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Elitist and Proud of It

Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic

A few months ago, the vice president of one of the more conspicuous art institutions in the nation was explaining the wisdom of the folksy, down-home ad campaign his museum regularly uses to attract visitors. “We want people to know this is their institution,” the enthusiastic administrator told The Times, “that we’re not elitist in any way in our activities and interests.”

Not elitist in any way in their activities and interests? And here I thought this was an art museum.

Actually, what the museum apologist was voicing is a sentiment that is anything but rare. The “E” word is the great bugbear of American art museums today. Elitism is a source of cold-sweat dread among administrative bureaucrats and their bean-counting boards of trustees, who now dimly equate gate receipts with success. It even intimidates much of the curatorial cohort, who should know better. Elitism is the cockroach in the art museum pantry that scurries into hiding when the lights go on.

Their horror is a cause for despair among those for whom art is more than diversion (“more” meaning that the diversion is fervent, not idle). I count myself among them. Precisely what, I’d like to know, is wrong with being an elitist? One of the best things about living in a democracy is that anybody can be an elitist. And if anybody can join, snobbery and exclusion have nothing to do with it.

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In democratic culture, elitist status does not derive from ancestral bloodline, inherited wealth, genetic authority or established power. Democratic elitism is self-selected. Its status derives from individual choice followed by willful action. And whether art museum administrators know it or not, America is stuffed to the gills with just this sort of happy, hard-core elitist.

Take Los Angeles. There’s no bigger elitist in L.A. today than a Dodger fan. Unless, perhaps, it’s a Laker fan. Dodger fans and Laker fans are elitist through and through.

They won’t sit still for the second-rate. They won’t accept shoddiness on the field or court. They won’t murmur quietly about missed plays or lost opportunities, about how the game might have stunk but at least the kids got to glimpse a celebrity. That’s just not good enough.

A Dodger fan will scream bloody murder over boneheaded decisions by the front office. A Laker fan won’t roll over and coo, “Gee, I hope everyone gets a chance to play today--even the really bad guys!”

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Sports elitists know their stats. They want the best players playing the most rigorous game for the savviest organization. They expect a team that will surpass what even they thought it could do. They come to the stadium (or the television broadcast) because that’s where they’ll see what they can’t see at the local gym or a neighborhood park. Elitism drives their passion.

Meanwhile, over at your local art museum, things couldn’t be more different. Elitism is in the cross hairs. Egalitarian moves are underway--although not, of course, where they might actually do some good. Egalitarianism goes out the window at the box office, for example, where special exhibition premiums are regularly added to steadily rising art museum admission fees. Only in the choice of programming is the elitist pleasure of art increasingly on the skids.

Why are sports elitists OK, but art elitists aren’t?

Partly it’s because art has always had an image problem in America. Given its European aristocratic legacy, art has been seen as a sport for swells--painting as polo. But America isn’t Europe, and democratic elitism is not aristocratic elitism. Democratic elitism is a means by which a privilege once reserved for the few can be extended to the many.

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Extended not to everybody , mind you, because there is no reason everybody should have all the same passions in life, but extended without equivocation to anybody --to those whose chosen pursuit of happiness leads them in art’s direction. Art is an elective, after all, not a requirement.

Anti-elitism is changing the character of art museums--for the worse. Art museums used to be cool because they were places of refuge. Their tax-exempt status meant that government, through a clever mechanism of indirect public subsidy, had recognized the value of establishing sites dedicated to the distinct benefits and pleasures of contemplating art.

Art museums offered asylum from the competing claims of the department store, the town hall, the schoolroom, the place of worship or the carnival. They were sites whose utility resided in their difference from other precincts in the city--not in their superiority to them, but in their difference from them. In the last 25 years, that difference has eroded, almost to the point of being unrecognizable.

The flight from elitism corresponds to the current market-driven ethos of art museums. Focus groups and market surveys are used to determine what people with no interest in art would like to see and do at the art museum. Museum mission statements, once dedicated to core activities of collecting, conserving and exhibiting works of art, are being rewritten to emphasize gassy proclamations about public service--privileging the indifferent general public over the self-selected art public. Furniture, fashion, movie memorabilia, celebrity style, commercial design and other artifacts of popular culture increasingly edge out art culture in the museum, making it less its own distinctive place and more like any other place in town.

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“Star Wars” artifacts, Eames design and Armani clothing--to cite just three examples from the past year--already occupy every corner of the commercial world around us. Do we really need to turn over the finite, publicly subsidized space of the art museum too?

The problem is not--repeat, not--that commercial pop culture is encroaching on the rarefied precinct of the art museum, like a hooker in the harem. The problem concerns what is chosen for art museum display and why. The gorgeous, brain-dead Armani exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York last fall was cringe-inducing, even without the ethical swamp created around a multimillion-dollar pledge to the museum by the designer’s corporation. (The “R” in Solomon R. Guggenheim teeters on the brink of standing for “Rent-a-Museum.”) But the Rudi Gernreich show set for Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art later this month is an exhibition with promise.

As unalloyed Pop, Gernreich’s 1960s fashions stand as an aesthetic precedent for today’s dizzying intersections between culture and commerce. Understanding Armani’s clothes might help a museum visitor choose what to wear to a society event, but understanding Gernreich’s might help us know where we are as a society right now. That’s what art museums are for.

Anti-elitists tend to pander. But, sometimes I wonder whether art museum people, such as the one quoted fretting over public perceptions of elitism in art museum “activities and interests,” have ever listened to people chatting in art museum galleries. Not in focus groups or in answers to surveys, where responses are formalized by an aura of social respectability and scientific gravity, but actually talking among themselves in front of paintings, videos or sculptures.

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Conversations in front of works of art almost always orbit around one topic, having to do with whether the art is good. Art museum visitors are concerned with issues of quality. They’re elitists by definition, despite wide disparities in eloquence and perception.

Anyone who crosses an art museum’s threshold automatically becomes an elitist in the world of art. Art museums would do well to start welcoming them in, rather than apologizing for what brought them there in the first place. *


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