The Art in Museums

Given 75 million dollars, and an abiding belief in the role of museums in the common good, what sort of institution would you create?  The You Museum of Art? The You Museum of Culture? The Klatch of  Stuff? 

Recently, I was sitting at a table in the midst of a wonderful debate about the merits of adding Art to the name of a  cultural organization and the inevitable drawbacks.  The word “art” carries a certain je ne sais quoi that makes donors swoon and prance.  After all, art has the ultimate cache—it costs a lot and proves you know why the price tag is so high.  Art is at once a commodity and signifier of intelligence. One just seems fashionable for wearing the best of Issey Miyaki’s spring line. One seems brilliant for owning a Pae White, because the act of owning appears tied to the act of understanding.  In other words, to consume is also to get it. 

Those who work in public art museums know the secret to this whole thing.  There doesn’t have to be anything to get.  It can be as simple as paint on an old wood board.  Appreciation can just be about liking the surface. Or it can be as complex as explaining all of humanity, faith, God and heaven on said board.  Appreciation can then be about understanding gold ground altarpieces in the context of the liturgy of Gothic Siena prior to the Black Death.

When visitors ask about value, they certainly mean cost.  The art market sets the price, but the value can be completely disengaged from the debate.  The viewer can choose this value.  One person’s penny print can be another person’s Ukiyo-e masterpiece 200 hundred odd years later.   In a consumer capitalist society, this nuance is hard.  Add the complexity of the ever-quickening paceof mass media, when a song lasts for a minute and an advertisement for a second in our ever fracturing common understanding.  It is hard to see yourself standing on the long slow road of art history just a blimp between the Lascaux Caves and something I couldn’t begin to fathom 3000 years from now.  When you think about it in that way, it doesn’t matter how much that Damian Hirst cost yesterday or even within our lifetime. 

Art can be a scary term connoting cliquishness as much as culture.  The term also offers unabated belief in the truth that humans make things that are valuable to society, forever, for their material essence. That actual object, not its apish digital simalcra, is special.  I would rather tackle these fears about art, and then help people understand that they got it all along. 

So, back to my brand spanking new museum.  I would proudly hang the biggest banner I could afford, and despite the rising cost of steel, I could still get a pretty big banner with all that imaginary money.  I would yell this is a museum of ART.

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