Strong Curatorial Programming for Some, Miniature American Flags for Others
Alyssa Rosenberg continues to push for the Smithsonian American Art Museum's "Art of Video Games" exhibit today in a post over at Matthew Yglesias' place. I think that she—like the Smithsonian American Art Museum—is plainly ignoring the fact that many if not most of these games are products of Japan. The genre is overwhelmingly linked to Japanese innovators. So the very first question about hosting this show at the American Art Museum is not the strawman-ish "Are video games art?" but rather "Are video games American art?" The answer to that is mostly no.
Then she strays into much deeper political waters. But first.
Despite the fact that the American Art Museum has much more actual American art than it has the capacity to display, for seven months of 2012 it will dedicate a significant portion of its exhibition space to a show focused primarily on Japanese pop art. Granted, this form of Japanese pop art (video games such as Final Fantasy VII) is very popular with Americans. (Including me.) Rosenberg subscribes to the gateway effect, arguing that the "Art of Video Games" exhibition will represent a draw for new audiences who might not otherwise come to the American Art Museum.
And maybe that's right. Judging by box-office results, I would bet that museum exhibitions would be more popular if more of them involved screenings of Thor under whatever pretext. But this represents a cynical view of both American art and American audiences, one that ignores the fact that American art is also popular, like video games and summer blockbusters. Plenty of people come to museums for Mark Rothko, John Singer Sargent, and Georgia O'Keeffe; and plenty of them stick around for Lee Krasner, Benjamin West, and Arthur Dove. And plenty of people come to D.C. specifically to see America's cultural treasury.
As Rosenberg points out, museum attendance has grown in the last two years, so it's not quite clear what problem a blockbuster, off-topic giveaway like "Art of Video Games" is supposed to solve. She pivots to say that self-apparently popular shows like "Video Games" will endear audiences to the Smithsonian in the future, and that these audiences will in turn rescue it from future controversies.
I think that miscasts the political pressure that public art institutions face today. It's not a lack of public support, which the Smithsonian Institution already enjoys due to its hugely popular institutions, such as the American Art Museum. In the most recent controversy, the National Portrait Gallery essentially got swift-boated and the truth is that the Smithsonian Institution doesn't have any better answer for that sort of asymmetrical exploitation of the media in 2011 than Sen. John Kerry did in 2004.
The American Art Museum, a publicly supported and popular museum, should never need to pander to crowds. The worst reason of all for this museum to do so would be political. Rosenberg writes:
Frankly, if I was on the staff of a publicly-funded cultural institution staring down the existing political climate, and the role government support for the arts has the potential to play in the 2012 elections, I would want to enlist a passionate constituency of nerds and future nerds.
First of all, let's be real: Art will play zero role in the 2012 election. No one but John Mica (R-FL) cares in any specific sense about arts funding (and he wants to expand the National Gallery of Art).
Second, as Secretary of the Smithsonian G. Wayne Clough's response to the "Hide/Seek" crisis demonstrated, museums get nothing in return for sacrificing programming integrity in the face of attacks from conservative activists.
Per Rosenberg, the Smithsonian Institution could steer its programming toward populist appeal, in hopes a broader museum base will undermine conservatives who appear to be channeling populist outrage. Or she could be saying that the Smithsonian would do well to curry the favor of elites. It depends on where you peg the demographics of "gamers."
Rather, I think cultural leaders should at least try calling the bluff of politicians who threaten to cut funding on incredibly popular American art institutions such as the Smithsonian. Turning museums into houses of popular whim on the say-so of the Catholic League is, well, probably not what Rosenberg is advocating. But curators in the Smithsonian face, on the one hand, appointed leaders such as Clough submitting to the demands of the Catholic League. Then on the other hand, liberal elites such as Rosenberg say that the programming needs to mind the political reality. The programming possibilities just get narrower. The real political problem for the Smithsonian is the lack of political pressure from the institution's left asking it to adhere to the museum's mission and deal with the consequences if they come.