How would you like it if your special-occasion meal at a fine restaurant was prepared not by the chef, but rather the waitstaff and the hostesses? Or if, instead of ranked players, Wimbledon featured randomly chosen residents of the eponymous suburb? To suggest something like that would be absurd, because neither the waitstaff at the restaurant nor the residents of Wimbledon are qualified for the respective tasks. And yet, the online arts magazine Hyperallergic has broadcasted an equivalent suggestion in the context of museum curation.
Granted, the unsubtly titled article “How an Art Museum Betrays Its Social Class Bias” does not lay claim to neutrality. It is an opinion piece, and the author Truman Chambers makes no attempt to conceal the Marxist creed that drives his argument. Drawing on his year-and-a-half-long experience as a security guard at the Toledo Art Museum, Chambers bemoans “the lack of any mechanism by which the frontline staff (security guards, visitor services workers, custodians, etc.) can help shape the content of the museum.” According to Chambers, this dearth of input from “the frontline staff” is a result of “the museum’s hierarchical structure and its treatment of socio-economic class with regard to the representation of art.” Meanwhile, “the duties of curation are assigned to a small group of people who have had the privilege to acquire multiple degrees (typically from private universities) and who . . . socially mingle with the funders of the museum.” Because curators “carry out their professional duties in observance of their socio-economic position,” their discussions of artworks skirt the issues of “socio-economic class,” and “discourage[s] such readings as a matter of class interest” with “callousness or blindness.” This problem stems from the fact that curators are not “obligated to significantly interact with frontline staff.” Chambers concludes: “The effects of this are on the gallery walls.” Fair enough, but what would the alternative, raised-consciousness version of “frontline staff” curation be like? The argument developed in “How an Art Museum Betrays Its Social Class Bias” shows us exactly what would happen.
Chambers’s first piece of evidence, meant to demonstrate the “callousness or blindness” of curators in the face of class struggle, is the wall text for Jules Breton’s 1887 painting The Shepherd’s Star from the TMA’s permanent collection. While the wall text references the waning of agrarian lifestyles under industrial production, this socially aware context is diminished by the formal emphasis on the “classical monumentality and timelessness” of the figure whose symbolism transcends “any commentary on her social position.” Chambers believes that it obfuscates rather than elucidates class disparity, and is disappointed by a missed opportunity for an inspirational didactic message “of sympathy for the subject of this painting.” But the curator, or more likely the curatorial assistant who wrote the wall text, was right—the “class conflict” reading of this painting would not be historically appropriate.
Although Jules Breton indeed debuted at the 1849 Salon with a painting about peasants’ hardships, within three years he had adjusted his style to the tastes of potential patrons. By the mid-1880s, Breton was one of the most fashionable and coveted painters in the world. He was the darling of the wealthy. In 1886 one of his paintings received an auction bid of $45,000, the second highest price on record for a painting by a living artist, then the following year (the year of The Shepherd’s Star) Breton received two commissions from a New York art dealer and was elected to the Institut de France. And while he admittedly wanted “the tastes and the feelings of the poor . . . taken into account,” Breton’s expression of his social conscience in painting paled in comparison to that of his compatriots Gustave Courbet and Jean-Francois Millet. Courbet, whose participation in the Paris Commune landed him six months in jail, was influenced by the theories of Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the socialist philosopher. He also painted Proudhon, who was a good friend. The peasant-painter Millet made many canonical paintings, such as his 1857 Gleaners, that valorized and foregrounded the poorest of the poor. When Breton painted The Shepherd’s Star, the artist was a commercially successful academician without any social, let alone socialist, agenda whatsoever.
To ascribe such an agenda to Breton is at best wishful thinking. Then again, one would not necessarily learn about Breton in an introductory art history class. Breton, who was a household name on both sides of the Atlantic through the 1930s, fell out of fashion because academicism fell out of fashion. So when in 1939 Clement Greenberg published his essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in the Communist Party–affiliated Partisan Review, his example of “Alexandrianism” and “academized simulacra” was poor Ilya Repin—a Russian equivalent of Breton. Chambers misses the irony, as he quotes Greenberg’s “foundational” essay to argue that kitsch (“ersatz culture”) is “made to placate working-class subjects of industrial capitalism,” while he presents Breton as the advocate of the working poor.
Chambers’s own appraisal of avant-garde and kitsch is not made on the basis of their relationship to the medium but on the basis of their presumed stance towards capitalism: kitsch, Chambers says, is associated with it; avant-garde is not. In his view, “the dichotomy between avant-garde and kitsch was a result of class tensions.” This is a misreading of Greenberg’s essay. Greenberg actually states that “in the case of the avant-garde this [source of stable income] was provided by an elite among the ruling class of that society from which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it has always remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold.” Moreover, Greenberg’s final point of his long and meandering essay was that fascists and Stalinists “inject effective propaganda” into kitsch. Greenberg was more concerned about totalitarian ideologies than about capitalism. His fear was indoctrination through “ersatz culture,” not art’s blindness towards the issues of class.
It gets worse. Chambers takes issue with the curation of the traveling show “Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings.” The retrospective, organized by Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, was occasioned by the artist turning one hundred years old. Chambers gleaned from the exhibition catalogue (mostly written by those pesky Ph.D.s; full disclosure, I was one of them) that Thiebaud “demonstrate[ed] class consciousness” as an active member of the workers’ union in the 1930s. This leads him to conclude that the curatorial focus on “Thiebaud’s application of paint, his use of color, and his choice of subject matter” only “underscore[s] the persistent omission and dampening of analysis of the relationship between socio-economic class and the artist.” If only curators had listened to the “frontline staff,” they would not have missed a chance to reframe the retrospective in terms of class struggle.
Never mind that one of the wall texts, “More Than Meets the Eye,” spells out the painter’s point of view on the matter: “Thiebaud readily admits to making selections for their ‘telltale evidence of what we’re about as a people or as a society,’ though he does not believe that good art must include social commentary.” What Chambers calls “Thiebaud’s awareness of the dynamics of industrial capitalism and their relationship to his art” found its way into his early still lifes in a much more subtle manner. In a 1962 artist statement in the San Francisco Chronicle, Thiebaud wrote that “none of us can escape our responsibility however totalitarian or utopian our world may be.” For Thiebaud, the cakes, the lipsticks, and the ties were a path to self-knowledge, because they “allow us to see ourselves looking at ourselves,” to “applaud or to criticize what is especially us.” Thiebaud’s painting is complex—good art is complex—while the binary simplification of the world into the categories of “oppressed” and “oppressors,” locked in perpetual struggle, is reductive. It gives an appearance of knowing and of contextualizing. But it is only a shallow appearance, like the idea that the average spectator could compete at Wimbledon, or the average diner at a Michelin-starred restaurant could make the same meal at home. Which is to say—as those curators and educators who have spent serious time and effort to master their field of study already know—that real education is not performative.