“There was money in the air, ever so much money,” Henry James wrote, in The American Scene, of the giddy, acquisitive Gilded Age New York in which the Metropolitan Museum of Art was first conceived, then declared, and, finally, like the piecemeal republic itself, fitfully assembled. “And the money was to be for all the most exquisite thingsfor all the most exquisite things,” he noticed, “except creation, which was to be off the scene altogether.”

The Met was not founded out of open hostility to new art, but neither did its patrons exhibit anything more than skeptical curiosity toward living artists; it took the curators, focused on Old Masters, a half century to warm to the Impressionists.

As Michael Gross recounts in his chatty survey history of the museum, Rogues Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money That Made the Metropolitan Museum, the founders and early supporters of the Metmen like John Jay, J. P. Morgan, and Elihu Rootwere typical Victorian Americans, in that they were as Victorian as they were American. They continued to look across the ocean for cultural cues, and treated the artistic achievements of their countrymen with a sort of haughty disdain. (That this would be the last American epoch that could plausibly be characterized by reference to a European monarch was news that reached Gilded Age elites last.) New art from New York, a fledgling cultural outpost on the European peripherythat was more or less a laughable proposition.

To these men, nineteenth-century New York was “an appalling sink of ignorance and depravity,” as the art critic Calvin Tomkins puts it in Merchants and Masterpieces, his erudite, semiofficial museum history, first published in 1970. By their lights, the city was a mongrel metropolis, a modern Babel of tenement stacked against tenement, the population nearly half foreign born, largely uneducated and distressingly illiterate, and stuffed into “slums more miserable than those of London or Calcutta.”

Native New Yorkers werent much better off than the newcomers. In the aftermath of the Civil War, as many as 100,000 of them lived in lightless, airless cellars, stuffed sometimes a dozen to a room in sprawling communities of the desperately poor the critic and urban archivist Luc Sante has called “tenement plantations.” Ten thousand homeless children, perhaps more, roamed the streets of Manhattan, many in gangs, many abandoned by their families. Disease was everywhere one looked, sanitation nowhere to be found. Crime was as common as poverty, and violence, drunkenness, and prostitution were everyday vices for workaday New Yorkers. The 1863 draft riots, which left 1,200 dead, did not seem to the wealthy an anomaly in the life of the city so much as a terrifying inevitability. When, less than a decade later, many of those men sought to establish a world-class art museum on the island of Manhattan, they werent anointing a new world capital so much as planting a cultural citadel in the middle of a city that was, to them, an enormous and horrifying slum.

They set out to do this, Tomkins writes, not despite the condition of the city but because of it, as an exercise in heroic philanthropy, the well-meant industrialist pastime that satisfied both the personal vanities and the social conscience of the very rich. (Tomkinss study, though blinkered, far outshines Grosss tabloid treatment.) Money was curative, the philanthropists believedthe practice had a kind of dramatic precedent in heroic medicine, the theatrical clinical method, predominant in nineteenth-century America, dedicated to bloodletting, blistering, and induced vomitingand the palatial museum, they said, would be an engine of social progress. In an early “Appeal to the Public,” the Mets first trustees argued that an art collection represented “an essential means of high cultivation,” and, in the keynote address of the opening ceremonies, one member proposed “that the diffusion of a knowledge of art in its higher forms of beauty would tend directly to humanize, to educate and refine a practical and laborious people.” Great art, so long shuttered away in aristocratic estates, now belonged, he declared, to the working publicindeed, had “become their best resource and most efficient educator.”

In the century and a half since, the Met has been often criticized for neglecting this part of its founding mission, devoting far more extracurricular energies to courting patrons than to welcoming schoolchildren into the galleries. But the eminent Victorians who established the institution meant something very narrow when they spoke of the imperative to educate: they did not intend for the museum to reach out to the masses, but to attract them, as a beacon, and to “improve” those that did come not through public pedantry but by appealing to private aspirations. Despite its rhetoric of public welfare, the Met was never meant to be a settlement house hung with pretty pictures, dispensing culture like home relief, but an art museum as self-help vehicle, offering the possibility of self-improvement through class envy.

Of course, it wasnt just class the Victorians envied, but knowledge. The first great American art museumsBostons Museum of Fine Arts, Washingtons Corcoran Gallery, and the Met were all incorporated in 1870are often grouped with the first great European museums, showcases of conquest established the century before in the nationalist spirit of imperial rivalry. (Napoleon opened the doors of the royal collection at the Louvre Palace in 1793; he would later do the same for royal collections throughout Europe, and would shame the British Parliament, lacking a revolution of their own to force the issue, into establishing their National Gallery in 1824.)

But the American museums stand apart, assembled by peaceful means with private wealth, and dedicated less to the goal of national prestige than to the pursuit of universal knowledge. Indeed they might, in telling ways, have more in common with another peculiar, and far more popular, Victorian inventionthe natural science museum, which crudely combined elements of zoo, lecture hall, wax museum, and freak show, and served, critically, to confirm something essential about the status of the museum-goer, who by his very gaze, however prurient and pseudoscientific, established himself as a cultivated man, possessed of learning and civility, and beyond the reproach of the natural world.

Today, of course, the Met is rather more than a cabinet of curiositieseven more, perhaps, than the “encyclopedic museum” it was founded to be (“the world under one roof,” as one British curator has described the model). Its broad facade calls to mind a European villa, with Central Park spread out behind it like a country estate, and encloses an “art metropolis,” as a former director has put it, a marvelous city both essential to and distinct from its landlord marvelous city. A century and a half since the museums founding, New York is no longer a parochial boomtown but an unrivaled cultural capital, with a museum that is no longer a lost-and-found collection of European castoffs but one of the greatest storehouses of culture in the Western world. The story of the Met is the story of the United States claiming the worlds cultural patrimony as its own. No longer does the Met aspire to status through the acquisition of art; art aspires to status through acquisition by the Met. The success of the institution demonstrates one way in which America might remake Western culture, but the museum itself remains deeply skeptical of the turbulence of artistic or even curatorial innovation. The story of the Met is a triumphant American story. And yet a conservative Victorian sensibility still pervades its galleries.

In the years since 1870, the prejudice that said little artwork of interest or value could be produced on the imperial periphery, or by the cultural vanguard, has been almost entirely undone, replaced in our conventional wisdom and our more conventional museums by what the critic Jed Perl has called “a modernist orthodoxy,” devoted to the virtues of “fast-forward evolution and the violent overthrow of tradition.”

That modernist orthodoxywhich defines New York and the cultural imperium for which it is a putative capitaldoes not govern at the Met, where, instead, a much older tradition presides. The incisive sociologist Sarah Thornton has described the contemporary art world as a kind of “alternative religion for atheists”a cult of the creative life, and creative lifestyle, of young artists. The Met represents the values of a different kind of devout community, a cult of the object, consecrated by centuries of connoisseurship that can yet deliver new wonderment in a busy and bourgeois world. Two of the museums most influential twentieth-century directors, Thomas Hoving and James Rorimer, and its current head, Thomas Campbell, were all medievalists, and insiders often describe the museums mission in the hushed tones of the monastery, as the safekeeping of a sacred culture through dark times. Since at least the Second World War, it has often seemed that the best way to keep that culture safe is to stow it away in the United States.

In “The Problem of Museums,” a prescient 1925 essay, the poet Paul Valery identified that “problem” as abundancerooms overstuffed with objects and people that would fluster any visitor, leaving him in a “cold confusion.” The Met, one simpatico curator has written, represents a contrasting ideal: “the permanent collection, one object at a time.” In recent decades, as curators around the country have made contorted appeals to a broader public by booking blockbuster traveling exhibitions and staging sensationalistic shows of their own, the Met has turned quietly inward, toward its own remarkable holdings, committing more of its temporary exhibition space to contemplative shows built around overlooked and underappreciated objects from its own collection.

This dedication to the integrity of the collection has made the museum into a kind of mesmerizing vault. The Met boasts a collection of more than two million objects, but rarely exhibits more than 10,000 piecesless than one half of 1 percentand is famously stingy about loaning items to other institutions, granting fewer than 200 requests in a typical year. (Regional museums are eager to see items from their lesser collections hung in institutions like the Met, but museums in high standing have little to gain by returning the favor.) Like American universities, which can gain in prestige by cultivating endowments more than by developing facilities, the Met often seems less engaged in the practice of showcasing culture than in the business of withholding it.

At the museum, this does not amount to a contradiction. The curators and patrons thereand particularly the longtime director Philippe de Montebello, who retired in 2008 after twenty-two remarkable years, and who is the target of much disdain in Rogues Galleryhave always believed that the mission of the Met was synonymous with the cause of Western culture. To those critics who suggest that the museum “seek to demystify the museum-going experience,” de Montebello, the grand vizier of the museums connoisseur culture, has answered, “I must say, I view our role quite differently; in fact, the very opposite. In our largely prosaic and materialistic world, it is the mystery, the wonder of art that is our singular distinction and that our visitor seeks.” Elitism of the kind the Met has always practicedcommitted to standards at the expense of accessis not only compatible with democratic values, he has said, echoing the museums founders, “it is the very essence of democracy.”

Repugnant as that sentiment might be as political principle, as a curatorial approach it is merely judicious; as with our politics, the democratic elements of our culture have always been leavened with entitlement and ambition. In our experience of the fine arts, exclusivity is not an elitist proposition but a universal dream: we all want to be left alone in the room with the painting, and to feel, even for a moment, that we alone command its power, and command it completely. In this sense, the modernist cult of the avant-garde and the Metropolitan cult of the retrograde are symmetrical movements, each endeavoring to chase a vanishing horizon of unique aesthetic communion. (And both groups believe theres something to be lost by throwing open the doorsnamely a sense of ownership over the very meaning of the work.) But for all the allure of exclusive experience, and all the genuine discomfort of sharing it, the strength of the long Western tradition itself counsels that consensus, too, has virtue, and that we shouldnt chase so far after idiosyncrasy or unique experience, lest we leave behind our culture of shared value. After all, an artwork without context is, as the archeologists say, just another pretty thing.

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