Populism at the Gates

13 Aug

Andy Warhol famously said that ‘the best museum is a department store.’ And from the looks of it, museums are pursuing excellence rather perspicaciously.

Museums may stock art, but what they sell is cultural pretensions, cultured erudition, a dollop of snobbery — to be served with tart to lesser beings— and entire abstruse vocabularies to share what you never felt and understood but readily imbibed from the digitized voice of the audio guide with the opposite sex for sex, sometimes friends and coworkers for distinction.

And best of it is that you don’t even have to struggle – waste time with art no one gets to earn your rights, now that museums have woken up to the need of expanding their market, and as they accelerate their transformation into the vital cogs of higher end popular culture. So next time you go to a museum, you can rest your eyes on things you can understand, or think you can – well there is always the audio guide for reassurance, like photos, the great modern epigram of reality, and decorative glass sculptures, and art by celebrities like Frida Kahlo. If those things don’t interest you, you can always walk out with a museum tote bag, or come back during a weekend evening snacks and drinks sessions.

Museums are the epitome of the late capitalist bloomage because they sell nothing, except insignia of privilege, culture—the hard to measure. And now they are making their fairy dust available to more people than ever before. In a way it is a meager pleasure for culture is increasingly going out of business, as a marker of money and class. Money is the marker of money. It is surely there for the many from the middle, who having lost the moral edge in a culture which doesn’t value the narrowly defined moral rectitude, are now looking for new definitions to make respectability respectable.

While all of this is going on, there is something else that ails. The trouble is that there are real limits to selling culture. First, you have to teach the people how to appreciate this amazing thing. And to do that you must reduce the steps to appreciate the object into some comprehensible formula, but do it in a way that the product is always tinged with veneration. Well at the heart of it you want to teach people how to distinguish the ‘good’ from the ‘bad.’ But ‘good’ should be something irreproducible or something specific to a brand.


Kenneth Baker, art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, evicerates the Chihuly exhibit at the DeYoung in rather spectacular fashion.

“Perhaps in today’s arts funding environment, every museum must work a potboiler or two into its exhibition calendar. But Chihuly has come to personify everything meretricious in contemporary art. The most exciting thing about his work: Its status as art stands in question.
Chihuly’s presentation at the de Young consists of ensembles of works in blown glass, so theatrically lighted that they make a visitor feel like a walk-on performer in some costly, unnamed spectacle. That spectacle is Chihuly’s career.

A fair-minded critic must ask why Chihuly’s work cannot be taken seriously as sculpture. Sculptors of acknowledged importance have at times made good use of glass: Robert Smithson (1938-1973), Christopher Wilmarth (1943-1987), Barry Le Va, Kiki Smith. But all of them shunned Chihuly’s forte: decoration.

The skeptical visitor to “Chihuly at the de Young,” starting in the second of its 11 rooms, gets the queasy sense that here the gift shop inevitably barnacled to such exhibitions has finally engulfed its host.

Educated viewers cannot look for long at Chihuly’s work without wishing there were something to think about. So they think about something else. The capacity to hold our attention, in the moment or in reflection later, is a mark of significant art in an era when mass media work hard to abbreviate attention spans so as to cut costs and decapitate questions.”