MoMA’s Fame Show Is Trashy-But You Knew That Already

Of the many things to be said about the exhibition called Fame After Photography , which Marvin Heiferman and Carole Kismaric have organized for the Museum of Modern Art, the first is this: Fame is neither a work of art in itself nor a survey of works of art by others. It does contain a small number of pictures that are of artistic interest, to be sure, but they are entirely incidental to the purposes of the exhibition. Fame is a documentary exhibition devoted to the history-and indeed, the prehistory-of our media culture. Its contents are accurately described in the so-called “educational” brochure that serves in lieu of a catalogue of the exhibition as consisting of “more than 500 cultural artifacts.” It is altogether appropriate, then, that this educational brochure has been produced in the form of a tabloid newspaper, for Fame is itself a show designed to appeal to tabloid taste.

In this respect, at least, Fame certainly fulfills-and at times, even over-fulfills-its principal purposes, which have nothing to do with the experience of art. Yet, because MoMA still purports to be an art museum, this shift from a serious interest in works of art to a focus on “cultural artifacts” inevitably entails some fairly bizarre practices. For example, it obliges the museum to confer the status of artist on the Los Angeles Police Department-a government agency not heretofore famous for its esthetic prowess-simply because its technicians processed a photograph of a well-known suspect in a ghastly double homicide: O.J. Simpson, of course.

But this misconceived elevation of the L.A. Police Department to the status of artist is no more bizarre, really, than the experience of encountering in the galleries of the Museum of Modern Art a collection of trashy pictures proudly described as “a selection from Donald Trump’s personal collection of photographs [that] shows the tycoon with famous people, including the actor Sylvester Stallone, the television hostess Kathie Lee Gifford, and the saxophonist Kenny G.” But this is what happens when art museums abandon the functions for which they were created in order to engage in popular outreach programs that claim to illuminate some significant social development but in fact are designed to appeal to the kind of popular taste that is guaranteed to maximize box-office sales.

About the specific social development that is traced in the Fame exhibition-“the changing relationship between photography and fame over the years since the medium’s invention in 1839,” as the museum itself defines the subject-this show adds nothing important to what is already known to virtually every person on the face of the earth who has had the benefit of receiving even a minimal education about the modern world. Does the public that is now crowding the Fame exhibition really need to be told that tabloid newspapers, slick magazines, Hollywood movies, television and now the Internet have changed the ways in which celebrity is technologically fabricated to serve specific commercial and political purposes?

Not really. To a greater or lesser extent, the public for which this exhibition is designed is already in possession of that information. This is not a subject that has to be studied in the classroom or pondered in a museum exhibition. Anyone who now owns a television set, looks at newspapers, goes to the movies and has passed an hour or two at a sizable flea market will have noticed that the packaging of fame and celebrity has changed over the years-and changed, for the most part, in ways that add to a further debasement of a popular culture that is already conceived to infantilize its consumers.

What the Fame exhibition offers to a public already infantilized by our media culture is yet another opportunity to bask in the degradation of its own worst taste. For this is an exhibition that flatters and apotheosizes the very subject-the corrupting dynamics of contemporary celebrity-that it pretends to illuminate. As for the museum’s motives in mounting such an exhibition, one can only speculate, of course. H.L. Mencken may have said it best when he observed that no one ever went broke by underestimating the taste of the American public. That this cynical observation may now apply to the Museum of Modern Art is not itself a happy development.

It is one that we are likely to see further advanced in the immediate future, however. As more and more of our art museums discover that there are lucrative box-office sales to be had from exhibitions that give priority to “cultural artifacts” over works of high artistic accomplishment, the very nature of the art museum as an institution is bound to undergo a radical change.

This season we have already been given a vivid example of this shift in priorities in the American Century exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and last year we were given an even worse example in the show devoted to motorcycles at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which, not incidentally, will next year bring us an exhibition devoted to the work of Norman Rockwell.

The Fame exhibition is not only a depressing development in itself, but an even more depressing augury of what awaits us-all in the name of art, of course-in the century to come. It remains on view at MoMA through Oct. 5.