The announcement yesterday that Philippe de Montebello, director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1977, planned to retire at the end of 2008 presages not only the end of an era but also a dangerous crossroads for that distinguished institution.
Perhaps more than any other director of a major collection, Mr. de Montebello has steadily upheld high artistic standards in the face of an ever more agressive onslaught of the trendy and the meretricious. In an age when museums have more and more become politically correct purveyors of one or another form of aesthetic pathology, Mr. de Montebello has courageously resisted the blandishments of the socially enfranchised pseudo-avant garde that, for decades, has populated the established art world with one repellent fad after the next. Not only did Mr. de Montebello keep the Met on the high road of artistic excellence, he also spoke out effectively at critical moments when the tsunami of artistic garbage threatened to overwhelm us.
I think, for example, of his 1999 op-ed in our former paper of record about “Sensation,” the pathetic congeries of ready-made outrage that became a momentary cause célèbre among the art ladies of both sexes when Rudy Guiliani denounced it as “outrageous,” and full of “sick stuff,” and threatened to stop city funding of the Brooklyn Museum where this carefully calculated exercise in naughtiness occurred. (Remember: pictures of the Virgin Mary festooned with cutouts from pornographic magazines and some clumps of elephant dung, pubescent female mannequins studded with erect penises, vaginas, and anuses, fused together in various postures of sexual coupling, etc. etc.) Mr. de Montebello had some appropriately tart things to say about the objects on view in “Sensation,” but, as he noted, the really disturbing thing about the exhibition was that people were “so cowed by the art establishment or so frightened at being labeled philistines that they dare not speak out and express their dislike for works that they find either repulsive or unaesthetic or both.”
Exactly right. But it almost goes without saying that Mr. de Montebello was pilloried by the art establishment for throwing his lot in with the philistines and daring to criticize “Sensation.” What other major director would have had the wit and the pluck to exhibit such independence of mind? I can think of none.
What does the future hold for the Met? It is difficult to be sanguine. Naturally, a “search committee” has been organized, but what plausible candidates are there? One person rumored to be on the short list is Gary Tinterow, a long-time curator at the Met, and a talented one, too. But in recent years Mr. Tinterow has gone out of his way to demonstrate how tractable he is, how willing to compromise aesthetic excellence for the sake of appealing to whatever trashy “genius” the art market happens to favor this season. As James Panero, my colleague at The New Criterion, pointed out, Tinterow’s acquisition, on long-term loan, of one of Damien Hirst’s dead-fish-in-a-tank-formaldehyde pranks does not bode well for the Met should Tinterow step into the director’s shoes.
All in all, alas, the prospects that have been whispered about so far are pretty discouraging. How disquieting it must be for Mr. de Montebello, who has spent more than thirty years holding the line and upholding high standards. Like Louis XIV, he has reason to mutter “apres moi, le déluge.”
Update: As a kind reader, and many friends (who knew there were so many?) have pointed out, it was the next Louis numero XV, who made the famous prediction. I regret the error, especially since I repeated it in a piece for The New York Post, thus giving the nice people at The Village Voice a reason to gloat. Oh well, as Horace says, “bonus Homerus dormitat”: even Homer nods.