Saturday, July 25, 2009

At the Met, part two: read all about it

I now have in my hands and have begun reading Rogues' Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum by Michael Gross. It's too soon to tell what I'll think of it, and my expectations aren't super high since I know it's more of a petit-bourgeois liberal I'm-shocked-do-you-hear-me-simply-shocked-that-rich-people-behave-so-badly muckrake than any sort of systematic critique of the capitalist art world, but I'm hoping it'll be at least informative. Dishy's fine too. Already, barely 30 pages in, I've learned some interesting stuff. For instance, the final annual salary of recently retired Met director Philippe de Montebello: $5 million. This is a public institution, its operations, including this snooty jackass's cash haul and free Fifth Avenue apartment for 30 years, paid for by our New York City tax dollars. Publicly funded though it may be, required by law and reams of contracts with the city to provide free public access along with a range of public services, as Gross sketches in the opening pages, the Met flouts law, contracts, and any charade of serving the public with its intimidating entry gauntlet misleading museum goers into believing they must pay a $20 entry fee and in various other ways restricting the legally mandated access. The city, of course, looks the other way, especially nowadays helmed as it is by a billionaire mayor whose buddies run the show.

Despite what I expect are its class-analysis limitations, this book does expose some truths about the misdeeds of the New York City ruling class and for that, as I've mentioned before, some of those elements and their minions did what they could to stop it getting read and campaigned against it. Some of this may have initially worked, but ultimately it seems to have backfired. Amazon's rankings now show Rogues' Gallery in the top 10 of its urban social science category. At the Strand bookstore yesterday, piles of the book were on prominent display on the best-seller table on the art books floor.

From that same table I picked up a copy of Francis Bacon: 1909-1992 by Luigi Ficacci. The price: only $7.50. Hurray! I'm glad I was wrong in thinking I'd never be able to buy a book about this artist whose work I'd so appreciated at the Met exhibit. No, it's simply that the Met store only carried more expensive books. Happily, this one, bargain priced as it is, is handsome, with a nice offering of color images of Bacon's paintings. Unhappily, however, it's pretty much unreadable, the prose turbid, impenetrable. Here's a sample, the opening sentences of a random paragraph plucked from the middle of the book:
Extrapolation of the image from its natural appearance does not permit its transformation into an abstract entity. In the case of erotic inspiration, or an episode of desire, the flagrancy of the act is an absolutely decisive psychological motive. The imaginative process must necessarily exalt the erotic obsession at its origin, even if this is in the most autonomous and condensed iconic synthesis. On the other hand, it is clear that, precisely when the senses are most excited, as in the case of sex, the response of the empirical appearance would reveal its falsehood and incapacity to satisfy the desire to see. This entails a few artifices that would make it possible to grasp an intangible entity -- sensation -- as if it were a truly material fragment.
Oy. I guess I'll just look at the pictures.

(This reminds me of how I was first turned off to academia, and especially to academic approaches to art, back when I first started college in 1972. I'd started school expecting to major in art history. It took one semester of an art history course, one semester of trying to wade through this sort of gobbledygook and realizing that I'd be expected to produce it if I became an art historian, to dissuade me from that course.)

One more note on reading about the Met. This week's New Yorker has two items about the museum. The first is a gag-worthy brief in Talk of the Town about the current exhibit of loot from U.S.-occupied Afghanistan and a pre-opening tour for a group of moneybags that was followed by dinner at La Grenouille, one of the city's fanciest and priciest restaurants. As is usual for such pieces, this one is characterized by a certain arched-eyebrow-covering-awe-at-the-company-we're-keeping style. The second is an amazingly vapid puff piece on the Met's new director, Thomas Campbell, who last fall succeeded de Montebello. The writer, Rebecca Mead, manages to simultaneously mention and gloss over the whole topic of the museum's larceny. As for Gross's book, the museum's overseers' efforts to quash it before publication, the robber class's howls of outrage once it came out, she takes a simpler route: she never mentions it. Which, along with the article's timing, suggests to me that the piece is in fact a response to prodding from the Met's PR office, that it is, in other words, part of the campaign against Gross's book.

Oh, don't get me started about the New Yorker. I've ranted about the New York Times Book Review several times here but I've slighted the New Yorker, which is more than deserving of a rant or two; perhaps I'll produce one some time soon. This week's issue is a prime example of much about it that makes me gnash my teeth, including the pieces cited above but others as well, above all the latest from one Malcolm Gladwell. Good golly, will we never be delivered from this guy's drivel? This week's wisdom: how the personal psychology of the big investment bankers, specifically their overconfidence which is a natural but in this case maladaptive human trait, is what caused the current economic crisis. Hello!?! Has he never heard of capitalism? Overproduction? Speculation? No, apparently not, but hey he did take a Psych 101 class, and he does read business school case studies, those fonts of wisdom. While we're at it, by the way, does he know women exist? Again, apparently not.

OK. Enough. I have yet to blog about the exhibit at which we spent two-thirds of our two days at the Met. This is because I've been pondering it, and how to boil down what I saw and what I've been thinking into a brief blog entry. I'd also like to find some relevant books to recommend and haven't yet had a chance. It will come soon, though. Also coming, within the week, a look at an independent press that specializes in, believe it or not, left political fiction.