Paper Monument’s How to Behave in a Museum reminds me a great deal of the N+1 conversation two years ago, What Was The Hipster. Both are conversations about what middlebrow means. From Timothy Aubry’s text:
…trying too hard to show off your expertise is a dead giveaway that you haven’t got as much status as you’d like. But in previous decades there was still a belief that those who took advantage of inexpensive museum fares, public libraries, and so forth were elevating themselves. For my generation, say those born around or after 1968, the sign that you’re at the top of the hierarchy is a readiness to acknowledge that the high ground you’ve come to occupy isn’t actually higher than any other ground.
This is very American. Our purported populism has always made us wary of those claiming, by virtue of their position or education, to know better than everyone else. One thing that’s changed, though, is that this populism, often disguised as the heady skepticism of continental theory, has managed to sneak into the very bastion of elitism, into the places where the aspiring intellectual first learns how to be a pompous snob: academic humanities departments. The institutionalization of deconstruction, identity politics, and Marxist criticism, in other words, has replaced the pious attitudes of previous eras with a different set of now-habitual postures: distrust of the canon and the institutions that preserve it. Whatever their merits, these frameworks have created enough ambivalence to make art appreciation a vexing enterprise for a generation of well-educated museumgoers. Because if you don’t believe in high culture, then what are you doing at a museum?
Although it may sound obvious, it’s worth mentioning that one of the few ways we afford expertise in a culture that rejects the canon is by demonstrating that we have more work experience than others. This is very similar to other fields, though fine art takes it to an extreme. We look down upon artists or any other professional who maintain hobbies, anything less than complete dedication to the field is unacceptable.
A few common examples:
- The WoodmansIn this movie family members speak with open distain about hobbyism. They believe being an artist means dedicating your life to it, and they want to be remembered for it. Maybe there’s no actual aura around art, but we still want history to remember us for what we do and say.
- Want a show at a gallery? Don’t tell them you have a full time job. Gallerists might think you’re not dedicated enough to the practice.
- Jerry Saltz sees between 30 and 40 shows a week. I don’t actually believe this, but it imparts the same point as The Woodmans. Don’t do or see anything else but art. The same goes for Twitter personalities. I’ve watched Hrag Vartanian and Museumnerd tweet constantly about the art they’ve looked at over the weekend, but where are the tweets from their weekend sejourns at Applebee’s? I don’t see any. [Update: This goes for me too. It's not meant to be a jab, simply an articulation of the ethos of the art world]
As Aubry mentions earlier, certainly, the highest ground we can occupy is that which acknowledges that there isn’t any, but that may simply be because we value visible consumptive volume of art more than we ever have. The ability to discern quality is useful, but not essential in today’s social climbing.