Lost in Translation
Thursday, April 5, 2007
A real disagreement about the appropriate role of art.
"The idea that money, patronage and trade automatically corrupts the wells of imagination is a pious fiction…flatly contradicted by history itself."
Contrary to Didier Rykner’s accusation, I did read his articles before publishing an essay on this site accusing him of hypocrisy over the Abu Dhabi deal. I thoroughly understood his opposition to what he deemed the inappropriate exchange of art for commercial or political gain, which motivated his opposition to the Louvre branches in Lens and Atlanta. Nevertheless, Rykner’s desire to prove his consistency does not alter our fundamental point of disagreement—if anything, it reinforces my argument. His response failed to address the thrust of my editorial—that art is a gift to all of humanity, transcending politics and economics, and therefore should not be hoarded by falsely appealing to pretentious ideals.
Art is an end in and of itself. But to these critics, masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa are nothing if removed from their superficial contexts.
The signatories of the Abu Dhabi petition claim that they are "all in favor of exhibitions." However, the benchmarks Rykner’s response sets forth for a foreign exhibition to maintain its sanctity are not only exorbitant in number, but any one of them may be construed in a plethora of ways in order to fit an agenda. Any display that involves politics or financial gain and does not deliver quantifiable knowledge, convey a "scientific" and a “cultural” purpose violates his standards.
Art is an end in and of itself. But to these critics, masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa are nothing if removed from their superficial contexts. For this elite few, personal appreciation for art is enhanced by the satisfaction of the aforementioned requirements. But when these standards are not met, it limits their respect for the exhibition, museum, and all those involved with the arrangement, suggesting that, for them, art has lost its meaning.
Even if ulterior motives do exist for the exchange of art, who is hurt most from its obstruction? Certainly not the artist, the curator, or even the critic—rather, the ordinary would-be viewers, including children who are yet to be inspired but may not have the luxury to refuse to visit "a museum whose collections are all over the world."
Tough luck then for the many who have not yet had the privilege of visiting a museum or have lived their entire lives, highly passionate about art, but not able to make the journey to the Guggenheim or the Louvre.
And while Rykner openly welcomes the Louvre's acquisition of Saudi art, he is frustrated at the loaning of French art to the Middle East.
His resistance to prior museum deals was much quieter relative to his current Abu Dhabi petition. In regard to the Prince Walin bin Talal’s donation, Rykner should have objected to Islamic works being displayed in the Louvre, the heart of Western culture, as an affront to the works’ cultural integrity. Of course, he did not. Given Rykner's penchant for spotting such transactions elsewhere in the art world and the fact that France is one of Saudi Arabia's key trading partners, his failure to recognize the Prince's deal as "political" is indeed hypocritical.
Blanket opposition ignores the fact that political uses of art often yield positive and mutually beneficial results.
Ironically, he appears proud that the Louvre has become a "very rich museum, which can sometimes even compete against the Getty." Whether the funds come from tourism or the State, the Louvre is using its extensive wealth to expand its already prestigious collection. This seems antithetical to another statement that, "If exhibitions and loans of works of art become onerously expensive, small museums will no longer be able to organize exhibitions because of lack of funds." According to Rykner's logic, "small" museums then will never be able to compete against the top collections in the world. Besides, "nobody gives a lot of money in exchange of unknown master's paintings."
Despite the fact that the Abu Dhabi petition was directed towards an international audience, it was posted in only one language. Yet there is concern with my multilingual abilities. So if there was uncertainty as to whether I speak French, why would I be referred to four other articles written in the same language? Because, just as with the art he seeks to defend, Rykner appeals only to a select audience with his writing. Only in this case, he is complacent with avoidable obstacles, which may in turn prevent others from discovering his true intent.
What is perhaps frightening to Mr. Rykner, is that he views museums differently than practically every other person who visits them. An experience with the arts is personal and unique. To create such strict and highly subjective mass prerequisites for the display of art, which in the end affects much more than just the critic, is plain selfish.
Beyond the uncontrollable aspects of an exhibition, a critic should not artificially pose the most critical question for the common observer—rather, it should be intrinsic and develop naturally: “What did you learn about yourself?” Then again, if you are not permitted to see the art, how will you ever know?
Jonathan Bronitsky is a Researcher in Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.