On Hold: The Met Postpones Drinking The Art Kool-Aid

The continuing woes of The Metropolitan Museum of Art seem to keep on coming.  With continued layoffs, deficits, leasing the old Whitney Museum, and lawsuits about all sorts of things, the white elephant of 5th Avenue has been going through some hard times of late. Now, it appears that The Met will have to postpone the planned renovation and expansion of its Modern and Contemporary Art wing, in order to address more pressing needs, such as fixing the roof.

The problems faced by The Met are not unique. Similar issues have arisen for most of the world’s major art institutions, as they struggle to find an identity for themselves in the 21st century. Most seem to be suffering from a kind of institutional schizophrenia, as they try to appeal to as many potential visitors as possible, while at the same time hating themselves for doing so.

Contemporary Art is increasingly perceived as the solution to this existential dilemma. Covering the floor of a large room with thousands of ceramic sunflower seeds will attract more visitors to an art museum than a beautifully-painted, delicate landscape of olive trees by Corot. Thus, old-skool art museums like The Met want to steal some of the crowd from their expressly avant-garde sister institutions, and get some of that tourist lolly for themselves.

Long gone are the days when art museums were visited with some degree of circumspection, like libraries, with a quiet hush enforced by sharp glances and “shush!” from both staff and patrons. Today, the primary goal of the art museum is to get as many punters in the door as possible, like at a shopping mall or theme park. Groups of unimpressed school children and great swarms of foreign tourists all follow their designated guide, quickly passing over as many works as possible in the 1-2 hours they have been allotted, and all of them will have to pay an admission fee, get something to eat, and purchase a souvenir.

To do this, art museums have become fora for the airing of grievances, real or imagined, and the celebration of enshrined mediocrity in Contemporary Art. Even grand, old institutions such as The Met, which should know better, want to display the workings of utterly untalented hands, because this is what draws a crowd. It allows curators and directors to feel as though they have not sold their souls to Mammon, even if in the process they are selling them to Moloch.

Eventually, someone will come along and give The Met the cash it needs to increase its floor space for Contemporary Art, and display all sorts of awful things. It’s the nature of how museums work: just as the New York nouveau-riches of a century and a half ago built The Met in the first place, so too some 21stcentury arriviste will do the same with his or her fortune made from whatever the latest widget may be. Fortunately, unlike a magical baseball field in the middle of nowhere, if they build it, you do not need to come.

Art Falling Apart: Hidden Costs for the Contemporary Art Collector

As anyone with common sense is aware, much of today’s contemporary art market is populated with works that are eye-poppingly overpriced, let alone horribly clichéd. Collectors are paying astronomical sums of money to dealers and auction houses for works which were only created within the last few years, by artists whose long-term prospects remain, at best, uncertain. Such purchasers are largely engaged in a money game, hedging their bets that a piece which they purchase for $10 million today, will be worth $50 million five years from now when they re-sell it, or donate it to an art institution for a tax write-off. Yet now comes a new entity known as the Art Preservation Index, which is creating quite a buzz about a budding problem for these collectors, apart from the obvious one of their terrible taste: one which has largely been ignored or swept under the rug by the art market until recently.

Unlike more “traditional” materials – canvas, wood, stone, etc. – many contemporary works of art are created using non-traditional materials and methods. This experimentation is part of the art, as it were, but to the uninformed collector, it is also a potential minefield. Whereas an oil painting can last for centuries when properly cared for, many modern materials begin to disintegrate relatively soon after they have been employed in the creation of a work of art. The person or entity that commissioned a portrait painting or sculpture in 1700 reasonably expected that the object would last forever, or at the very least for many, many years. What is the reasonable expectation now, for a portrait or sculpture created in 2015 using non-traditional, untested materials and methods, whose long-term viability remains to be seen?  

The argument can be made that the more ephemeral nature of many pieces of contemporary art is part of the story being told by the artist. However, one wonders whether most art collectors, paying millions of dollars for objects which may well cease to exist within their own lifetimes, are being properly informed about the situation that they are getting themselves into by collecting such works. Perhaps as collectors, they are drawn to the idea of art as investment, i.e. anticipated resale profits, or as a form of liquidity. Perhaps they are drawn to the feeling of excitement and enhanced social standing which a savvy art dealer or auction house can evoke through the sale of a major work of art, and they are unconcerned with the long-term preservation of the art which they are purchasing. The rule of caveat emptor – buyer beware – applies to art sales just as it does to the sale of other goods, but of course the price tag in question is considerably more than that for a used car or a second-hand washing machine.

People have always traded in art as a commodity, just as people have always collected art because it makes them feel like they have one-upped their neighbors. Yet what has changed, in addition to the decline of standards in content and execution, is a corresponding decline in many instances of the understanding and use of materials to create works of permanence. In the past and still today, when a collector purchases a painting by Rembrandt, or a sculpture from Ancient Egypt, they anticipate that such works will endure well into the future, given that such pieces have already survived for centuries. Today, in many instances, the works accumulated by a contemporary art collector face a very uncertain future, to say nothing about the publicly-funded institutions which subsequently add these works to their permanent collections.

In art history, one of the complaints leveled against Leonardo da Vinci even during his own lifetime was his deviation from tried-and-true methods in the creation of his art, often with disastrous results. For all of his unquestioned genius, a review of Leonardo’s existing artistic output reads like a catalogue of failures: paintings that failed to stick to walls, bronzes that could not possibly be cast, projects taken up and never completed, etc. Today, we excuse the limited quantity of his artistic output, by focusing on the quality of those works which he did complete.

One wonders whether, centuries from now, the same excuses will be made for many of today’s contemporary artists, whose materials are often even more unstable than those employed by Leonardo, and whose work rarely if ever even begins to approach his in terms of technical study, masterful composition, and sensitivity of content.

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"The Last Supper" (detail) by Leonardo da Vinci