Butt Nekkid

The DMA presents a fig leaf of an exhibition that hides little and reveals much, none of it good

Wandering through the museum's pathetic European collection, all kinds of other questions arise. For example, what can we make of the museum's odd combination of strengths and weakness? For the joke is that Dallas, the most socially conservative of Sun Belt cities, amassed a fine collection of contemporary art. How exactly did this happen? Did the cultural Brahmins really favor Oldenburg over old masters? Or was collecting in Dallas always more linked to propaganda than intellectual pursuits, always about projecting an image of Dallas as a sophisticated place? Could it be that rich Texans are at heart democrats, who honestly preferred an art all about eliminating high-low, mass vs. elite distinctions? Or maybe they just never bought into distinctions between Commerce and Art.

"The Abduction of Europa," a 1750 rococo confection by Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre, on view at the DMA
"The Abduction of Europa," a 1750 rococo confection by Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre, on view at the DMA

These are questions worth asking, and art-history lessons worth learning. The problem, of course, is the chronic one at 1717 Harwood: Answering them would have required some honesty of assessment, an approach of which the DMA seems incapable. One of the many ironies of the DMA is that, until it can let go of the boosterish blather, it will never provide the interesting, sophisticated entertainment or the worthwhile scholarship that are a good museum's only legitimate products. Instead, we will continue to be treated to a schizophrenic mix of moral crusade and chamber-of-commerce hyperbole, to suffer through programs that are equal parts eat-your-spinach and platitudes. And the museum will continue to function mostly as a modern-day Chautauqua, a travertine big top with programs to expose the masses to High Culture: educational speakers and performers reading excerpts from Great Works of Literature. As ever, its real function will not be education, but pasting a socially acceptable, altruistic face on self-serving activities, providing a government- and tax code-subsidized playground for business and social elites, a backdrop for social climbing and corporate functions and hubris. In short, until it adopts a more honest approach, the DMA will always be little more than a mausoleum in the Devil's Dictionary sense: "the final and funniest folly of the rich."

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