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.