The political thought police have now come to the American art museum. For some years they have been making their presence felt in the museum world in numerous ways, demanding—and usually getting—concessions and preferments in the name of gender, race, ethnicity, and the many other items that constitute the current agenda of multiculturalism, “diversity,” and politically correct ideas. But the damage to aesthetic standards remained, for the most part, limited in scope as far as the mainstream activities of most of our museums are concerned. Museum administrators might be quick to surrender the pages of exhibition catalogues to the new political orthodoxy—as they did, in the 1980s, with the Courbet retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, for example, and the Richard Serra show at the Museum of Modern Art—but the exhibitions themselves were mounted with a minimum of political distortion. The signs of a growing political militancy and of a liberal tendency to succumb to its imperatives were already plentiful, to be sure—and they were proving to be increasingly costly to the museums—but with the exception of two principal areas of museological activity, politics had not yet succeeded in capsizing the programs of our major institutions. The situation was getting worse by the day, but it had not yet become the kind of catastrophe that had overtaken the humanities departments in our colleges and universities.
The two principal exceptions to this development in the museum world were (1) the entire field of contemporary art, which was coming to play an ever larger role in the affairs of a great many museums; and (2) that whole congeries of programs, publications, symposia, entertainments, classes, and workshops that goes by the name of “education” in the museums. It was in these two areas of museum work that the new political orthodoxy scored its initial victories and quickly acquired an immense, transfiguring influence. The reasons are anything but obscure. A good deal of the most fashionable new art of the 1980s was, in one way or another, openly “activist” and political in character. It shunned aesthetic issues in favor of ideological advocacy, and this kind of art met with a prompt and enthusiastic response in the museums and the art market, which were now more eager than ever to embrace whatever was guaranteed to be chic and “enlightened"—which is to say, politically correct—in contemporary art. The response of the museums to this development was scarcely distinguishable from that of the media, which the curators of contemporary art came more and more to worship, envy, and emulate. For the new breed of curatorial hustlers and their patrons among the dealers and collectors, an interest in artistic standards had come to seem outmoded, reactionary, and certainly not fun, and they were supported in this view by the critics who readily consigned the concept of “quality” to the dustheap of history so that the new political standards would prevail with unchallenged authority.
As for the enterprise that passes for “education” in most of our museums, this had largely become a scene of intellectual disgrace long before the political thought police arrived to transform it into a sanctuary for propaganda and indoctrination. In this area, it was often a case of politics filling an intellectual void. The last thing one can expect to receive from the educational program of an American art museum today is an informed and disinterested course of instruction in the mysteries and glories of a great work of art. The whole notion of connoisseurship—of learning to distinguish the qualities of one work of art from another, and thus to acquire a knowledge of what a work of art is and of what its particular attributes and powers consist of, especially in relation to other works of art of its kind—this whole approach to the understanding of art is now deemed to be indefensibly elitist. It stands opposed to the doctrine of “diversity,” which requires us to believe that distinctions of value and achievement in art are nothing but a political racket designed to protect the interests of white male heterosexual artists in the West.
Forgotten, or at least discarded, in this assault on distinctions of value and achievement is the very purpose that the institution of the art museum was designed to serve —the purpose of distinguishing and preserving what informed judgment found to be the best in art, the highest accomplishments of their kind. This was the aesthetic and cultural ideal the art museum was created to uphold. That it did not always uphold this ideal without error or misjudgment does nothing to diminish the importance or the value of the ideal itself. And the fact is, the historical record abundantly vindicates the principal judgments that have been made about the artistic achievements of the past. New knowledge, new discoveries, new ideas inevitably modify these judgments and lead to revisions of taste and value, but it is the function of such revisions to serve this basic ideal more faithfully, not to topple it and lay waste its efficacy and integrity. Implicit in this ideal is an elitist belief that in art, as in other branches of human endeavor, some things are better than others—that there are highs and lows in the accomplishments of mind and imagination—and that it is the function of the art museum as an institution to aid us in understanding this distinction and in making the highest of these accomplishments a permanent part of our existence.
It is precisely this ideal and the kind of aesthetic intelligence essential to its realization that is now under attack from the political thought police. Taking their cues from the successful assault mounted by their ideological allies on the study of the arts and the humanities in the college and university classrooms of the nation, these militant advocates of the new political orthodoxy have accelerated the campaign to add the major art museums to their already impressive list of conquests. To judge by some recent developments, they are once again supported by their friends in the media in this effort to install the Big Brother agenda of multiculturalism, “diversity,” and politically correct ideas as the only permissible program for the museums. And we are not speaking here of an occasional exhibition or an “outreach” department or some marginal appointments —the sops by means of which the liberal leadership of our museums has attempted in the past to placate and accommodate political demands regarded by their professional staffs as inimical to the highest functions and standards of their institutions. We are talking about radical change—a virtual cultural revolution—in the kind of programs and staffing and fundamental values that determine the very nature of the art museum and its role in the life of culture and society.
In this regard, the year began with a blast in the Sunday edition of The Boston Globe that was nothing less than a declaration of war against the city’s principal cultural institutions.  Under a banner headline that read “The Fine Arts: A World without Color,” the Globe devoted the better part of seven full pages to Boston’s major arts organizations, with the Museum of Fine Arts heading the list, charging them with various crimes against the new multiculturalist code and warning of dire political consequences if the “cultural diversity” agenda was not adopted by these institutions promptly and comprehensively. Also under attack in this special section of the Sunday paper was the Boston Symphony Orchestra—the issue there being, of course, “concert programming beyond the Eurocentric tradition,” in addition to hiring practices—and other performing arts organizations; but the brunt of the assault was directed against the Museum of Fine Arts, which was identified in the second paragraph of the lead article as an institution that “continues to reflect the values and Eurocentric art traditions of the city’s elite.”
I see nothing wrong with museums in our society concentrating on “Eurocentric art traditions"—they represent, after all, some of the greatest achievements of our civilization—but the truth of the matter is that the Museum of Fine Arts has never, in this century at least, limited its interests to European and American art, which is what is meant by “Eurocentric” in this indictment. Long before it took any serious interest in the modern art of the Western world, the Museum of Fine Arts acquired one of the finest collections of Asian art in the country. Its holdings in Indian sculpture are jusliy famous, and the curator largely responsible for assembling it (and much else in the museum’s collections)—the late Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (1877-1947)—was a greatly esteemed figure, a scholar, connoisseur, and philosopher who was as much of an authority on the medieval art of the West as on the aesthetic and cultural achievements of Asia.
Indeed, if the word had not now been turned into a degrading political bludgeon by these Left-liberal yahoos, Coomaraswamy might even be said to have been one of the preeminent “multicultural” art scholars of his time, and he played as great a role in shaping the history of this museum as anyone who ever served on its staff. Moreover, he was brought to the museum by one of those Boston Brahmins so despised by the authors of the Globe’s attack—Denman W. Ross, a patron of the museum who was himself an eminent connoisseur and collector—in order to establish the first sub-department of Indian art in an American museum. But this is not the kind of achievement that these political hacks now have in mind when they speak of multiculturalism and “diversity.” They mean, quite simply, affirmative-action programs that would make racial and other quotas mandatory in staff appointments, board membership, exhibitions, acquisitions, and every other division and activity of the institution, and regardless of what this might mean for the degradation of professional standards.
The truth is, neither these “activists” nor the authors of the Globe’s attack give a damn about the quality of the museum’s programs or its staff so long as both can be coerced into conforming to a politically correct agenda. They aren’t interested in artistic distinction even for their own constituents; they want a cultural revolution that will bring everything down to a level where the very idea of artistic distinction is politically anathema. Seeing every white male face, whether on the curatorial staff, in the board room, or among the artists represented in the museum’s galleries, as a candidate for replacement, they are as ignorant of the liistory and character of the institutions they assault as they are of the art they clearly know and care nothing about. Yet they are very much on the march now, and the museum’s leadership seems no better able to defend itself—or indeed, to mount the necessary counter-assault—than their counterparts in the academy.
Two weeks after The Boston Globe’s all-out declaration of war on this front, The Washington Post fired a salvo in the same direction. This was a long article in the Sunday “Outlook” section called “Culture in Black and White:Why Don’t Washington’s Arts Institutions Reflect Our Diversity?” Its author was a wealthy and powerful figure on the Washington political-cultural scene—Peggy Cooper Cafritz, co-founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, chairman emeritus of the D.C. Commission on the Arts, chairman of the Cultural Education Committee of the Smithsonian Institution, and a well-known promoter of Left-liberal causes.
It is Mrs. Cafritz’s belief that the social pathologies now afflicting the black underclass in the city of Washington—she mentions drugs and homelessness, but I assume she must also mean criminal violence and sexual promiscuity, though there is no mention of them—are primarily what it pleases her to call “a cultural problem.” Of the children and adolescents who are the casualties of these pathologies, Mrs. Cafritz says that “their culture has been taken from them—unrecognized and undervalued by the larger world.” It is therefore, she insists, the duty of Washington’s great art museums, as well as the city’s other major arts institutions, to remedy the situation. Not only are the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the National Museum of American Art, and the Corcoran Gallery called upon to solve this immense problem, which no public or private agency has yet made much headway in reversing in any city in the country, but Mrs. Cafritz goes on to cite particular arts organizations—among them, the Phillips Gallery and the Washington Opera—for what she calls particularly “glaring failures” in this endeavor.
And what does Mrs. Cafritz have in mind as the solution to the problems of Washington’s black underclass? It will come as no surprise to find that she recommends adding some black curators to the staff of the National Gallery of Art. She also wants to see what she calls the “major media,” which we can assume includes The Washington Post, to add some “black critical voices” to their rosters of arts critics. And so on. In other words, the same agenda of mandatory affirmative-action quotas masquerading as “cultural diversity,” now sometimes renamed “cultural equity.” She condemns the press for “the reviews, analyses and interpretations [of the arts] that... are transmitted through white eyes, from a white perspective,” and she calls for them to be supplanted by something a little more—well, multicultural and politically correct. As to precisely how this program of adding black curators to the museums and black critics to the papers is going to aid the drug addicts and the homeless or prevent one more violent crime from being committed on the streets of Washington—about this large question, Mrs. Cafritz has little to say. Those of us who do not subscribe to politically correct thought will no doubt be said to be lacking in “concern” or “sensitivity” for pointing out that there is a fundamental lack of alignment between the nature of the problem and the kind of solution Mrs. Cafritz believes she is offering. But of course neither sensitivity nor concern— prominent terms, both, in the liberal’s lexicon of misplaced guilt—is at issue here.
As for the responses to Mrs. Cafritz’s charges by the Washington art establishment, if we are to believe those that she reports in her article, they turn out to be a shade more gutless than those reported in the Globe from Boston. In response to Mrs. Cafritz, she quotes Roger Mandle, the deputy director of the National Gallery of Art, as saying that “We are anxious to hire an African American curator, but we do not have sufficient funding.” J. Carter Brown, the director, was said to have assured Mrs. Cafritz that “We are . . . placing greater emphasis on aspects of cultural equity in our personnel policies and audience development.” At least in Boston, the chairman of the board at the Museum of Fine Arts—George Putnam—had the guts to point out to his inquisitors that “It doesn’t do anyone a service to sacrifice quality to be able to diversify. We are trying to encourage people of diverse backgrounds to take junior positions and help them on their way.” And Alan Shestack, the director of the museum, said what everyone knows to be the case. “When we advertise jobs,” he said, “we do not get many minority applicants. The sad truth is that... nationwide the number of blacks who are curatorial professionals is infinitesimal.” On the other hand, Mr. Shestack also considered it necessary to engage in the expected exercise in ritual self-criticism. “He expressed a commitment to change the institution,” according to the Globe, “but warned that change would be slow in coming. Museum officials are now rewriting the mission statement to include a commitment to reaching a diverse population.” Nothing is said, of course, about what the museum can now be expected to give this new public. The report ends with Mr. Shestack declaring himself to be “a member of the American Civil Liberties Union.” If this is the best that our museum elites can do to meet this fateful challenge to the integrity of their institutions, we are in deep trouble.
- “The Fine Arts: A World without Color,” by Patti Hartigan and Diane E. Lewis; The Boston Globe, “Lifestyles” section, January 6, 1991, pages 2.9-35. Go back to the text.
- This special section was followed up, in the Globe of January 11, by a long lead editorial entitled “The Arts Must Seek Diversity,” which intensified the paper’s attack on what it called “such elitist citadels as the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.” Go back to the text.
- See the two volumes of Coomaraswamy’s Selected Papers edited by Roger Lipsey, and and Lipsey’s biogrpahy, Coomaraswamy: His Life and Work, all published in 1978 in the Bollingen Series by Princeton University Press. Go back to the text.
- “Culture in Black and White: Why Don’t Washington’s Arts Institutions Reflect Our Diversity?” by Peggy Cooper Cafritz; The Washington Post, “Outlook” section, January 20, 1991, page B5. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 7, on page 4
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