“The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect” at The Museum of Modern Art

Charles Wilson Peale, The Artist In His Museum (1822), oil on canvas; courtesy The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

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The last artist viewers encounter on exiting the exhibition The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect is the eighteenth-century French painter Hubert Robert (1733–1808). During his lifetime, Robert achieved renown for his paintings of architectural ruins, a niche in which he displayed an academician’s proficiency and a modicum of melodrama.

His lasting influence in the arts was not as a painter, however, but as Garde du Musoeum of the Louvre. Helping to shape, inventory, and install the museum’s collection, Robert took an operative role in the establishment of the Louvre as a public institution. (Robert even made the museum his home for a time.)

His Imaginary View of the Grand Galerie in Ruins (1796) is a portrayal of the Louvre centuries hence. This picture of physical and cultural devastation, complete with eminent works of sculpture scattered amongst the rubble, was, one imagines, something of a lark for a painter whose passion for art was lifelong and devout. Certainly, anyone who cares about the life of art could hardly wish on a museum the fate as conjured up in such a melancholy jest of a picture.

Yet Imaginary View of the Grand Galerie in Ruins, as seen at MOMA, serves as a punch-line to the malicious joke that is The Museum as Muse. The show’s title would seem to imply that the museum is a touchstone for inspiration. For the many artists (and non-artists) who regularly visit places like MOMA it is, of course, just that.

Yet, the exhibition’s take on the museum is anything but motivational. “The museum as an institution, …” writes Kynaston McShine, MOMA’s Senior Curator and the organizer of show, “has had great meaning for contemporary artists, and they often have felt strong emotional connections to it, whether of love or hate.”

There’s no doubting that artists have had—and will continue to have—complex relationships with museums. But one doesn’t have to venture too far into McShine’s show to realize that the true subject of The Museum as Muse is contempt: contempt for the standards cultural institutions are meant to uphold.

The show’s thesis is that the museum is a silly, hypocritical and, yes, elitist establishment stuffed with objects that are antiquated when not merely meaningless. (Charles Willson Peale’s The Artist in His Museum (1822) was included, one feels, as a postmodern dismissal of connoisseurship.) This brand of blinkered cynicism is representative of a generation nursed on the facile verities of conceptual art.

For the many contemporary artists included in the show, the museum is a cultural morgue incapable of sparking a sense of connection. So, instead, they pursue neo-Dadaist pronunciamentos with the knowledge that inclusion in an exhibition at MOMA looks good on a résumé. In the meantime, McShine bites the hand that feeds him in the service of intellectual fashion. The bad faith The Museum as Muse engenders would be enough to make one’s head spin if it weren’t par for the art world’s course.

© 1999 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 1999 edition of The New Criterion.

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