John Leo
A spate of amazingly foolish exhibitions at American art museums is raising a grave question: Are these museums determined to conduct their own meltdown?

To entice the young and the nostalgic, the once-staid Boston Museum of Fine Arts ran a big exhibition of 130 guitars, thus turning itself into a gigantic Hard Rock Cafe. New York's Guggenheim museum put on a blockbuster show on motorcycles, with catalog tributes from Hunter Thompson and Dennis Hopper. (The New Republic called the show "a dark day in the history of American museums" and "a pop nostalgia orgy masquerading as a major artistic statement.")

The Miami Art Museum featured William Wegman's gag photographs of dogs in high fashion clothes. Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art staged a big exhibition on Disney theme parks. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art felt the need to honor the American sneaker ("Design Afoot: Athletic Shoes, 1995-2000").

A big exhibit on the "Star Wars" film saga, essentially a traveling ad to drum up publicity for the fifth movie in the series, is touring art museums, including those of San Diego, Minneapolis, Houston, Toledo and Brooklyn. The Brooklyn director, Arnold Lehman, is an old hand at exploiting pop culture. When he headed the Baltimore Museum of Art, he installed shows on Dr. Seuss, jukeboxes and Looney Tunes cartoons. At the Brooklyn Museum of Art, he staged a big hip-hop show, borrowed from Cleveland's rock 'n' roll museum. Other art museums presented major shows on "Thirty Years of Rock 'n' Roll" and "Rock Style."

Many art museums now turn themselves into department store windows, displaying the clothes of fashion designers like Giorgio Armani (the Guggenheim) and Christian Dior (The Metropolitan, which also planned a Coco Chanel show, but abandoned it in favor of a show on Jackie Onassis' wardrobe).

What does all this have to do with art? Not much. Curators are caught up in a slide toward mass entertainment and marketable product. More and more, the process of broadening appeal has come to mean dumbing-down and looking to pop culture for the lowest common denominator. The huge financial success of the "Star Wars" and motorcycle shows points the way toward more and more money-driven decisions. (The Guggenheim is building a huge, 63,000-square-foot exhibition hall in Las Vegas, which will open with the motorcycle show.)

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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