Art vs. Gizmos at the Getty


In certain academic circles, art has been out of fashion for many years. What’s been in fashion instead is context--the situation or environment in which works of art exist.

From this vantage point, painting, sculpture and the like are considered primarily as material evidence of something more elusive. A stark example of how easily this academic line of thinking can devalue works of art can be seen in the deeply disappointing show that inaugurates the temporary exhibition galleries at the Getty Center’s new museum, opening today.

The show, titled “Beyond Beauty: Antiquities as Evidence,” is a fiasco. Unlike the near perfection of the museum’s gorgeous permanent collection galleries, this flashy, over-designed installation drowns beneath electronic gizmos and leaden text silk-screened all over the walls. (There’s an audio tour, too, but I couldn’t bear to listen.) Ancient Greek and Roman art is looked at in a variety of ways in six different sections, but the show is most successful at persuading that art makes for pretty boring evidence.

As things turn out, the reason is that this is less an art exhibition than a high-toned version of the kind of corporate trade show you’d expect to see at a convention center. For the product being touted here isn’t ancient art, but merely the corporate activities of the Getty Trust.

The most blatant example of what’s wrong will be found in a gallery devoted to a virtual reality model of Trajan’s Forum. Remember Trajan? He was the Roman emperor who, in the 2nd century, pushed the ancient empire toward the summit of its power. Trajan’s major building project was the construction of an immense new forum, roughly double the size of the one built by his celebrated predecessor, Augustus, and meant to function as the center of Rome’s civic life.


Dominating one gallery, an immense screen presents a digitally engineered reconstruction of what scholars currently think Trajan’s awe-inducing forum looked like. The video, produced in collaboration with UCLA, takes us on a gliding, swooping tour around the vast building, down colonnaded corridors, through imposing porticoes and across vast expanses of marble plaza. (For a moment it recalls the Getty’s own travertine-encrusted acreage.) Next come clips of giant talking heads, who earnestly explain the obvious: Digital-imaging technology is useful to understand ancient life.

Surrounding the projection screen, big sculpture fragments from the forum and its era are displayed on the gallery floor and walls. Imagine: Actual works of antique Roman art, given a subsidiary role, are offered up as evidence to flesh out virtual reality. Classical sculpture is relegated to the supporting cast, while a star turn is performed by the same sort of digital magic that gave us Jurassic dinosaurs and the science-fiction insects that have lately threatened cinematic star troopers and men in black.

Goodbye, high art; hello, high technology.

I stood there gaping. In the Getty Museum’s inaugural show, the relationship between the model and the art is precisely backward.

I suppose this would have been somewhat easier to take if the presentation had been the slightest bit self-critical. If, for example, the sweeping tour through the Virtual Reality Forum was shown to be not at all what a human eye would have seen or experienced inside the actual forum in Trajan’s day but, rather, a fiction wholly dependent on modern expectations shaped by tracking shots in movies and TV shows. What visitors see on the big screen is itself a minor form of art--a fact the art museum doggedly ignores. Instead we’re treated to a puffy promotional display touting the dual wonders of art and technology.

It isn’t that a contextual approach to understanding art is inappropriate. (Far from it!) The problem is that context is the one thing an art museum cannot hang on its walls or display in a vitrine.

Except, that is, for the most critical context of all: the one provided by other works of art. Several of the Getty Museum’s most remarkable works of ancient art are held hostage in this misbegotten show: the powerfully monumental figure of a goddess, the elegant Getty Bronze, the famous Lansdowne Herakles--even the contested kouros, a carving of a standing man that is either a modern forgery or a rarity from about 530 BC. They, along with other works, are displayed in text-laden galleries that seek to “explain” various categories: history, iconography, authenticity, technology, comparative relationships with art of other cultures (in this case, the way classical Western art had an impact on sculpture of the Indian subcontinent, thanks to trade along the silk route).

A second gigantic screen even flashes a prepackaged demonstration of how antiquities can be researched on the World Wide Web. Look, kids! It’s fun to be an art historian!


Antiquities are indeed being used as evidence here, but of what? Not ancient Rome or Greece, I’m afraid, nor even modern scholarship. Instead, the cuddly context illuminated by “Beyond Beauty” is the Getty Center itself.

The Hydra-headed institution is composed of a museum, a scholarly grant program and institutes for research, conservation, schools, electronic databases and museum management. “Beyond Beauty,” billed as a collaboration among all seven branches, even concludes with a display of plans to renovate and expand the museum’s Malibu villa.

Art is secondary, the Getty Center inadvertently declares in its opening exhibition. More important is us--who we are, what we do, why you should care.

In a mature culture, “why you should care” would be taken for granted. (How many times must we reinvent the wheel?) By contrast, the decision to tout the operations of the institution, rather than to showcase art, speaks of an ingrown sense of bureaucratic self-aggrandizement that, born of gnawing insecurities, is sadly common in the world today. Sadder still is its incarnation at a cultural institution of the Getty’s power and possibility.

The art public would have been better served by having no inaugural exhibition at all. Huge differences separating museum galleries from trade fairs or pedagogical classrooms have been plowed under here. And because the center’s opening is a high-profile moment the likes of which the Getty will never see again, a rare opportunity has been squandered.

Antiquities as evidence? Gee, I was just hoping for a little art.

* “Beyond Beauty: Antiquities as Evidence,” J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive. Ends Jan. 17, 1999. Parking reservations: (310) 440-7300.