Why would anyone want to pay twenty dollars to hear Walter Cronkite talk about Poussin’s Rape of the Sabine Women, Beverly Sills speak on Caravaggio’s The Musicians, or Steve Martin discourse on Goya’s The Bullfight? Not, surely for the same reasons people once tuned in to Kenneth Clark and Civilisation. Yet this is just what visitors to the Metropolitan Museum can now do by subscribing to one of its “AT&T Portfolio Tours,” the new recorded tours of the museum’s permanent collection.[1]

The incongruity of eliciting these celebrities as guides to the Metropolitan's collection must be woefully self-evident to anyone outside the field of public relations. Beverly Sills is an opera singer, as far removed from paintings and sculptures as Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan, is from arias and recitatives. Walter Cronkite, as everyone knows, is a television journalist, last seen reporting on the America’s Cup yacht race; and Steve Martin, Saturday Night Live’s “wild and crazy guy,” is an actor and comedian. (Although it is true that Mr. Martin collects art, one can't help remembering Annie Liebowitz’s portrait of him posed theatrically in front of a Franz Kline painting, swaths of black paint smeared across his white tie and tails.) Clearly the appeal of these people lies solely in their value as celebrities capable of attracting museum visitors on the basis of media sparkle.

It is not hard to determine how this ghastly new version of museum marketing has come about. For several years now the Metropolitan and other museums have made extraordinary efforts to persuade people with virtually no serious interest in art to come to their museums on the occasion of “blockbuster” exhibitions. And the people have come, in droves. But it seems that when the blockbuster is over, not enough people have returned. Museums have come to be regarded as houses of entertainment—as theaters of a sort—worth visiting only when the latest “show” is “playing,” but thought to be dark and empty at other times. The task, then, for the Metropolitan and other museums, has been to stimulate more frequent visits. And since these days the public can't be trusted to respond with the proper Pavlovian alacrity to any invitation that doesn't come with the right amount of flash, a strategy has been devised to make it seem as though seeing great art is as much fun as watching a movie star on a talk show.

With the “AT&T Portfolio Tours,” we have moved into new heights of glitz and slick marketing.

With the “AT&T Portfolio Tours,” we have moved into new heights of glitz and slick marketing as the museum experience is transformed into a phenomenon of pop culture. At bottom what’s being offered isn’t aesthetic adventure at all, but the ultimate pop culture fix: a one-on-one audience with a celebrity. After all, once that tape is running and the voice is softly droning in one’s ear, who can tell whether the sound is reality or illusion? The inevitable result is to move the work of art into the background. Not only does the public come to the museum in order to “see” Walter Cronkite, Beverly Sills, and Steve Martin rather than, say, a van Eyck, but the premium on personality’ ensures that, in a sense, we see van Eyck “through” Walter Cronkite, a very bizarre and unhealthy state of affairs.

To be sure, we all need to know what we’re looking at in a museum, but there’s a thin line between too little and too much information, and between the right and wrong kinds. In general, the museum’s desire to inform its visitors needs to be balanced against the more compelling need to allow the work of art to speak for itself, not all at once, which it will never do, but over time. The desire to “educate” visitors—which began with bare-bones labels, grew to docents and longer labels, and now, at the Met at least, embraces all that and more: a guidebook, three types of recorded tours, and an “Education Center”—panders to a perception among the public that a work of art contains an idea, generally only one, to “get,” some secret buried in the picture inaccessible to the naked eye.

Yet far from being limited to “getting,” or finite in any other way, the experience of looking is endlessly open-ended. The excitement one feels before a work of an isn’t brought about by a neatly packaged set of facts. It lies chiefly in one’s own process of discovery, in what one, alone, sees of technique, composition, inspiration, interpretation—insights ranging from the most superficial to the most profound. Only by this act of slow, repeated scrutiny, with all that it entails in terms of self-effacement, can the necessary connection with the work of art be established, the connection through which meaning becomes accessible and the work of art, in some measure, one's own. And it goes without saying that this experience is only attainable in an environment that fosters the maximum of concentration while permitting the minimum of distraction. By substituting something impersonal and ready-made for that process of involved inquiry, the museum deprives the work of art of its complexity and depth. Instead, it becomes a species of illustration, one more image in which the viewer has little investment. The museum experience then becomes akin to idly leafing through a magazine instead of, as it is ideally, getting involved in a conversation you can't tear yourself away from. In such a climate it is no wonder that an entire generation of artists exists whose careers are based on the premise that images—works of art especially—have lost their power to affect us.

And let’s be in no doubt as to exactly whom the museum is aiming at with these tours. At twenty dollars, each one, although it includes admission, is more than twice the eight dollars one pays for the cheapest seat at the New York City Opera. And while the proceeds go to the museum, AT&T having underwritten the entire cost of production, that price turns visiting the museum into an outing the average person has to schedule in advance and budget for. The tours, then, aren't the product of any magnanimous, democratic impulse on the part of the museum. Rather, this popularization of art constitutes a shrewd marketing ploy directed at the most besieged constituency in non-profit fundraising: the young, well-educated graduates of business and law schools who last heard of art in their college survey courses but whose incomes allow them to dally with it now that it is suddenly trendy.

Even without the appeal to celebrity, however, the “AT&T Portfolio Tours” would have to be judged a failure.

Even without the appeal to celebrity, however, the “AT&T Portfolio Tours” would have to be judged a failure. Taped guides to art are counterproductive in any form. But the new tapes are even more superficial than the tapes the Met already had, which the museum has been offering for years with faceless narrators and little fanfare. Focusing on periods rather than themes, the earlier versions at least occasionally offer information one can use. Thus, on the museum's Impressionism tape, one learns of Manet’s Woman With a Parrot that the dispersal of focus—the model’s face competes for our attention with her dress, the parrot, and so on—was considered unconventional and even shocking in its day, and that it was this artist who began the simplification and flattening of forms so characteristic of modern art. With observations like these, one could easily stop the tape and get all the way to Pollock without feeling adrift.

Unfortunately, the new tapes achieve no such salutary ends. One can’t get any particularly useful morsel of information because the thematic cast of each tour works against it. The disparate works of art come across as a slide lecture gone out of control, or as one of those grueling vacations offering a dozen cities in three days. Worse still, in order to fit into its thematic category, every work of art is reduced to its subject, making what we are told about each piece so incomplete as to amount to nothing. Exekias and Rosa Bonheur begin and end as artists who use horses as models, for example.

With their emphasis on rare and precious objects, the blockbuster exhibitions forged in the minds of the public a deleterious equivalence between art and money. The Metropolitan’s new view of art as nothing more than a carrier of narrative effects creates an equally corrupting association between art and entertainment. After all, if the whole museum experience boils down to storytelling, then what's to separate Washington Crossing the Delaware from Platoon? For it goes without saying that in this scenario, the aesthetic dimension, which is what one comes to a museum for anyway, is all but totally sacrificed. Style, the meat of art history and the chief means by which the artist speaks to us, disappears. Walter Cronkite may use the word "neoclassical" in his discourse on David’s The Death of Socrates, but for all the explanation he gives, the word might as well refer to a country. When he later speaks about Meissonier’s Friedland, 1807 and Bastien-Lepage's Joan of Arc, he seems to be referring to historical documents and not paintings from the deadest part of the academic tradition. What all this means is that the “AT&T Portfolio Tours” are going to leave the state of public understanding pretty much as it was before. Subscribers may leave the Metropolitan knowing what they like, but they're not going to know much about art.

  1. Given the choice of narrators, the titles of the tapes are fairly predictable. Miss Sills hosts "Music in Art," Mr. Cronkite "Historic Moments in Art," and Mr. Martin "Animals in Art." Philippe de Montebello, the museum's director, makes an appearance as well, with "Masterpieces of the Met."Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 3
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