12/18/2005

note to Boston MFA: Tetons = TITS

Met some friends this morning for brunch and to take in the perfectly anodyne Ansel Adams exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. You can save yourself a lot of aggravation by skipping the show and just buying the catalog--the pictures in the book are the same size as the ones on the wall of the exhibition hall, and you'll be able to view them better in the comfort of your own home.

But the choice of an Adams exhibition is in line with the MFA's goal of showing very nice, irrelevant art. There is a snooty austerity in its presentation that appeals to Boston's snooty patrons of the arts. It's the same kind of thing you saw in the Ralph Lauren show earlier this year, and the Gainsborough exhibition back in '03. They all gave patrons the illusion of class, but otherwise left you unmoved. There was nothing vital here, and nothing we had not seen before. But that's safe territory for the MFA.

The most disheartening thing about the experience is hard to articulate. It's always the same, though. The only people of color I saw during my visit were at the coat check and behind the counter at the gift shop, and, of course, the security personnel. Now, there are a couple ways to look at this. You could see it as a reflection on the fair hiring practices of the MFA, and praise them for conscientiously recruiting minorities for these front-line, low-wage jobs. They should feel lucky to have jobs at all, right?

The problem for me is that we are getting awfully used to this dynamic: blacks behind the counter, serving whites. We're back to thinking that that's pretty much the natural order of things. You can say it's the market place, and no reflection of our values, but the truth is it's increasingly obvious--painfully obvious sometimes--that we are a nation giving up on the idea that equity and equality are both everyone's right and everyone's responsibility. We need to work harder individually and as a society, period.

The MFA has done its part to price undesirables out and to offer exhibitions and art all but empty of culturally relevant material, divorced from the vitality of modern life and culture. It has instead actively marketed art-snobbery. The experience of art is a luxury item, not a reflection of life or a vital force in democracy.

This anodyne approach seems meant to bring in as wide an audience as possible, but it actually excludes those for whom art has meaning beyond status. I got the feeling observing the crowd at the Ansel Adams show that it would have had significantly less value to them were it to have been free. It was an event not primarily because of the subject matter, although the austerity of Adams' work fit in with the idea of art as something monumental, monolithic, somehow static. And not least, more decorative than declamatory, as strains of modern art can be--above all, tasteful.

Not to knock Ansel Adams. His images are inseparable from our experience of the American West. His images from Yosemite, his photos of the Tetons--I saw them long before I visited Yosemite and the Tetons, and they informed and augmented the majesty of the landscape for me. But the show was staid. The images were small, the plaques were informative, but there was something vital missing. The energy in the exhibition hall was as stagnant as the air.

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