True Art Gets Busy Signal on Whitney’s ‘Artphone’

“What’s Happening at the Whitney Museum” is the title of this month’s program brochure of special events to mark the opening of the first galleries ever to be specifically reserved for the museum’s permanent collection. Mercifully, the fifth-floor galleries designed by Richard Gluckman for this purpose are not only very nice in themselves, but they are now the most agreeable public space to be found in the entire museum. Indeed, they are the only exhibition spaces at the Whitney Museum of American Art that do not have the effect of oppressing the spirit of both the art objects on view and the people who come to look at them. That’s the good news. The bad news is “What’s Happening”: the program of events that the Whitney has organized to inaugurate the new galleries.

At the Whitney nowadays, the governing assumption seems to be that works of art cannot be expected to speak for themselves. These mute objects must therefore be surrounded by talk, talk and more talk. We know from experience what this kind of gallery palaver usually amounts to–a dumbed-down cocktail of promotional hype, cartoon history and fatuous artspeak utterly devoid of esthetic intelligence. Adults who sign up for this kind of brainless blather deserve what they get, of course, but to inflict it on innocent children is simply a form of commercial exploitation masquerading as art education. At the Whitney, however, this species of distraction is now called “family fun,” and it is being packaged under such beguiling rubrics as “Red, White, Blue and More!” and “All Aboard! Sites and Sounds of American Art.” In other words, the art museum as Disney World.

For adults who are disinclined to sign up for one or another of the group tours of the new galleries, the museum now also offers something called the Whitney Artphone. This is said to be an “easy-to-use, hand-held unit that will feature detailed descriptions of objects on view, biographical information about artists, and discussions of other topics relevant to the exhibition.” You can be sure there will be plenty of those “other topics”–topics other than the art you have come to see.

Returning to the new galleries the other day for a second look, I saw this loathsome “unit” in action as one hapless visitor turned to his companion to complain that “I think I’ve been listening to the wrong painting” while he desperately punched the buttons on his Artphone, trying to connect with the picture he had actually been looking at. I suppose it was inevitable that, after all the talk about telephone sex in high places, we would live to see telephone art-viewing in museums. But why pretend that this, too, is anything but a debasement of the experience it claims to enhance? In any case, it’s now got to the point where museums–and not only the Whitney, of course–should be required to post specific hours reserved for silent viewing. Or would that be considered a violation of the Federal Disabilities Act?

None of this will matter to the many artists, art scholars and museumgoers who have already written off the Whitney as a lost cause. People of that persuasion now expect so little from the Whitney–or rather, so much that is offensive–that when something actually worth seeing comes to the museum, they remain skeptical. And when these increasingly rare events do occur, they tend–like the shows devoted to Richard Diebenkorn and Arthur Dove this season–to be the work of curators or institutions outside the Whitney. The truth is, the Whitney is no longer trusted by people who are serious about art and seriously informed about it. They have too often seen artistic standards sacrificed on the altar of fashion, politics and multimedia hoopla, not to mention really lousy taste.

Can the new galleries devoted to the museum’s permanent collection be expected to win back this important constituency? I frankly doubt it. In my view, this is not the fault of the curators who have selected and installed the work to be seen in the new galleries–or not wholly their fault, anyway. By and large, Adam Weinberg, the curator of the permanent collection, and Beth Venn, his associate curator, have done well with the materials at their disposal, and some recent acquisitions–notably, the Elie Nadelman sculptures–help to fill some significant gaps in the collection. (Even so, the absence of a single neo-classical sculpture by Nadelman in the new galleries is a grave error of judgment that leaves the newcomer to his work with a very distorted account of his artistic development.) One of the problems is that the Whitney has acquired a lot of mediocre art for its permanent collection over the years, and a fair amount of it now occupies the new galleries.

Then, too, there are some bizarre points of emphasis in the new galleries. Quite properly, Edward Hopper and Alexander Calder are given special attention in the new installation, which is concentrated on American art in the first half of the 20th century. But to assign an entire gallery to the work of Georgia O’Keeffe while limiting the representation of Marsden Hartley and John Marin to two paintings each is a sure sign that standards of quality have often been sacrificed to those “other topics”–in this case, the gender wars. Political correctness now requires that at least one female artist in that first generation of American modernists be selected for aggrandizement, and since feminist opinion has settled on O’Keeffe as the only possible candidate for the post, her work has been given a place in the Whitney’s new galleries grotesquely out of proportion to the quality of her achievement.

Finally, one is left with the feeling that the new permanent-collection galleries may be a case of too little and too late. Fine as the new galleries are as exhibition space, it is nonetheless unfortunate that the “old stuff”–as I heard one visitor refer to the collection the other day–is, in effect, consigned to the museum’s attic, while the museum’s major spaces on the second, third and fourth floors are still mostly reserved for the fun-and-games agenda that has lately made the Whitney a museological scandal. Think of the measly attention accorded to a master like Stuart Davis in the new installation, and you will have a measure of the museological outlook that still governs this very troubled institution.

Is any of this likely to change now that the Whitney’s director, David Ross, is departing for the directorship of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art? My own guess is that the prospects for improvement at the Whitney are not wonderful. The few candidates in the field who are really qualified to give the museum the intellectual leadership it so desperately needs are unlikely to be offered the job, and even less likely to take it if it were offered. Any major reversal in the museum’s policies and priorities would, in any case, require changes in the composition of the Whitney’s board–changes that the board itself is unlikely to agree to. It is, after all, the board of trustees at the Whitney that is largely responsible for the current muddle, and they can hardly be expected to appoint a director who opposes their tastes and special interests. There is always the possibility of a miracle, I suppose, but I wouldn’t count on it.

True Art Gets Busy Signal on Whitney’s ‘Artphone’