January 09, 2010

Who is the NY Times' most conservative arts critic?

Hint: Her piece yesterday about the Frick Collection is praise for art museums that change without changing. Apparently, it’s all done with coral.

That would be coral the interior-decorating color, not the tiny marine organisms. To Roberta Smith’s eye, the Frick’s handsome use of that hue, in velvet, on the walls of its newly-refurbished East Gallery has been "transformative": 

The paintings appear to be freshly restored. They’re not. They simply benefit from the soft velvet coral, which sharpens details, brightens colors, clarifies composition and deepens meanings. Suddenly, this room stuns. 

She continues celebrating the “magic” of the new color over several paragraphs. It “amps up the green britches” in an El Greco portrait, “brings out the great X formed by the three men at the anvil” in a Goya, “enflames red wherever it occurs,” and helps “shy colors emerge, like the buttery yellow of the sun-drenched sand” in Manet’s Bullfight.

Photo: NY Times (Fred R. Conrad).

It’s not that she’s wrong about any of this, exactly. It’s that she’s so narrowly, expertly right. There’s something precious about the effects she’s interested in, wrapped in an implicit congratulation to those who have the refinement of taste to perceive them with her. After a few paragraphs I felt a bit like a casual wine drinker buttonholed by an oenophile enthusing about the subtleties of a newly-opened bottle (Smith’s “buttery” reference helped).

I’m no stranger to art-historical discourse or the language of connoisseurship. But I’m also a researcher who studies art museum audiences, and I’ve learned that the kinds of changes Smith puts so much stock in here, from wall color to a plush new bench to the shuffling of several masterworks to different galleries, are ones that for most visitors — even the kind of self-selected art lovers who come to a jewel-box of beauty like the Frick — hardly change their experience of the museum at all.

I’m not saying that visitors don’t notice such alterations, nor that they don’t enjoy and benefit from them aesthetically. I’m saying that the changes aren’t nearly as articulate as Smith seems to think they are, at least to people who aren’t professional art critics. They don’t, on their own, deepen meaning, clarify composition, or “sharpen” our ability to notice details and make sense of them in the context of a work, an artist, or a period.

Helping us in those ways is the job of interpretation, a central museum function that Smith may have no need of, herself, but which she also seems ready to dismiss on behalf of the rest of us. A new wall color provides revelation enough. We don’t need curators to share their insights, enthusiasms, and questions with us. Nor educators drawing parallels from one work to another or pointing out unexpected details that might make the whole thing click into focus. Above all, we don’t need to change our basic assumptions about what a museum looks and feels like. The art will speak for itself, with a little help from a gorgeous, historically sensitive installation.

(In the page-width photo accompanying Smith’s article, though, both visitors are apparently listening to an audio guide. Yet the labels identifying the paintings are the traditional tiny, low-contrast “tombstones” that curators — and critics — insist on. So interpretation is fine as long as it's invisible?)

That’s the main risk of critical appraisals like these: they make the museum’s job seem far easier than it really is, and they both mirror and reward art museums’ most self-serving ideas about themselves. We have reason to worry that the most traditional of those ideas are gradually becoming less widely shared as our culture evolves, and art museums will have to change more than their color schemes if they want to speak meaningfully to anything like a healthy audience in coming decades.

Of course, change of that sort is exactly what Smith is hoping museums will avoid. She wants museums to emulate the Frick, which “becomes more itself” by virtue of the recent remodeling. For her, the art of leading an art museum in the 21st century lies in finding new means to deepen its commitment to traditional principles, not in experimenting with new ends or identities.

I’ve been reading that conservatism in Smith’s Times essays for years. But yesterday she made it explicit in her closing paragraph, in which she praises the Frick for setting  

a standard for caution that every museum, regardless of focus or mission, should note. It is caution in the profoundest sense: the drive to understand and use to best advantage every available cubic inch of space, work of art and bit of institutional wisdom available. 

She doesn’t really complete that last thought, though. Use them to what purpose? Caution against what? She may have in mind any or all of the architectural, ethical, and financial misadventures that art museums have gotten themselves into in recent years, or the interpretive risks that museums like the Denver Art Museum and the Detroit Institute of Art have taken. But her enthusiasms in this piece for both the Frick’s “traditional museum” identity and its Gilded Age “house-museum” side suggest that what’s really operating here is a kind of unusually well-informed nostalgia.

Compare this to Anthony Tommasini’s celebratory roundup of audience-broadening trends in classical music in last week’s Times, and you can see why I might nominate Smith as this politically liberal paper’s arts conservative. (I’m referring to her museological taste, not her taste in art itself, which has long been plenty contemporary and catholic.)

I’d love to hear the view from your perch. How do you read the Times critics? More importantly, how do you read the changes that museums are and aren’t undertaking?

1 Comment »
Lost in Indiana — January 14, 2010

I knew as I read the question that opens the post who the most conservative critic is, and I'm not in the arts-world, but am a Times reader.

I very much appreciate your "We don’t need curators to share their insights, enthusiasms, and questions with us," and "the art speaks for itself." etc.

But I have found -- perhaps especially in Western European museums -- much too much explication which I shorthandedly think of as telling me how to look at the art and what to think about it.

One thing I've seen in Europe that I wish to have seen more of in the US: in Sweden and on Orkney, some of the museums have small rooms furnished as people of various social-classes might've furnished them in 1740, 1860, 1920, for example. Historic houses here do that but I have often wished museums did. I don't mean the great rooms in The New American Wing at the Met in NY, though; they don't represent a variety of classes and endeavors of the fictive -- or real -- historical occupants.

Finally, in New York at MoMA in November I was able to talk to the Director about the low benches. Disabled, I cannot use them because they're low. I understand that they're low so as not to interfere with the eye-looking-at-art. But I am not the only disabled or getting-older person in North America, and it's getting harder & harder to go to museums.

Thanks for the fine Blog, and for reading.

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