Our relationship with museums is based on trust. But while we expect history museums to know the facts and science museums to understand the math, we demand more from art museums. We go to paintings and sculptures much as we do great novels, expecting that we might acquire information, though primarily seeking to experience art itself. We know that we react differently to Vermeer’s intimate, pausing interiors than we do to the fleeting images of everyday life. Still, few of us believe we will ever grasp the elusive quality that defines art against everything else. So we rely on the art museum to provide us with the best examples of man’s aesthetic soul.
When we visit today’s art museums, however, we are often confused. Many museums are altering their buildings, revamping their programs, and spurning the very idea of aesthetic quality on route to the goal of becoming "pluralistic institutions." Yet the result has been anything but pluralistic. In reality, the traditional meritocratic museum, which celebrated aesthetic excellence regardless of origin, has evolved into a highly prescriptive institution, more dedicated to subverting the "master narrative" and deconstructing genius than to enriching visitors’ minds. In the end, the so-called revisionist art museum is replacing the idea of a continuous and progressive evolution of artistic achievement with a heroless tale of cultural production.
The traditional museum assumed that the ability to experience art was a shared human inclination. Columbia professor and Nation art critic Arthur Danto, revisionism’s foremost theorist, has explained, "As recently as 20 years ago there was a certain consensus in moral philosophy and in the philosophy of art that ethical and aesthetic values were universal." According to Danto, a "recent turn in ethics and in art marks the disintegration of this consensus."
It is, in Danto’s words, the "museum of interest and identity" we face today. Premised on the notion that our response to art is determined by our race, class, and sex, the revisionist museum assumes that we go to art seeking to affirm our group identity. Visiting a museum is not an intellectual act, but a political one, as Danto defines it:
To experience the art is, from the very start, to have an interest—not personal or individual, but the interest which has as its object the furtherance of the group to which one belongs. The art is there for the sake of that interest.
A museum visitor who is a waitress only identifies with works that cater to marginalized laborers. Black visitors are only interested in African art—and so on, with as many permutations as race-class-gender-based diversity allows. In the revisionist museum, no artwork—no matter how old or how great—escapes this analysis.
Museums once catered to a single audience: the visitor seeking to experience greatness. Such a mission presupposed an agreed-upon set of standards by which to judge artwork. Connoisseurship—the close examination of art objects through consideration of the characteristics that compose form, including color, line, subject, space, and composition—was the practice museums relied on for determinations of quality. Stylistic differences aside, art objects from any culture were assumed to be striving for this aesthetic greatness.
But revisionists never talk of standards, quality, or greatness. Danto argues that the museum’s emphasis on quality "imposed an irrelevant conception of the ideal of the museum." Art historian and former Whitney Museum curator Benjamin H. D. Buchloh has called quality "the central tool which bourgeois hegemonic culture (that is, white, male, Western culture) has traditionally used to exclude or marginalize all other cultural practices." To say that one painting is better than another, one period of art making more successful than another, or one civilization more aesthetically achieved than another has become an act of prejudice. According to University of Chicago historian Neil Harris, "Classification has come to be seen as an act of domination."
Revisionists stress leveling established hierarchies of masters, mediums, and movements. "We do film, we do Rembrandt," explains Michael Ann Holly, art department chairman at the University of Rochester. Similarly, the Hirshhorn Museum’s Stephen Weil objects to the favoring of painting over the work of "potters, goldsmiths, tailors, carpenters, sandal-makers, or jewelers." According to Well, painting’s elevation is likely the result of "historical happenstance," when the notion of art was "fabricated in Florence toward the end of the fifteenth century." But if greatness is merely "happenstance," Michelangelo fares no better than a fifteenth-century Italian weaver, and a nineteenth-century French post-Impressionist no better than today’s postmodernists. That is the ultimate goal of the revisionist museum: to create a situation where standards are relative, where everything becomes art, and where politics is left free to guide the museum’s mission.
From classical facades to basement doors
The most visible evidence of this transformation is the altering of museum entrances. Like their eighteenth-century European forebears, most American museums were built in the Greco-Roman style. American museum founders—just like those who built Munich’s Alte Pinakotek and London’s National Gallery—chose classical architecture to convey their country’s and their collection’s tie to the heritage of Western civilization.
But the classical appearance was more than symbolic. The facade was meant to facilitate the transition from the orientation of everyday activity to that of artistic contemplation. Most museums required their visitors to climb a grand staircase—first to reach the museum’s entrance, and then sometimes once again inside—as a crucial element of this transition. The physical work the visitor expended in the task of climbing was a metaphor for the effort required to reach a state of knowledge, of which the museum was a treasure house.
Many institutions no longer require visitors to ascend a grand staircase. Even the Louvre is now entered through the basement. Most entrances have been relocated to a side or back door, often off the parking lot. Visitors now enter museums no differently than they might a mall or a grocery store. For example, until 1971, visitors entered the Cleveland Museum of Art through its massive, neo-classical entrance, overlooking an Olmsted designed park. The Cleveland museum’s founders considered "an adequate approach" to be the first criterion for determining a building site for the museum. Visitors climbed a monumental staircase, passed through an arcade of Ionic columns, and entered the museum through a neo-classical portico. An 1892 editorial in the Cleveland Leader called the museum-to-be "a magnificent temple of art," explaining that "a feast of the beautiful is better enjoyed when it is a little apart from the associations and surroundings of business life."
Cleveland’s original entrance is now closed six months out of the year. Most visitors are ushered through Cleveland’s "new front door," the north entrance consisting of a fortress-like concrete canopy, attached to an austere granite-box addition to the original building. Visitors must traverse a driveway, but no stairway, to enter the museum. Director Robert Bergman says he’s not entirely happy with the new entrance, though he does characterize the old entrance as "imposing, symbolically" and "off-putting" for many visitors.
Similarly, visitors to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) walk along a parking lot—in the path of cars—to an entrance so small that the museum installed a "visitor entrance" sign to direct stray visitors. After opening a lightweight door, they pass through a low-ceilinged alcove and into a largely art-free foyer. Physically and perceptually, the visitor of BMA undergoes no transformation—no sense of readying for an experience of high seriousness. The new entrance is continuous with everyday experience, implying no qualitative difference between the transactions one might have engaged in before arriving—eating, visiting the post office, shopping—and the experience of viewing art.
This was not always the case in Baltimore. Prior to 1982, visitors entered the BMA, whose classical facade is also revealed across a large park, by scaling 27 steps, walking through a row of Ionic columns that support a classical pediment, and passing through a set of massive doors. For visitors to the BMA during its first 55 years, entering the museum was an unmistakably inspiring act. Yet, BMA director Arnold Lehman calls the old entrance "imposing in a somewhat negative way" that said "something about elitism." Lehman believes a classical facade speaks "to only a small fraction of the community," making others "uncomfortable." The use of the BMA’s original entrance is now reserved only for special events—like elaborate fundraisers—attended by the sort of people Lehman characterizes as "not bashful about asking for champagne."
However, Lehman admits that other visitors have expressed an appreciation of the museum’s original architecture. He reports that he once overheard a group of inner-city kids, who had just entered the grand hall inside the original entrance, comment on its beauty and "what an absolute change in experience it is from their daily lives." What Lehman seems oblivious to, though, is that these kids are as capable as the "champagne crowd" of appreciating the museum’s elevating atmosphere.
Inside the revisionist museum, the assault on tradition continues. Revisionist art historian Carol Duncan describes the experience of a visitor entering the revised Boston museum:
The old Museum was organized around the central theme of Civilization. Behind the monumental classical entry facade, the entire sequence of world civilizations followed one upon the other: Greece, Rome, and Egypt ... with the Renaissance centrally placed. The recent addition has seriously disrupted the order in which it unfolds, with the old museum’s opening statement now occupying the most remote reaches of the building. It is now possible to visit the museum, see a show, go shopping, and eat, and never once be reminded of the heritage of Civilization.
This description could easily apply to a visitor’s experience at the Seattle Art Museum. That museum’s architect, Robert Venturi, boasts about having designed a museum that presents "art as part of everyday life." Indeed, a visitor to Seattle’s museum is greeted with little that puts a priority on art: a large foyer feeding into a gift shop, coat-check room, and auditorium. Proceeding up an off-center staircase to the Mezzanine, one finds the museum cafe. Seattle displays art in just 30 percent of its space, a third of the space accorded to art in the traditional museum. Seattle visitors must ascend a full three floors before they can view sections of the permanent collection. Art seekers must proceed further, to the top floor, if they are to catch a glimpse of European or American art.
Seattle’s de-emphasis of European art is not unique. Most museums are now reorganizing their collections in ways that "subvert" what has come to be called the "master narrative," or the traditional museum’s chronological display of art objects from ancient Egypt and Greece to the present. Revisionist museums have deconstructed this program, replacing it with a fractured and fragmented tale that—just as professor Danto suggests it should—emphasizes political imperatives over historical realities.
Upon entering the Baltimore museum, visitors are greeted with a museum shop and restaurant. Visitors seeking to begin a review of the museum’s permanent collection are presented with a single starting point: the collection of African, Native American, Oceanic, and Pre-Columbian art located immediately off the foyer. Before Baltimore’s new entrance opened, museum visitors, entering through the classical facade, were first greeted with the American painting collection and then the European galleries.
Visitors to the Cleveland museum have two choices upon entering the museum. They can take a passageway that leads past two museum stores, along a cafeteria, through another lobby, and into the museum’s Asian and Native American art galleries. A more logical move might be to ascend a staircase just inside the museum’s new entrance, at the top of which the visitor finds a segment of the contemporary collection and the South Pacific and Africa collection.
When the Dallas Museum of Art expanded in 1993, its collection was also reorganized with a revisionist twist. The museum created "museums" within the museum. The Museum of Europe is home to European paintings and sculpture from antiquity through 1945. In the Museum of the Americas, colonial through twentieth-century American art is displayed not in the context of the European tradition but as somehow derivative of Meso-American work. The New York Times observed, "This is a novel and multicultural idea, putting ancient Peruvian textiles, Olmec sculptures and Yupik eskimo masks on the same footing as paintings by Frederic Edwin Church and Georgia O’Keeffe."
About the only art left to speak for itself in the revisionist museum is non-Western. The massive exhibition of African art at the Guggenheim museum in New York last year displayed more than 400 objects. Each object was installed in a way that emphasized its aesthetic qualities.1 The objects in the recent Olmec show at the National Gallery—from colossal stone heads to delicate ceramic sculptures of infants—were also lit and displayed in ways that highlighted their aesthetic achievements.
The titles given to exhibits of non-Western art feature laudatory rhetoric rarely applied to displays of Western objects. "Splendors of Imperial China: Treasures from the National Palace Museum" was an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum and Art Institute of Chicago last year. The Art Institute’s press release for the "Splendors" show describes the objects on display as awe-inspiring, remarkable, elegant, auspicious, lyrically beautiful, magnificent, wondrous, exquisite, and fascinating. The objects in the show—third century B.C. jade discs, life-size imperial portraits, twelfth-century celadon-glazed ceramics—are in fact quite wonderful. Unfortunately, today’s praise of the show inevitably raises this haunting question: Would Western pieces receive as much praise?
The most vivid example of the contrasting treatment accorded Western and non-Western objects is the National Gallery’s 1992 blockbuster, "Circa 1492." A press-packet outline of the show’s contents describes objects from Africa, Islam, and Japan as "masterpieces." Objects from China are "splendors." The "splendor" of the Aztec Empire is also touted, along with the "important textiles" of the Incas, "celebrated" work from Brazil, and the "finest works in gold" from Colombia and Costa Rica. The aesthetic quality of Western objects is ignored. Instead, these objects are contextualized; press releases explain that the show will focus on "Europe and its fascination with the exotic" by revealing "how far the realities of Far East culture exceeded the Europeans’ dreams."
The show was an exercise in excess. The New York Times’s Richard Bernstein accused "Circa 1492" of going "beyond appreciation to a kind of complete cultural relativism that refused to make any judgment about the greater historical significance of the West." "Circa 1492" demonstrated how far the revisionist museum will go to bury a simple truth: In this instance, the fact that the story of late fifteenth-century Europe, at the height of the Renaissance, is worth telling. To the show’s credit, the quality of the objects was impeccably high, even including Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine. Yet, the show proved that you can’t simply show a Leonardo anymore—at least not without bringing in 600 objects as camouflage.
In addition to rearranging their collections, revisionist museums manipulate art objects. It is now a commonplace practice to pit contemporary art against older objects throughout the museum. Many museums have taken to putting their collections at the disposal of contemporary artists. Usually this takes the form of allowing an artist to act as a curator. An artist is brought in to display their favorite selections from the permanent collection—sometimes next to their own work, and sometimes with the artist’s comments in tow.
Artist Fred Wilson built his career this way: In 1992, the Maryland Historical Society put its extensive collection of art and artifacts at Wilson’s disposal. He used the work to stage the exhibition "Mining the Museum." The installation, which the museum claims was intended to "disrupt expectations and definitions of museums," consisted of a string of jolting juxtapositions. Wilson laid a Ku Klux Klan hood inside a stroller and surrounded a slave whipping post with five delicate antique chairs. The Seattle Art Museum incorporated Wilson’s comments throughout its collection. The suggested starting point for the installation was on the museum’s fourth floor where a water fountain had been spot-lit like an art object. Wilson’s commentary took many forms: including a Rolex watch inside a case filled with African art, placing televisions on either side of a contemporary painting, shoving seven sculptures and six paintings into a corner of the modernist gallery. The catalog describes Wilson’s installation as "a combination of a treasure hunt, a series of elaborate and witty riddles, and a multileveled probe into cultural and racial bias."
Art for money’s sake
Revisionist shenanigans notwithstanding, museum attendance remains high. More people visit New York’s museums most years than attend sporting events in the city. The Economist notes a "boomlet" in museum construction, with 50 science and technology centers and 36 children’s museums built in the last five or so years. Who can deny the popularity of Vermeer at the National Gallery or Matisse at the Museum of Modern Art?
Today’s museums, however, usually deploy such blockbusters with one thing in mind—raising money to fund their revisionist and postmodern projects. What revisionist museums offer the blockbuster attendee is this: overcrowded exhibitions that make actual art viewing nearly impossible and overpriced catalogs and souvenirs at the museum store, which has been relocated to exhibition exits. Proceeds from these mega-shows are rarely invested in ways that might serve the needs or the interests of the blockbuster visitor. How many $75 Matisse catalogs must the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) unload in order to purchase a Kiki Smith (creator of the infamous human fluid jars)? How often does the Whitney museum need to show its Edward Hopper collection in order to support its infamously politically correct Biennial?
Though revisionists claim that their goal is to create a museum that is more inclusive and audience-centered than the traditional museum, they show a remarkable lack of interest in actual public opinion. When the public disagrees with the revisionist museum—as was the case with the National Air and Space Museum’s planned Enola Gay show, and the National Museum of American Art’s infamous "West as America" exhibition—museum professionals dismiss this criticism as either manipulation or philistinism.
When asked about these controversies, Cleveland’s Bergman, who is also president of the American Association of Museums, warned that museums cannot allow public opinion to "compromise our devotion to freedom of expression." Bergman views this type of public participation in museums’ work a free-speech threat of "epidemic" proportions. He suspects such controversy is the result not of honest critics but of "one person or a small group with political or theological or philosophical commitments."
Or consider the dispute that erupted over a neon sculpture by Bruce Nauman that is visible even quite a distance from the BMA. The sculpture, which sits high atop the museum’s new entrance (where, on traditional museums, the names of great artists were often carved) intermittently flashes the words "Silence, Violins, Violence." According to Baltimore’s Lehman, when the piece was originally installed, neighbors wrote letters of complaint to the museum and to the newspaper; they argued that neon had no place in the museum and threatened to go to the zoning commission. When asked why, in the age of the visitor-centered museum, these residents’ opinions had not been heeded, Lehman asserted: "We’ve always believed that the museum has to take a leadership role rather than being reactive to the community."
Upon his retirement from the directorship of the National Gallery of Art (NGA), J. Carter Brown oversaw an exhibition of ancient Greek sculpture, donning the politically incorrect title, "The Greek Miracle." The show proudly announced its purpose: to display a selection of ancient Greek sculpture in commemoration of the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of democracy. Its determined focus was on just 34 individual objects—including a marvelous kouros and the breakthrough "Kritios Boy" sculpture—each displayed to emphasize its aesthetic features.
The New York Times blasted "The Greek Miracle" in two separate articles. One critic called the show’s title "jingoistic" and accused the NGA of "perpetuat[ing] cliches about art and its meaning that recent art history has been trying to dislodge." Another called the show an "intellectually unambitious" attempt to encourage viewers "not to think too hard or ask too many questions, just be dazzled." Time magazine’s Robert Hughes dubbed the show "an exercise in political propaganda." J. Carter Brown responded:
We do share some universal values—the rule of law, the ideal of justice—which came to us from the Greeks.... It would be a great loss to this country if everyone just took whatever piece of world culture they felt they could identify with most closely and abjured everything else.
The cultural balkanization Brown warned against is exactly what his "Circa 1492" show had encouraged. Still, "The Greek Miracle" is the firmest statement any major museum has made to date in support of high aesthetic standards and historical truth.
The compromised version of art and history cultivated in our universities and practiced in our museums shortchanges the present by misrepresenting the past. A serious debate needs to take place—of the sort that emerged in academia over political correctness—over the state of museums. Even though the polite environment of museums encourages silence, the public deserves to hear people speak clearly and honestly about the impact revisionism has had on the presentation of art.
1. The catalog for the Guggenheim’s Africa show, largely consisting of Afrocentric commentary by Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Kwame Anthony Appiah, contradicts the formal treatment the exhibition afforded these objects. But the catalog content was probably an effort to appease academics, allowing the visitor’s experience to proceed, unfettered by over-contextualization.
Lynne Munson is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute. Her book Exhibitionism: Art in the Age of Politics will be published in the fall of 2000.