of art. I cannot imagine the NFL—a very public entertainment—asking me to recruit players and rewrite the rules to my liking (imagine: all cats all the time), or the medical profession asking me to perform surgery on a heart patient because I think it looks like fun, or an engineer asking me to mastermind the next city bridge because they need to make me feel smart.

It’s incredibly insulting to the professionals and artists who have dedicated their entire careers to the study and making and understanding of art that the museums’ very exhibitions are fair game to people who have not wasted a moment considering why some art is more interesting and worthwhile than another kind: “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like.” Spare me this self-congratulatory, incredibly dismissive non-take on art. There are people who would love to put their niece Skyler’s latest popsicle stick animal right next to a Dieter Roth piece, and indeed think this is nifty, fun, entertaining, and worst of all: deserved. To those who want to pull a narrative down to a level they can “get,” the museum deserves to be punished for thinking Roth’s art is better than Skyler’s.

Because most people are not really that curious about art. And why should they be? Art is often irritating. It can seem willful and difficult and opaque, especially some of the good stuff. Nonetheless, professionals care very much, and know how to put it together and present it in a way that can turn it into a meaningful experience. As Joss Whedon says: “Don’t give people what they want. Give them what they need.” Is the answer to dwindling crowds at museums really to turn the museum into something completely opposite its original intended function?

As all forms of entertainment splinter into ever finer niches that cater to the most esoteric of bents, and people can easily lose themselves in only the things they like, why does the art museum have to be the universal kindergarten teacher who gives out the blue ribbon to every distracted citizen? This is absurd. My husband will point out that this is an American problem. Where he’s from, the government (mostly) keeps the museums’ doors opens, and therefore beyond the takedown mentality of the peanut gallery. This hasn’t seemed to hurt the standing (or earning power) of the Tate, Serpentine, British Museum, National Gallery, et al.

I fear most for the smaller regional museums that don’t have the built-in protections that come with a more educated audience or board. And as we know, the dumbing down happens from the top down, too, as a new kind of collector looks to get into this game led only by his fashion victimhood, and then buys a spot on the museum board, and then what happens to exhibitions is a direct reflection of this art-fair branding and ADHD mentality. Though many would argue this isn’t a new trend at all as uninterested collectors bend museums to their own egos (and gain); it’s been going on for decades.

But, just as language evolves with time and cultural shifts, so do spaces. The colosseums of the Roman Empire are tourist destinations rather then fighting rings. Grand cathedrals in Northern Europe don’t have congregations anymore. Indoor shopping malls are being demolished. Making museums into happy-clappy community centers is a great way to drive real art elsewhere.

also by Christina Rees
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10 Responses

  1. Rainey Knudson

    The point in your final sentence is the whole deal. I think art is already on its way elsewhere in the culture. And there’s no stopping the shift. These days art is rarely to be found in what we’ve traditionally referred to as the “art world.”

    The original notion of museums is noble (preserve our human cultural history) but problematic (create icons of worship in so doing, and their attendant hierarchies, methods of thought control, and cornering of resources). As you note, it’s difficult for museums to avoid simply reflecting the marketplace, which has a lot to do with contemporary American culture — shopping, luxury, high-end decoration, status anxiety — and very little to do with art.

  2. Bill Davenport

    I think the whole push towards populism in American museums is partly an antidote to sleepy curation by the professionals, sometimes it’s a budget cutting measure for cash-strapped museums. There’s also the straighforward sellout- when professional curators pander to popular taste, as in the MFAH’s “Baseball”, “The Art of Star Wars” etc, but that seems to be going out of fashion.

    I want to read about some concrete Texas examples of this- and there are some doozies! Also, how is this like and unlike letting artists curate, as the Menil has done on several occasions recently, with mixed results.

  3. The pandering is getting out of hand. But I also worry about the “bait-and-switch method” of bringing in viewers. There are many strategies used to lure people close to art: alcohol, parties, bands, dinners, movies, and so on. I fear that the lures only reinforce the idea that art isn’t something you’d want to see for it’s own sake. You go to the opening for the party, or the band, or the drinks, and the artwork becomes incidental. Or worse, it becomes the pill you must endure or ignore for the sugar coating. It would be better if museums and galleries could get across the idea that the art itself is worth experiencing, without needing to bribe an audience with other treats.

    Or perhaps museums could find a way to judge their success as institutions other than by the number of people that come through the door. Maybe there’s some other fact, figure or metric they could provide their funders to show when they’re engaging more fully with viewers.

  4. Christina – I read the WSJ article you’re talking about and have been depressed about it for the last couple of days. What a lift to find “Protect Me From What You Want” on Glasstire this morning. Your title says it perfectly. Thank you.

  5. cerise

    Your husband is correct, this concern about attendance to museums/patronizing attitudes of dumbing-down to a imaginary populace is an American problem. While many museums in Europe are state-funded there also seems to be a higher general attendance from an engaged populace. This is not to say that Europe does not ever face such predicaments, yet that the excess noted in the above article seems quite Americana.

    I observe an expanding dumbing-down in many aspects of American life, not just in among art industry centers. As far as a broader American life, there are significant questions too difficult to answer here.

    While I had a similar knee-jerk reaction to the notion of crowd-sourcing curating, I believe it begs many questions about the role and definitions of museums.
    What is a museum? It seems like a simple question, but the role and purpose changes through time. I offer a simple and broad notion: a museum is a place to preserve memory; the memory is transmitted through documents, artifacts, paraphernalia, etc. I would suggest that being a Curating Machine is a secondary function and not always necessary for all museums. Yet, these functions have been turned upside down in which the Curating Machine is highly present and often considered primary. I do not know if there is a causal relation between the ascendance of the function of museums as Curating Machines and the ever-growing abundance of higher education programs offering advanced degrees in Curating.It could be causally related, loosely correlated or possibly even coincidental. What is a fact is that the prevalence of Curating Machines and the status of Curators has enlarged over the past 50 years. After Harald Szeemann and Walter Hopps, it has become sexy to be a curator. Harald Szeemann trusted his own eye, taste, and his own socia/professional network to make stunning exhibitions; I doubt he would ever employ crowd-sourcing.

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