Do museums think the public is stupid?

In the recent issue of The New Republic, the art critic Jed Perl accuses the current director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Campbell, of dumbing-down the museum by incorporating, among other things, the widespread use of iPads in the museum’s galleries (“Campbell Meets Warhol: Does the Met’s director think the public is stupid?”).

Perl asserts that Campbell is surrendering his previous, high curatorial standards to the desire to “demystify the museum through digital means” at the expense of experience and scholarship, effectively turning the museum into a “well-oiled corporate machine [...] that downgrade[s] the value of curators, not to mention the value of art.”

It is true that since the 1980s the focus of museums increasingly has been on education and interpretation, which among other things, has created a boom for audio guides and now mobile apps. But the issue of experience vs. interpretation is at least as old a question as modern art itself, going as far back as the nineteenth-century French intellectual dispute on the museum between the poet Paul Valéry and the novelist Marcel Proust.

Valéry criticized the Louvre for creating confusion in the mind of the spectator by reducing the experience to the level of information only. No one would want to listen to ten orchestras at once, he argued, yet we are forced to apprehend, at the same moment, a seascape, a portrait, and a still-life, or worse, painting styles completely incompatible with each other. He warned that excess of information would lead to impoverishment of the senses.

Proust’s view was more progressive: he regarded the museum as the ideal place to view art. Devoid of décor and other commonplace distractions, its galleries paralleled for him the inner spaces into which the artist withdraws to create works of art.

Both Valéry  and Proust emphasized that art should be enjoyed. But while for Valéry, art lost its vitality in the museum and effectively “died,” Proust saw an afterlife of art in the museum, in the subjective stream of consciousness of the viewer.

In a 1954 radio talk on “The Phillips Collection and Related Thoughts on Art,” Duncan Phillips explained that “What is different in The Phillips Collection is that the diversity of styles, with a chosen standard for what I consider the best of each style, results not in eclecticism and not in partisan or news-conscious reporting but rather in an intimate unity of effect, an ambience or fusion of styles, like that of a unifying light, corresponding to the private expressions of many converging influences, which go to the making of an artist’s personal life, taste and creation.”

The Phillips Collection was incorporated in 1918 as an “educational institution,” yet for Phillips it was not a school to educate the uneducated but a place “to relax, think, and enjoy”: “All openminded people … are welcomed to feel at home with the pictures in an unpretentious domestic setting which is at the same time physically restful and mentally stimulating.”

Phillips understood that with the emergence of modern art in the late-nineteenth century the “insatiable curiosity of all men,” which had been a driving force in the sciences for centuries was now spreading to “an understanding of the artists and their ever-widening horizons.”

Would he have approved of audio guides and iPads in use at his intimate museum? My guess is yes, as long as they were not replacing the primary experience of the works in the Collection. Phillips knew early on, that when an individual is exposed to extraordinary works of art, when they are touched by the fleeting breath of the invisible, moments of silence occur that can only experienced alone, without audio guides or iPads. But these devices of the twenty-first century, as despised by Jed Perl as the museum as an educational institution was by Valéry, can also help us expand our understanding of the world and, in Duncan Phillips’s words, “enter the minds and experiences and expressive idiosyncracies of others to the profitable enlargement of [our] taste and cultivation of openmindedness.”

One thought on “Do museums think the public is stupid?

  1. I’m so glad you posted this. I really like how you rooted the discussion with Valery and Proust and then brought it back to the Phillips. Thanks!

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