Butt Nekkid

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

It's no fun to beat up on the Dallas Museum of Art. Oh, sure, there's a certain impish glee to be had in countering the pols' and the flaks' and the hacks' (read: Janet Kutner's and Mike Daniel's) insistence on pretending it's anything other than the most mediocre of flyover museums. But after a while, even that cheap thrill grows tiresome, and depression sets in. When an arts institution is as weak as the DMA is and long has been, taking critical pot shots is a little like hunting half-crippled big game from the back of your pickup truck; there's no honor, no sport in it.

Alas, duty again calls, this time in the form of the DMA's current exhibition, European Masterworks: The Foundation for the Arts Collection at the DMA. As do many of the DMA's worst ideas, this one seems to have its origins in misfortune and someone's cockamamie notion of PR. The misfortune is, of course, this year's threadbare exhibition schedule. The PR op is actually next year, 2003 being the hundred-year anniversary of the city's first foray into cultural improvement, the founding of a ladies' club that bought a few wretched canvases for the Dallas Public Library. Since the DMA traces its origin to this club, and since the museum had 14,000 cavernous feet of temporary exhibition space yawning empty, someone came up with the brilliant notion of a show highlighting the museum's greatest weakness, its permanent collection of 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century art.

The result is European Masterworks, the latest in the DMA's endless series of head-in-the-sand shows, a fig leaf of an exhibition that hides little and reveals much, both about the holes in the museum's collection and its institutional inability to recognize and confront reality. It is a stopgap effort, a show without any attempt at a catalog or new scholarship, a show without anything fresh or interesting to say, a show that delivers utterly conventional wisdom and stale bromides with all the condescension and pedantry we've come to expect from the DMA. A show, in short, that presents not only an opportunity to rant, but to consider a burning critical question: Is it institutionally possible for the good folks at 1717 N. Harwood St. to get their act together?

"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

As all museum shows, this one starts out with donor bootlicking, this time in the form of a confusing homage to a legal entity, the Foundation for the Arts. Created in the early 1960s, the Foundation holds title to artworks acquired from Dallas' defunct Museum of Contemporary Art and serves as a funding source for acquiring new works for the DMA. After introducing visitors to this legal fiction, and failing utterly to explain why we need to know this or care, the show careers like a turbocharged pinball through a remedial adult education course. After touching on notions of the Grand Tour as the first "liberal education," we ricochet off ties between Art and letters, Art and music, Art and philosophy and review art-historical movements at warp speed: vedute, the Rococo, Realism, Romanticism, the cult of Art for Art's sake, Pre-Raphaelism, Symbolism, Modernism, Surrealism.

Naturally, this art education skips a few inconvenient concepts, like hierarchies among the arts, and Hegelian notions of history, of golden ages and declines, and painting's struggle to be viewed on par with literature and philosophy and to distance itself from its downmarket cousins, the crafts. Thus Giambattista Piranesi's nostalgic etchings of tourists picking their way through Rome's decayed glory are displayed alongside a magnificent early Canaletto, and a Meissen candelabra is treated as being fully as important as Jean-Baptiste-Marie Pierre's rococo saga of "The Abduction of Europa." The good news: It's all beautifully installed, the exhibition spaces painted handsome shades of taupe and gold, which perfectly set off the intense earth tones of the DMA's handful of baroque and rococo canvases, as well as the pathetic smattering of etchings and prints by which The Canon is for the most part represented.

As usual, the exhibition fails because the DMA is trying to serve contradictory masters. The heavy-handed tone is borne of the fact that the DMA has always conceived of itself--indeed, has been sold to the public--as an educational endeavor, a tool to enlighten the masses, to expose future generations to Culture. Of course, it can never be a real educational institution, with intellectual freedom and bold, independent scholarly inquiry, because it has also been yoked to boosterism. The truth is that the vast majority of DFW residents will never set foot inside its limestone walls. Therefore, to justify its very existence, the DMA has been sold to the larger public as an emblem of civic pride, as a tool for attracting big business and luring tourists and injecting moolah into the local economy--a kind of sports franchise for the arts.

The result is an exhibition like European Masters, an unusually fine example of the kind of pretending the museum is forced to do, as well as of the paradox the DMA must confront if it is ever to be an institution of more than the remotest relevance.

For there are any number of worthwhile shows hiding in the DMA's European flotsam. Indeed, the very weakness of the DMA's European collection presents an intriguing puzzle. Great museums, after all, spring from America's deep, long-standing hankering after cultural improvement. And longing for cultural improvement usually starts with a Texas-sized sense of cultural inadequacy. So, why did it not follow that Dallas got a great museum? Did the great early fortunes of Dallas never amass great European collections? It's possible; Texans are in general a notoriously earthy, practical lot, and Dallas in particular has long had an allergy to the hoity-toity world of ideas and intellectuals. When the Potter Palmers and the Gardners and the Fricks were carrying off the cultural booty of declining European civilizations, traditional wisdom has it that Dallas was little more than a flyspeck on a defunct cattle trail. And the story of Algur H. Meadows and his Spanish old-master fakes illustrates the Texan's propensity to buy first and do his larnin' later. But these explanations are too facile, too easy. In the first half of the 20th century, was there nobody around to shape local tastes? Or was there some reason why the booty just didn't make its way to the DMA?

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.

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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