HERE IN New York few critics if any will be sorry to see the Museum of Modern Art’s “High & Low” exhibition leave town. Few of the critics in Chicago and Los Angeles, to which it travels next, are likely to receive it with much enthusiasm either. Why do the critics hate this show? What is going on when, like a rare and ominous alignment of the planets, the critics of the New York Times, the New York Observer, and The Journal of Art vilify the exhibition as though with one voice?
“High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture” deals with one of the most vexed issues of contemporary cultural discourse-the muddy crossroads where high culture and popular culture meet and interact. Implicit in all of this are a clutch of treacherous questions: Is high culture elitist and arbitrarily defined? Is popular culture better because more democratic? Should museums be addressing such issues at all?
The big idea behind “High & Low” was not, it must be said, terribly brilliant or profound. Full justice can be done to it in ten words: Modem art borrowed from mass culture, which it also influenced. Anything else said on that subject is merely elaboration.
In the first rooms of the exhibition, the cubist collages of Picasso and Braque announce their lowly nativity in the cradles of journalism and advertising. Leger’s mechanomorphic damsels are revealed as the natural daughters of Bibendum, the Michelin tire man. As Warhol and Rosenquist would be unthinkable without massmarketing and billboards, so it is that Cy Twombley’s scribblings owe their existence to graffiti, Lichtenstein’s Benday-dotted reveries are lifted bodily out of D.C. Comics, and the late sneaker paintings of Philip Guston echo the ironies of R. Crumb.
Though the two curators, Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik, had the cheek to present such pairings as their own bright ideas, none of it was news to us critics. As many critics pointed out, these connections were never doubted by anyone in the know. What these critics missed, however, is the quite astonishingly simple fact that exhibitions are not meant exclusively or even primarily for critics, who spend their lives mooning over images and doing little else. Rather they are for the public at large, who, precisely because they have other things to do with their lives, can devote only a few scattered moments of their leisure to the inspection of art. But the problem with the show, and with its critical reception, goes much deeper. The unspoken, unchallenged assumption that all critics and all curators seem to share is that an exhibition, through the collectivity of its artifacts, can and must illustrate a thesis. It used to be that a museum was a big box where inspiring objects were kept for the edification of the public. Exhibitions merely brought together in a single space multiple examples of a specific artist or a specific school. Today this notion is unacceptable. The curator is expected to impose his world view upon the objects in his custody, much as a conductor must forge his own music out of someone else’s notes. The problem is that a concatenation of images, by its very nature, is usually too inarticulate to enunciate any hypothesis worth considering. Such points of genuine insight as the curator might have are brutally simplified in this process, and the best we can hope for is that they will be discussed at greater length, as in the present instance, in a massive catalogue.
In excoriating the show’s curators, Hilton Kramer, the incandescent critic of the New York Observer and one of the most redoubted conservative art critics in America, damns “High & Low” as “a show in which the intellectual fashions of the academic are cynically joined with the commercial imperatives of the contemporary art market.” Mr. Kramer’s heart is in the right place, yet his reasoning is suspect. He is driven to this condemnation through an almost reflexive response to the mere framing of the question that the show seeks to answer: What is the nature of modernism’s interaction with low culture? He knows that usually, when art types start talking about the interpenetration of high and low culture, what they really mean is that they can’t tell the difference between the two, or that they can and they wish the former would just go away. Mr. Kramer attributes either or both of these prepossessions to the curators of “High & Low.” Yet even if he’s right, by itself that would not warrant our dismissing their research, which is generally quite useful.
Elsewhere, in reviewing the curators’ minute research into the aesthetics of storefronts, comics, and advertising, Mr. Kramer chastens them for adopting an archaeological approach to art. And we ask: What’s wrong with that? Only where archaeology presumes upon the place of disinterested judgment does it imperil the distinctions between high and low art. Otherwise it is merely one of the many ways in which we approach the object of our affection. One does not love a woman for her furbelows, but if one loves the woman, one will come to love the furbelows too. Thus it is human, in loving modern art, to feel an emotional attachment as well to the superannuated circumstances in which that art was nurtured and grew.
There is, however, one massive criticism of the exhibition’s intellectual underpinning which, to my knowledge, no critic has yet seen fit to make. Essentially, I do not care very much about the distinctions between high and low culture. Most of the culture worth experiencing, though surely not all of it, dates from before the Industrial Revolution. Distinctions between high and low culture become relevant only after that point. I challenge anyone to prove that Homer is high culture. Yet he was a great poet. The cave paintings of Lascaux are great art, as are Sassinid silver and the rugs of Anatolia. But in what sense can any of this be called high culture? Weren’t the candy-box vapidities of Couture, the foremost academic painter of the Second Empire, culturally “higher” than the caricatures of Daumier? And wasn’t Swinburne’s poetry “artier” than Dickens’s prose?
Distinctions between high and low culture are too easy to make. They do not denote discernment so much as that which takes its place. The true distinction is between good art and bad. Everything else, to a greater or lesser degree, is irrelevant.