WOID XIX-14. An Enema of the People


Ellen M. Saethre-McGuirk, PUBLIC, PUBLICS AND PROBLEMATIC POLITICS: REVIEWING THE ART INSTITUTION by Paul Werner, Barbara Goldstein and Christopher Whiteead. Art History Vol. 31, Issue 2, (April, 2008): 251.

Now that the reviews of Museum, Inc. are in it's good to ask what I, the author, got out of them. Of course it's easy to like the good reviews and easier to dismiss the bad ones, but I've learned to take either one for what they're worth. Some good reviews seem so off the mark they make me feel guilty - not for reading nice things about myself, of course, but because the explanations don't help explain the book itself. Some bad reviews I just shrug off because the reviewer's bias is so clear that anyone, pro or con, can see through it and make a reasoned decision on their own. When the critic for the Times Literary Supplement spoke of my "wearisome cynicism" she obviously meant the passage where I state my goals: to "make you smile and think, and bring us all a step closer to World Revolution." It's one of the charmingly naïve aspect of the British intellectual elites to think they still rule anything at all, least of all public opinion.

Now comes a bad review that so dishonest, both in form and context, it demands a response. Dishonest, also, the collusion between the reviewer, the editors, and the whole network of scholars who allow these ways of thought to―I can't say flourish, but at least exist. The review is in Art History Journal and the reviewer, one Ellen M. Saethre-McGuirk―or maybe two. And of course it's kind of me to bother to respond, since the journal's only read by a handful of those who mutter. What disgusts me, though, is the dishonesty behind what passes for progressive thought in large swathes of academe, and in almost all of the discipline of Art History. Besides, I don't like lies, and least of all what you might call residual lies: the lies so deeply buried in the discourse of art historians and museum administrators that they're barely noticeable: they're what French theorists call "always already." Since it's always already true that X equals Y, no need to remind the reader: a few judicious Ys will suffice.

Quoth the craven: "The intended public [for Museum Inc.] is certainly not the uninformed or newcomers to the world of museums." Really? Here I was, thinking my book was intended for the general reader, the person who may visit a museum without necessarily knowing what goes on behind the scene but has questions, and thoughts, and a library card as well. And here stand my editor and publisher, whose stated purpose is to promote what they call a "demotic-academic discourse," meaning the risky business of publishing smart, knowledgeable people who can talk to smart people without talking down to them. But Saethre-McGuirk "certainly" knows better: her type usually does. I'm sorry to disappoint you, Ellen (may I call you Ellen? No? Well, tough noogies), but the great unwashed have been reading my book when they're not too busy with the Sunday unwash, and many have even enjoyed reading, and that brings up the distinct possibility that maybe the lowly masses are at least as literate and smart as the average art historian, even if they're not particularly knowledgeable about the theory behind the depiction of the big toe of the second saint in the third row of the exonarthex of San Giovanni in Restauro.

I wonder if Orwell ever came up with the term "Mass-speak," but if he didn't a quick visit to the animal farm of academe would have persuaded him. Mass-speak is the favored language of the radical progressive leftier-than-thou, I'm-a-feminist-and-you're-not wing of the Art Historical establishment, the coddled graduates of the Court Ho' Institute who must ever dismiss with a weary sigh the ignorant mob who, if they weren't so ignorant, might be as radical as they. The only "lefty" left among these lefties is their obsession with building tall fences around their own endeavors; and, as in the old Soviet Union, it's not about keeping the evildoers out, it's about pretending anyone might actually want to get in. It's harder to access art history journals online than journals of nuclear physics: can't let the Iranians steal our art historical secrets and build their own Sistine Chapel, what, eh?

And perhaps this explains why the distortions in these journals are so common: if nobody reads you then there's nobody left to call you out. Art History, by the way, doesn't even publish letters of rebuttal, though they do post a lengthy statement about their ethics: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

But, hey, I understand. It's tough when academic fantasies hit the hard blacktop of the real world―or would be, were this ever allowed to happen. In another brilliant piece of deductive acumen, Saethre-McGuirk wonders―rhapsodizes, rather, since rhapsodies are how art historians and curators hide their ignorance:

City planners travel to Bilbao in droves, to see, feel and breathe the Bilbao effect - how a museum brand swept in like a summer breeze and acted as a catalyst for cultural and political rejuvenation. One has to question where the public value really lies in this...

One does, doesn't one? Then why doesn't one hop on a train and get to Bilbao and―oh, I forgot: the ignorant masses of Bilbao are too ignorant to tell one, not that one would stoop to listen. Or, even better, since one actually read a report or two―you know, Ellen, academic papers written by economists who have actually crunched the numbers?

There's an easy way to figure who's a real progressive among academics: stop them on the street. Eric Hobsbawm, the great Marxist historian, is a doll, although the last time I spoke to him he seemed more interested in what I'd just bought at the flea market than the survival of Socialism. Stanley Aronowitz may be a proletarian pain, but he'll listen when you tell him what a proletarian pain he is, and I appreciate that. And then, on the other side, there's Saethre-McGuirk and all the others, the whole Art History crew.

To tell the truth, I am a little weary after all, and maybe cynical. One too many college feminist or Marxist telling me, or telling artists, or telling the public and museum visitors how veddy, veddy un-radical we all are. In the same issue of Art History there's an article by Anne Wagner who, last time I bothered, was busy denouncing Courbet for having (gasp!) actually painted paintings for the money. I doubt that you could accuse either Wagner or Saethre-McGuirk of doing that―of actually painting a painting, I mean. Henrik Ibsen had this kind of person nicely pegged, the arrogant know-it-all administrator working for the "good" of the people he despises, attacking, by means foul and fouler, every one who threatens his plans for domination. But domination of what? Ibsen would have recognized Saethre-McGuirk, who runs a museum in some Marx-forsaken part of Norway.

And that's what bothers me most. When art historians act like arrogant jerks it's not as if the public's going to notice. When museum workers fantasize themselves as valiant commissars behind their barbed-wire compound people notice, and then they turn away because, quite frankly, it's not worth it to them, and when it's not worth it to them then it's not worth it to me. What we used to say about Malraux, the French Minister of Culture, applies to people like Seathre-McGuirk, and to the editors at Art History and all their academic home crew: they dirty everything they touch.

[2/14/2008; revised 8/20/2012]

- PW