Editors’ note: The following is an edited version of oral remarks delivered at The New Criterion’s gala on April 26, 2017 honoring Philippe de Montebello with the fifth Edmund Burke Award for Service to Culture and Society.

I’m reflecting today on a topic I have been discussing with my students at the Institute of Fine Arts, which is “art in conversation.” If you’ve looked at any work of art, you know that you don’t do it passively: you have a response. It can be disgust. It can be admiration. It can be delight. It can be any number of things, but it’s a response, which means that it is a conversation with the work of art. What’s more: when is the last time that you saw a work of art by itself? Works of art are also in conversation with one another, just as they converse with the viewer.

Works of art are in the company of other art works—unless you’re in a tokonoma, a special room outside of a Japanese tea ceremony in which one work is shown alone. And the meaning of a work and our response to it change depending on the company it keeps. The conversations are fluid. The conversations can change enormously the way a placement does. If you were to change two seats at your table and switch places, the dynamics of the conversation would be likely to change, and the same is true of a museum. If you take, for example, a Constable—and you’re in a relatively small museum, so you are not able to have a room of nineteenth-century or late-eighteenth-century English paintings—and you hang the Constable next to a Ruisdael (the seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painter), you are sending an active message to the viewer. You are saying that Constable, in using brighter colors and rejecting the convention of the browner painting by Ruisdael, is the man who announces modernity. The next curator comes along, takes your picture by Constable and hangs it next to a Monet, and now what is the message? The old master suddenly becomes Constable.

Works of art are in conversation with one another, just as they converse with the viewer.

This is how these conversations can change enormously, and they change also with the change of the canon. We lived for hundreds of years with a canon that was essentially based on the Apollo Belvedere and Raphael as the ne plus ultra of all of visual art, and there was a certain consistency to the way one approached works of art and by which curators hung and installed their galleries. Of course the Elgin Marbles—the Parthenon Marbles—changed everything about the canon when they arrived, and it all shifted. Then came, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Salon des Refusés, and suddenly everything went (by which I mean “everything goes,” but of course in the past tense).

Since then we’ve had contemporary art and there’s no more question of a canon. We have a kind of anarchical situation in which rectangular objects with paint on them and regular sculptures still exist, but they coexist with installation pieces, videos, and things of that sort—very ephemeral material. And so the conversation today is a very different one, in which there is an obsession with contemporary art in opposition to everything else.

As far as contemporary art is concerned, the fashion is now to insert it not only into contemporary art museums and modern art museums, but also into older museums. You’ve all seen it, from the controversial works of Jeff Koons being shown in Versailles, to the much more applauded Anish Kapoor sculpture in the gardens of Versailles, to just about every museum that now includes contemporary art—not just as a department, but in contiguity with the art of the past. I was recently at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in which the collections stop at 1900, but they have a curator of contemporary art, Jasper Sharp, who did a wonderful exhibition a couple of years ago of Joseph Cornell next to the Kunstkammer, so there are good conversations that can be had between new and old.

On the whole, however, the conversation in museums is being drowned out. It’s being drowned out by an awful lot of peripheral noise, rhetorically speaking, from tangential activities and a rush to notoriety. Some institutions, with short-term success but long-term failure and continuing shame, have used every method to increase attendance—most, by definition, if not harmful to the experience of art, distinctly tangential to it. But in my view, there is a fairly constant visitor comfort level that most museums have reached and it is not likely to change much.

These impulses have led a number of museums off-course, the big ship tilting one way or the other, even in terms of their policies—a privileging of trendiness over innovation, or of amusement over nourishment. There is as well increasingly a frenzy of activities in museums. You’ve all noticed it, especially on weekends: a plethora of programs, and any number of amenities. None of these are in themselves bad—I use them joyfully. But the problem is the emphasis: museums are placing their rhetorical and promotional emphasis on the subsidiary activities. In describing this trend, one might think back to Hector’s exhortation in Troilus and Cressida in which he says, “ ’Tis mad idolatry to make the service greater than the god.” And my great colleague, the late English art historian Ernst Gombrich, put it another way when he described the fever of amenities around museums. He said basically, “I think that museums are killing art out of kindness.”

Instead, one can be taught—and one needs to be taught—how to look, how to put aside one’s prejudices, and one’s overly hasty negative reactions. For me, in some cases, it was a long learning process, and I have to imagine that for a majority of visitors it can’t be easy either. This is why I am so impatient with those who want to position their museum as a form of entertainment. The appreciation of art requires an engagement that is wholly different from the instant gratification provided by most forms of popular culture, and museums have a responsibility to help visitors achieve this.

To enter fully into a picture’s world and allow it to yield its many different layers of meaning requires at least several minutes, which is an eternity in a museum. If you stand for five or six seconds in front of something, you have barely begun to scratch its surface.

One inescapable reality about the visual arts that is not shared by the performing and literary ones, is that they can be experienced holistically—taken in at a glance—and not sequentially in time. There is no way in which I can listen to one of Beethoven’s Razumovzsky quartets in the equivalent of the glance I might afford a Baroque altarpiece. I am compelled—joyfully—to stay in my seat to listen to all four movements, played seriatim. But the trap, and it is a trap, is that I can look at a Titian and in the blink of an eye take in its superficial aspects—that it’s an Assumption or a portrait or the Flaying of Marsyas. But how much am I really seeing? Even if I get in ten, fifteen seconds, before I begin to be pushed by the people behind me, I’m really not seeing that much more.

To enter fully into a picture’s world requires at least several minutes.

I do think one should be philosophical about all of these things, philosophical about the fact that everything is tilted to what is called the “visitor experience” and what is also called “visitor engagement.” Not long ago, we looked searchingly at works of art. We now engage with works of art, and museums have “engagement officers.” (Several of them do—I don’t know whether they are bridal services, but in any event that’s what they are called.) And yet, all of the things which diminish and lessen the quality of the museum experience are still, nonetheless, circumstantial and aren’t really that serious in the long term. What makes museums matter—art museums, that is—is that they are containers of works of art. In other words, repositories: and for nothing less than the world’s cultural, tangible heritage, for the vestiges of the past and the expressions of the present, objects of aesthetic merit. They inspire delight, they inspire wonder, but they are also objects that museums research as institutions of study, and we add to the basic knowledge of mankind through these objects.

It is in this resemblance between a museum and a library, which remains useful beyond the particular moment at which you’re reading a book, that a museum is important. Of course they go through bad patches, all around the world (you may remember the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s). Strategies will be put ahead of principles, endless marketing studies and surveys will be conducted, and a lot of the time the mission appears to be put in the hands of consultants. But I don’t think we should fret too much about it, because nowhere in the world, in any museum, can I say that the actual collections are being poorly cared for. Everywhere I turn, no matter the policies of the moment, museums are caring for their collections. They are studying them, they are cataloguing them, and they are publishing them. In other words, the tangible heritage of man remains absolutely safe. (Rather I should say mankind: now that I’m in the academy, I’ve learned that there are certain phraseologies you don’t get away with saying anymore. You have to say mankind. Actually, no, you have to say humankind—forgive me.)

The persistence of museums’ central role as vessels of culture is made even clearer in the context of what has been happening in the Mideast in recent years, with isis destroying the treasures of Mosul, and of Khorsabad, and so on. Tens of millions of people have expressed their outrage at what has happened. The vast majority of these people probably had very little notion of what Ancient Mesopotamian art was, but I think they understood that a huge limb had been hacked off of mankind’s cultural family tree. That instinctive lament for human culture was expressed worldwide, but the fact remains that in the rooms of our museums we still have many branches of that cultural family tree. I think we should value more than anything else—“we” being the museum world—what we are, rather than what we do.

Despite these challenges, however, I remain optimistic about the future of the museum world: optimistic that the conversations that we have with works of art—even through the din of the present moment—will enable us, over time, to have that ultimate conversation we all want to have. This is the sublime, private colloquy with the work of art, which is singular and provides a singularity of experience.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 10, on page 12
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