In response to the last Inside the Museum, which was about performance art and Carnegie Museum of Art’s exhibition of work by Ragnar Kjartansson, I received an e-mail from Shirley Tucker who wrote, “I think that Andrew Carnegie would not deem your choices the . . . masterpieces . . . of tomorrow, although none of us will be around to know how well they’ll be accepted by either the art world or the public in the 22nd century.”
Shirley is right; Carnegie would probably be dumbfounded by Kjartansson’s work. Living in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he could no more have imagined our art than he could have our modes of communication or the speed and accessibility of contemporary transportation. We are creatures of our time; it’s all we know—that, and a bit of history. I’ve written before that the most influential artists are those who are able to give voice to their cultural moment as it’s evolving. Some moments are pivotal, and the artists who engage the knowledge and experience of those times seem to be the most influential of all. The Renaissance spawned Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo; and the first two decades of the 20th century, with all the technological and intellectual innovations they brought, had the protean figure, Pablo Picasso. Even now, in the popular imagination he embodies the very notion of “modern art.”
Shirley is also right that none of us knows how the next century will regard our artistic choices. Underlying her remark, however, is the assumption that, somewhere along the way, a lasting consensus develops. In a way this does happen—general agreement about artists’ historical significance begins to form about 20 years after they emerge—but it is all but certain that this consensus will shift several times in the next hundred years. As I’ve discussed before, Sandro Botticelli is one such example. Another is William-Adolphe Bouguereau, one of the most famous French painters of the 19th century, who fell into disrepute after his death, when influential critics set him up as a straw man for the heroic struggle of the Impressionists. This simplistic view of art history went largely unchallenged until the 1970s. Today Bouguereau has regained some of his lost prestige.
As to Shirley’s question about how we are following Carnegie’s mandate to collect “the old masters of tomorrow,” the renowned art historian Robert Rosenblum once said that the person who saw the most knew the most. Today, when worldwide developments are readily available to us, it requires constant vigilance to stay on top of the field. At CMA, we see as much as we can. Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, believed that artists should lead and museums follow. We follow that precept by trying to understand artists’ aims rather than making a priori decisions about what kind of art they should be creating. Barr also said that, in collecting contemporary art, “many mistakes are made. . . [but] it is . . . clear that errors of omission are by far the most serious for they are usually irrevocable.”
At Carnegie Museum of Art, the contemporary artists we show may or may not be tomorrow’s Michelangelo or Picasso—there is no way to know—but they do have something to tell us about the times in which we live. It’s an exciting exchange, and we invite you to be part of it.
Until next month,
Read more responses to last month’s issue of Inside the Museum.