The Met Gives In: Nasties Climb Stairs for Jackie O .

We spent last week in Kraków, a fine city, but not a place

one can reasonably expect to keep absolutely up-to-date on the doings of

Princess Pavlos of Greece. Ask your average Krakówite-in-the- ulica (street) what he or she thinks of

this year’s crop of hats at the Nature Conservancy lunch, and you’ll get a

shrug and a muttered stream of consonants that may or may not mean “Pieces of

s-!” On our return to DUMBO, I therefore hugged the cats and then hastened on

knees stiffened by eight hours in the back of a LOT Polish Airways 767 to the

table on which the Newspaper of Record had been saved and went immediately to

the previous Sunday’s (April 29) Styles section.

My interest was keen. During our absence, the annual Costume

Institute gala had taken place at the Metropolitan Museum, of which the

Institute is a part. This is always an occasion at which bold-face names vie to

show themselves at their most idiotic. I had especially high hopes for this

year’s edition, built as it was around the opening of an exhibition of

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ clothes. Anything to do with Jackie O. is

absolutely guaranteed to bring out the worst in our High Polloi.

Do not misconstrue my interest in this matter as indicative

of mental or moral triviality. If one adopts the Moynihan Measure, namely that

deviancy is defined down, then any ongoing study or survey of sociocultural or

socioeconomic degradation must needs pay continuous attention to the top of the

heap. Which is why, to this correspondent, there is no better index of our

degradation than the Styles section of the Sunday New York Times . To those of us who patrol the outer reaches of

big-money coarseness and pretension, it is as indispensable as were the radio

transmissions of “coast watchers” to the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific during

World War II-another struggle against long odds with the forces of darkness and

barbarity.

Snatching up Styles, I turned, as I always do, to the party

pictures, skipping a fascinating spread on white gloves (also in connection

with the Jackie gala). My eye immediately lit on a photograph that made me sad.

It was taken from the middle distance and from the rear (so that individuals

weren’t recognizable), and showed members of the glittering company on their

way up the Great Staircase to the Jackie

exhibition.

What a revoltin’ state of

affairs, I thought.

I have no quarrel with the Costume Institute’s (or the

Met’s) choice of subject. If they want to put on a show of the former First

Lady’s clothes, with historical impact supplied by the sort of current-affairs

photo-mural backup Time magazine used

to circulate to fifth-grade classrooms, that is their call. If the Met is

willing to cede intellectual responsibility for a big-bannered exhibition in

prime exhibition space to a “guest curator” who turns out to be one of those

cookie-cutter English shirt-lifters who throng the halls at Condé Nast, so be

it.

It may be a brilliant

show, as Herbert Muschamp gushed in his Times

review, although I have my suspicions about that, too. It may be a dud; the

couturier Karl Lagerfeld, whose canceled Chanel exhibition the Jackie show was

cobbled together to replace, characterized it to me as follows: “Perfect for

them. I was told in fashion circles the Museum is now called the Necropolitan Museum!”

Personally, I’m not much of a Jackie person, pro or con. I

met the lady once. Somebody brought her to a cocktail party I was giving for a

London friend; she asked me why I wrote such terrible things about people she

liked; I replied that I supposed it was because I considered them to be

terrible people; that was that. She dressed well, I suppose, although not well

enough, in my opinion-Babe Paley or Mrs. Charlton Henry she wasn’t-to make

couture a fundamental pillar of American democracy, which from what I read is

the exhibition’s big message (or assertion). Jackie’s been and gone, but the

Supreme Court still dresses in basic black.

No, what got my dudgeon

up and humming was the fact that opening-night attendees were headed upstairs to the show. I’m sorry, but upstairs at the Met is for Cézanne or

Caravaggio, not Oleg Cassini-to put it bluntly.

That’s the big story here, because by taking a Costume

Institute show up the Grand Staircase, the Met has finally waved a white flag

and effectively ceased to be the last holdout, the aesthetic Fort Zinderneuf,

in the battle between the M.B.A.’s and the M.F.A.’s for control of our dominant

cultural institutions. I think this is one of the most compelling-and

discouraging-business stories of our time.

I’m not alone. The Economist recently ran a substantial

piece on how one museum after another is putting the cart of business before

the horse of art. Obviously museums, like any other enterprise, need to

generate operating cash, and it makes sense, once you’ve got the paying

customer under your roof (thanks to whatever it takes to lure him there), to

snatch at his wallet in as many different ways and from as many different

angles as you can come up with: food service, retail, Acoustiguide rentals,

Happy Hours, whatever.

At the end of the day,

however, it is art-the enjoyment of, the elucidation of, the display of-that is

the point of the exercise. Not merely painting and sculpture and ceramics and

textiles, but another art that is now all but lost. The art celebrated in the

title of my friend Philip K. Howard’s admirable new book, The Lost Art of Drawing the Line: How Fairness Went Too Far (Random

House).

The Met always drew the line and-up to now-held it. It

helped that the Costume Institute, which in the past two decades has mutated

from an innocuous collection of historical clothing into a flaming hotbed of

unspeakable fashionista puffery, was

in the basement. About a year ago, when Tina Brown and I were unsuccessfully

trying to find a subject I was willing to write about that she was willing to

publish, I did an unpublished piece for Talk

on the struggle for the souls of museums today. In it, I likened the Costume

Institute to “a laboratory jar in which dangerous viruses are isolated and

sealed; the Institute’s basement premises offer a chance for the Met to do

crowd-pleasing, crowd-pulling shows and a physically and intellectually

confined basis, without contaminating the rest of the place.”

As I say, the line had been crossed when Chanel waved a

reported $1.5 million under the Met’s nose to do a Chanel retrospective upstairs , and the museum did a passable

imitation of the affirmative reaction of the late John Connally, Nixon’s

Treasury Secretary, when a lobbyist passed an envelope fat with milk-industry

lucre under his nose. Chanel got

canceled-Philippe de Montebello’s finest hour-but then Jackie O. was

substituted. And speaking of noses, the camel’s proboscis is under the tent

now, and a camel this big is like the gorilla of barroom legend: You ain’t

gonna be through ’til he is.

All the usual arguments have been trotted out in defense of

the Jackie show: that it brings people into the museum, people who, while

rushing to see the Chanel suit Mrs. Kennedy wore in Dallas, may catch a glimpse

of a Courbet out of the corner of their eyes, halt to take a second look and be

transformed into the salt of the earth, art-appreciation-wise. I don’t believe

that. I think this is nothing but bread-and-circuses museum-keeping, a

jumped-up Vogue promo that

intellectually and aesthetically has no place in the Met, a farmed-out

co-production that belongs at F.I.T. or in a rented hotel suite. Any future

high-hatting by the Met of its cousins in Brooklyn or up Fifth Avenue at the

Guggenheim is going to look awfully hypocritical.

It’s also going to

diminish further the degree of pleasure that people who really do love and know

art will get on 82nd Street. Call this an elitist gripe, if you will, but we’re

the hard core: Much as we enthuse over miraculous specialized exhibitions like Correggio-Parmigianino , we also want to

see Vermeer , which is now all but

unseeable thanks to the throngs that stampede from bannered show to bannered

show. “Well, we’ve seen Jackie, what else should we go look at?” If only banner

advertising worked as well in dot-com land. (This column has a policy of only

going to events on the same basis as the general public, although as a member

of the Met I do go to certain members’ openings.)

I think you can make a case that museums are the cathedrals

of our secularized culture, the repositories of our true faith. The

M.F.A.-M.B.A. struggle reminds one of the medieval struggle for control of the

Papacy, which ended with one Pope in Rome and a second in Avignon. The flag

with the keys no longer flies above the Vatican; on the flagpole now flaps a

Chanel suit or Oleg Cassini frock. Avignon (the Guggenheim, Tate Modern) looks

to have won. So I suppose there’s nothing to do now except sit back, sulk-and

wait for Martin Luther.