John Leo

Since the pop exhibits cost money to attend, and the permanent collections often don't, the message being blinked is that the pop stuff is exciting and important, while the high art isn't. And the amount of money that can be raked in opens the door to shady practices as well as lower standards. The Guggenheim did not reveal that it had accepted $15 million from Giorgio Armani before staging the Armani exhibit.

Part of the problem is that curators are afraid of straying too far from current popular tastes. Social critic Heather MacDonald calls this "cringing curatorial populism." This fear of quality has roots in ideology as well as in mass marketing. The current generation of museum curators, mostly reared in the 1960s' ethic of opposition to authority and tradition, bought into the postmodern idea that art museums have been part of the stuffy, elitist, Eurocentric power structure that must be overthrown.

According to postmodern theory, artistic judgment is a mask for power; there are no masterpieces, and even quality is suspect. If the problem is that aesthetic standards have been imposed from above, the solution must be to heed the judgments of ordinary citizens -- in other words, to elevate pop culture.

"When standards become relative, everything becomes art," Lynne Munson writes in her new book, "Exhibitionism," "and politics (or any other non-art priority) is left free to guide the mission of the museums."

In general, curators seem to accept the postmodern ideology and some take it more seriously than others. The Seattle Art Museum, which keeps its European and American art out of the way on the top floor, is one of several museums that hired Fred Wilson, essentially to mock its permanent collection. Wilson is an "installation artist" and "museum deconstructor" who rummages around in permanent collections and stages displays to show how racist and intolerant museums are. The most political of the nation's current exhibitions is probably the Los Angeles County Art Museum's "Made in California." Ostensibly a tribute to the state, the show is largely a sour depiction of California's founders and elites as pure villains.

As critic Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times, "Today's museums are under attack from art-world ideology on one side and commerce on the other." In many ways, their decline parallels what happened to the colleges: an ideological loss of faith in the classics, accompanied by a loss of standards and a consumer-oriented dumbing-down. Those allegedly villainous elites whose money largely supports these museums ought to pay more attention to what's happening.

John Leo

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

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