Gehry’s New Guggenheim Is Kitschy Theme Park

With the Giorgio Armani fashion show now occupying the lion’s share of exhibition space at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, a Norman Rockwell retrospective soon to follow and the museum’s current film series devoted to Fever in the Archives: AIDS Activist Videotapes from the Royal S. Marks Collection , we are given a very clear measure of what the present administration at the Guggenheim regards as its aesthetic and cultural priorities.

True, there is also on view at the moment a smaller exhibition devoted to, of all things, modernist painting. It is called Amazons of the Avant-Garde , and brings us the work of six Russian female modernists. (It has already been discussed in this column.) Yet even this show is a reminder of the extent to which serious art has now been marginalized at the Guggenheim. The warrant for the Amazons show clearly has less to do with an interest in the aesthetics of abstraction than with the Guggenheim’s current need to conform to the orthodoxies of feminist politics.

What all of this signifies is a cultural agenda dominated by an unholy mixture of politics, kitsch and box-office appeal–in other words, the whole postmodern swindle that, in the name of art, relegates art itself to a sideline interest and transforms the museum into a branch of the entertainment and tourist industries.

This is what has to be understood in considering the Guggenheim’s latest proposal, to appropriate a sizable portion of lower Manhattan for the purpose of creating a mammoth fun-and-games cultural emporium: The Guggenheim Museum is itself no longer a serious art institution. It has no aesthetic standards and no aesthetic agenda. It has completely sold out to a mass-market mentality that regards the museum’s own art collection as an asset to be exploited for commercial purposes. While capitalizing (in every sense) on its prestige as an art institution, it sacrifices the interests of art to the crowd-pleasing vagaries of mass culture–and it proposes to do so at the taxpayer’s expense. It also promises to transform the street traffic in lower Manhattan into a condition of permanent gridlock.

We don’t yet have a suitable name for the kind of culture park that the Guggenheim is now proposing. The art of the past–which in this context means the art of the modern era–will apparently have no role to play in the new Guggenheim. What will be offered instead are new departments devoted to design, media and technology, a performing-arts center, shops, restaurants, a skating rink, a river-front promenade and a sculpture park. (When the art of sculpture goes into decline, we are inevitably offered sculpture parks as a substitute for the real thing.) Plus, of course, some flamboyant architecture as additional box-office appeal.

As for the art component of the proposed new Guggenheim, it will apparently be limited to shows of contemporary work, and you can probably imagine what that means. Think of the recent Sensation! show at the Brooklyn Museum and the current Open Ends debacle at the Museum of Modern Art, and you are likely to have a pretty good idea of what’s in store for us in the new Guggenheim. As soon as I heard that the winner of this year’s Turner Prize in London is a German photographer who specializes in homosexual pornography, I wondered how long it would take for the Guggenheim to offer this ”artist” a show. And as the old Guggenheim at 89th Street and Fifth Avenue already boasts a gallery named in honor of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, it would be in keeping with the museum’s current outlook to be the first to show the Turner Prize winner on this side of the Atlantic.

Bear in mind, too, that the current mammoth expansion of the Museum of Modern Art will likewise be devoted to shows of contemporary work–or rather, to that narrow range of postmodern high jinks that our curators of contemporary art currently favor–and you will see that what we are facing in the coming decade is an endless round of Open Ends -type exhibitions in the two New York museums, MoMA and the Guggenheim, that in the past gave us some of the greatest exhibitions of 20th-century art. And when you add the Whitney to this roster of converts to the postmodern temper, the future does look pretty bleak indeed for the quality of museum shows in New York. With Brooklyn, too, no longer to be counted upon for quality, the Met, together with the Frick and the Morgan Library, remains our last and only hope.

What the Guggenheim is proposing for its new cultural emporium–which promises to be 10 times the size of its current Frank Lloyd Wright headquarters–isn’t really a new art museum. From what we have so far been told about it, the new Guggenheim bears more of a resemblance to a kind of up-market Disneyland–a Disneyland, say, for yuppies, tourists and others who consume the products of culture high and low the way movie-goers consume popcorn and soft drinks. And let’s face it: Frank O. Gehry is the ideal architect for this Disneyland-type culture park. What he can be counted upon to provide is the postmodern counterpart to the old movie palaces–fantasy architecture in the service of pop culture. As I say, we don’t yet have a name for this kind of culture park, but we can already be certain that its merits (whatever they may be) will have little or nothing to do with the experience of art. Art may serve as a bait for the public, but art will be subordinated to other interests–as, indeed, it already is at the uptown Guggenheim. This, in my view, is a dismal fate, not only for the Guggenheim Museum but for the life of art in New York. Let’s hope it meets with some firm resistance.