Artworks are not to be experienced but to be understood: From all directions, across the visual art world’s many arenas, the relationship between art and the viewer has come to be framed in this way. An artwork communicates a message, and comprehending that message is the work of its audience. Paintings are their images; physically encountering an original is nice, yes, but it’s not as if any essence resides there. Even a verbal description of a painting provides enough information for its message to be clear.
This vulgar and impoverishing approach to art denigrates the human mind, spirit, and senses. From where did the approach originate, and how did it come to such prominence? Historians a century from now will know better than we do. What can be stated with some certainty is the debasement is nearly complete: The institutions tasked with the promotion and preservation of art have determined that the artwork is a message-delivery system. More important than tracing the origins of this soul-denying formula is to refuse it—to insist on experiences that elevate aesthetics and thereby affirm both life and art.
In the popular imagination, the great corrupter of the visual arts is the art market, with its headline-making, eight-figure auction house sales of works by living artists. The secondary art market is indeed obscene, but to blame the market for all that’s wrong with contemporary art is to disregard the no less pernicious motives of the apparatus of messaging that is foisted upon artworks by nonmarket institutions and their attendant bureaucracies. Private and public museums and galleries; colleges and universities; the art media; nonprofit, for-profit, and state-run agencies and foundations: These institutions adjudicate which living artists are backed financially, awarded commissions, profiled, taught in classrooms, decorated with prizes, publicized, and exhibited.
Institutional bureaucrats, not billionaires, have the power to constrain the possibilities for aesthetic development in the present. The figure of the contemporary artist we know today is an invention of the bureaucrats. He, like them, is a managerial type: polished, efficient, a very moderate, top-shelf drinker. His CV is always up to date. He worries about climate change. The likelihood he graduated from an Ivy League university is especially high; he may himself be a tenured professor (a near given for literary artists).
The nonmarket institutions of the art world, all vanguards of the progressive movement, have telegraphed that such a profile is compulsory for artists. They should be camera-ready and, if nonwhite, eager to discuss matters of identity. Like shrapnel, the words “justice,” “legacies,” “confront,” and “decenter” ideally will litter any personal statements on their work. To conform to these expectations is to be savvy, a prerequisite for success. Such is the figure of the institutionally backed artist.
How any one individual chooses to pursue his career is not of particular interest to me. There will always be artists who are, and those who are not, corruptible, whether their patrons are the Medici, the CIA, or the Mellon Foundation. Bad art, wonderfully, is in the end forgotten. As tiresome, didactic, and predictable as much contemporary art may be, I venture that a different corruption by the institutional bureaucrats should trouble art lovers more. While the market has turned artworks into mere commodities, the vast machinery of the art world has turned artworks into artifacts, by zealously, and almost exclusively, upholding the artwork as an entity with a message to convey.
Throughout history, cycles of more or less utilitarian attitudes to art have lasted sometimes for centuries, sometimes a decade or two. During periods when utilitarian attitudes are waning, the possibility for anyone to derive expansive meaning from art awakens. No longer is there the stipulation from the state—as well as from educators, cultural bodies, community leaders, the press, and one’s peers—that artworks are to be appreciated on the basis of their religious, political, or moral content.
We derive meaning from artworks privately. The experience is interior and unfolding, often difficult to describe to others. Meanings can strike us, entering our psyches in a moment, involuntarily, driven by some hidden force. More commonly, meaning opens up within us slowly: on the third, closer read of the poem; after evaluating a painting for some time, once the eye has roamed and settled and roamed again, noticed detail, related parts to their whole. After an initial sensual impression, our faculties that make meaning are gradually enlivened—emotional, psychological, spiritual, intellectual.
The substantive feelings and insights an artwork activates in us, and which continue to resonate after we move on from it—the meanings an artwork has for us—can be dispersive, layered, paradoxical. This unsettled and abundant aspect to meaning is why we reread novels, hang prints on our walls, and return to the same museum collections again and again. Meanings are not only various but shifting. Great art reflects back at us our own mutability; what seemed sentimental or easy can, a month later, challenge and bewilder.
Late in the 20th century, it was decided within the art world that the freedom of individuals to extract meaning from artworks in manifold ways had become excessive. So pervasive was the watery idea that art means whatever you want it to mean, that all opinions on art are equally valid, the public needed reigning in. This concern is reasonable. Of course, not anything that can be said about an artwork is worthwhile, and to be discerning about art is necessarily to be discerning about art criticism. But encouraging greater discernment has not been the mandate that arts institutions have chosen to pursue.
Instead, over the last 20 years the museums and galleries, universities, media, agencies, and foundations moved to shore themselves up as the rightful experts on art by asserting that an artwork is not a site of numerous meanings but that which contains a single blunt message. One receives such a message publicly, not in private. It is delivered with the expectation of being acquired whole, and of being understood quite as the artist intended. This is utilitarian art: Its value lies not in itself but in its moral or political content. The majority of artists supported and promoted by the private foundations and government agencies, universities, and galleries today produce work of this kind.
Meanwhile, in the museums, artworks made any time before the mid-20th century are being framed as containing their own messages, which generally underline the superiority of present-day beliefs and practices at the expense of aesthetics. This turn in the framing of visual art has been experienced by many as a relief. Those within institutions feel they are legitimate again, with the power to restrict, by various means, what had become too open. Conversely, much of the educated public feels newly empowered, because they get to feel they understand the art. Visiting a museum now is like watching cable news—undemanding yet edifying, thanks to the panel of experts who untangle and interpret for the rest of us.
What is so terrible about that? To approach an artwork primarily concerned with grasping its message is necessarily to bar oneself from aesthetic experience. Utilitarians decommission their all-too-human parts—their spiritual, sensory, and emotional faculties—each time they encounter art. Out of ignorance, they conflate the aesthetic with the cosmetic: shallow, a matter of appearances. They could not be more misguided.
Progressive institutions today are overrun with utilitarians. They are the professors within universities, the administrators at major grant-awarding bodies—the MacArthur, Mellon, Guggenheim, and Ford foundations; Creative Capital; the NEA and NEH. At the public-facing venues, their attitude to art is everywhere evident: in the types of exhibitions mounted; in the way shows are curated, publicized, and reviewed; in what aspects of artworks are highlighted for audiences. Within museums, audiences are encouraged to seek not aesthetic experiences but the feeling of knowingness. Today’s educated classes cannot, as those in the 1950s and ’60s could, expect to build modest personal collections of contemporary art. Far better, though, the institutions insist, to possess art intellectually, to understand works once and for all. Artists can be mentally checked off a list: “I understand her paintings; his installations; her sculptures. I have studied their relevance. Their message is clear to me.”
In answer to the question of how this mass debasing of art has come about, I can offer one preliminary explanation. The prevailing institutional orientation to art has seeped from the academy, like bog water, up and out into the public-facing art world. In college humanities departments, the main type of work carried out is best described as diagnostic. Students are taught to produce information about culture—including artworks—using analytic methods first propounded in the fields of gender and ethnic studies, and, most of all, cultural studies. Beginning in the 1980s, and certainly over the last 20 years, cultural studies critiques have become the dominant mode of inquiry in the humanities.
Cultural studies analysis thinks of art not in itself but as a sort of rash brought on by culture, or a spore that a culture puts out. Art—just as billboards, contraceptive marketing, and horticulture periodicals—is considered a symptom or emissary of the society from which it emerged. Solely on the basis of what it demonstrates about its time and place is art a subject of study. Naturally, an artwork’s aesthetics are irrelevant in the cultural studies mode of critique; no one work of art is any better, or more significant, than another. In its predominant lower forms, cultural studies is a kind of supremely unrigorous social studies, practiced by people who believe all art is propaganda.
As a pedagogical model, cultural studies critique has become so prevalent in part because it makes students feel their work has real-world application. Departments, under pressure from their institution’s upper administration to salvage cratering student enrollment, sell the humanities degree as practical, skills-building, the basis for a fine career. Scholars themselves attend to a decimated job market by selling their research—some might say cynically—as morally or politically urgent.
The number of new jobs for humanities professors started declining in the late 1970s; following the 2008 financial crisis, the job market collapsed. Rather than continue in academia on the tenure track, successive generations of humanities Ph.D.s instead have become K-12 teachers, editors, cultural critics, arts administrators, and nonprofit workers. Almost every employee in the cultural professions has a humanities bachelor’s degree, and many have postgraduate training. Obedient as nuns, all have been trained to regard aesthetic experience with suspicion and seek from art a diagnosis of society.
Two exhibitions installed at major museums this year perfectly illustrate the institutions’ debased approach to art.
Hogarth and Europe, on the Georgian era English painter and printmaker William Hogarth and his contemporaries, ran from November 2021 through this spring at London’s Tate Britain. According to its introductory wall text, greeting audiences as they enter, the exhibition “confronts the complexity and violence that were features of eighteenth-century culture. Works shown here often express a critical view of society, but they also reveal the entrenchment of racist, sexist, and xenophobic stereotypes.” Reveal and expose are two words favored in the exhibition materials (available here). The introduction continues: “Artists ... made representations of people that are disturbing or dehumanising. This exhibition explores and critiques these images.” You have been warned, museumgoers: Much of this art expresses hateful beliefs. Do not enjoy it too much. Welcome to the show.
In room one, namely on the subject of “Modern Painters,” the wall text tells viewers little about the types of works these painters created, and nothing about how their paintings were produced, though much about the cruelties of the period, through the familiar voice of potted PC history:
The ideals of liberty and politeness that many Europeans imagined characterized the era ... were mainly produced by, and benefited, White men from the middle and upper classes. The concept of European superiority deepened, entrenching ideas about nation, personal identity and racial difference, manifested in the horrors of transatlantic slavery. Artists gave these supposed differences enduring visual form.
The exhibition wishes to establish, before all else, that artists (some? all?) of the mid-18th century were the stenographers and cartographers of their time. A painting is a pictorial facsimile of its period’s ruling ideology—rendered, somehow or other, in color, line, and shape. Of interest to us in these galleries is the artist as a recording device of history.
The curation of Hogarth and Europe was a team effort. Two in-house curators were joined by three external consultants, all scholars, along with 17 invited “commentators.” The latter group, which includes artists, were invited to write the short labels that accompany individual artworks, bringing to the exhibition “a wider range of perspectives, expertise, and insights.” Of the exhibition’s 20 guest experts, 10 hold positions at universities. The topics of their work include “the intersections of art, politics, and empire”; “issues relating to national identity”; “identity and the inter-relationship between race, power and language”; “race and gender”; “visual representations of Black emotionality”; “the relationship between art and violence”; “revers[ing] the gaze”; “uncovering marginalised and silenced histories, figures, and cultural expressions”; “the visual culture of race and empire.”
Judging by their biographies, the experts broadly share a certain set of approaches when it comes to art. What kinds of “insights” do they offer about the paintings and prints on display?
When beholding A Midnight Modern Conversation, Hogarth’s bawdy engraving, “we are clearly meant to find the men’s woozy misbehaviour funny. However, we might also consider that the punch they drink and the tobacco they smoke are material links to a wider world of commerce, exploitation, and slavery.” Harder to laugh at the image now, is it not? A similar point is delivered more bluntly elsewhere: In the second painting from Hogarth’s satirical sequence Marriage A-la-Mode, “however indirectly ... the atrocities of Atlantic investments are invoked in relation to the outsized expenditures on Asian luxury goods.” The work is, “overall, a picture of White degeneracy.”
Audiences are encouraged to “look out for” characters in the margins. The labels to many multicharacter compositions focus exclusively on minor figures, who apparently are the key to understanding the works. The two texts accompanying Hogarth’s sardonic painting Taste in High Life, a sendup of the indulgence and pretensions of the upper classes, discuss solely its racial elements. About the young enslaved servant, “These children were dehumanised and treated like pets”; in the caricatured white shoppers, “it is as if Hogarth’s worst fears are being realised, with the figures corseted into the objects of their enslavement.” On John Greenwood’s Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam—depicting a large group of drunken men partying to excess—both commentators write exclusively about the enslaved figures: “The imagined Black presence in Surinam’s contemporaneous life is laid bare, alongside the free abandon of Whiteness as power.” The way an enslaved man is rendered holding a bowl “suggests that his body is no more than an inanimate thing, a mere means to a debauched end.”
In Hogarth’s painting Southwark Fair, a chaotic and exuberant crowd scene, the curators choose to bring our attention to the “racist juxtaposition” of the dog and the Black boy trumpeter, which “signal[s] deepening ideas of racial difference pervasive in eighteenth-century culture.” An irreverent painting by Dutch artist Cornelis Troost, in which a man flanked by trumpeters in blackface at an upstairs window moons a crowd below, is a meeting of “black-face and white-bottom ... or Racism and White supremacy, challenging the audience within and without the painting.” These comments barely pretend to educate viewers about the art. On the contrary, they instruct viewers on what to think.
Representation is all: Images rely on “antisemitic visual conventions,” or play into “stereotyped representations of people with dwarfism,” or associate “female sexuality and sex work with moral decline.” Hogarth takes “a conservative view of class mobility and change.”
What different meanings might the audience derive from Marriage A-la-Mode’s fourth painting, a reception scene featuring 11 characters? The label text is an imagined monologue by the Black servant: “The Countess treats me with disdain almost all of the time, but she loves the way I can be a delightful African Gentleman when she needs me to take that role. To her I am simply a Black body rippling with exotic otherness.” Presumably you understand the painting now.
In a self-portrait of the artist at work, the chair in which Hogarth sits “literally supports him and exemplifies his view on beauty. The chair is made from timbers shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people. Could the chair also stand in for all those unnamed Black and Brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?”
In posing her assertion as a question, the author of this label—herself an artist—feigns being diplomatic. Really, she is being slippery. Do you think her question has more than one correct answer?
Fictions of Emancipation: Carpeaux Recast was mounted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City this March and is set to run for a year. It centers around a single sculpture within the museum’s permanent collection, an object the Met’s members will be familiar with: Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s Why Born Enslaved! A life-size marble bust of a bound, seminude enslaved woman, modeled in 1868, it is one of the most well-known works of 19th-century abolitionist art. Joining an in-house Met curator was a guest curator, a poet and essayist who directs the nonfiction writing program at Columbia University and was formerly a dean at Parsons School of Design. The Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, a major donor to medical research and the arts, is a sponsor of the show, and the Ford Foundation helped fund the catalog.
Much about the exhibition is indicated, accurately, by the words fictions and recast in its title. The curators have set out to demonstrate that all who have recognized Carpeaux’s famous sculpture as politically progressive for its time have been wrong. From the marketing and exhibition materials:
While the subject’s resisting pose, defiant expression, and accompanying inscription have long been interpreted as conveying a powerful antislavery message, the bust also visualizes longstanding European fantasies about the possession of and domination over Black people’s bodies.
Carpeaux—whether he knew it or not, despite his public support for emancipation—through his artwork gave expression to such racist “fantasies.” Abolitionist admirers of the sculpture in Carpeaux’s own time committed a similar sin: According to a wall text, “the replication and sale of Why Born Enslaved! in miniature echoes the commodification of people of African descent that took place under slavery.” The longstanding status of Carpeaux’s sculpture has been a fiction. Finally its true meaning is being revealed.
Throughout the exhibition, audiences are informed that “underlying” Carpeaux’s sculpture are “the hierarchies of race”; that it embodies “colonialist influences” and “belongs to the tradition of artworks that conflate Black personhood with depictions of captivity.” Various other 18th- and 19th-century artworks are showcased as examples of this tradition. Given the show’s explicit aim of recasting Why Born Enslaved!, the preponderance of wall texts and explanatory labels is unsurprising. Indeed, the exhibition texts are ultimately more important here than the artworks, which feel less like the show’s substance and more like evidence brought in to support the curators’ statements.
Given how they are framed, responding personally to these works is especially difficult. The curators are intent on foreclosing any alternate meanings the art might have for audiences. For me, Bartholdi’s bronze figure Allegory of Africa is an arresting piece of figural sculpture. It is too striking for me to depend on its title for meaning. Turning to the object’s label, then, how am I meant to square my aesthetic impression with the museum’s interpretation—that the artist’s “emphasis on the figure of Africa’s muscular body, facial features, and hair texture reflect the increasing prominence of ethnography, a pseudoscience that saw physical appearance as evidence of racial difference”? That sounds horrible! Perhaps I should defer to the Met.
Other descriptions may catch one off guard. On display is an attractive sculpture by Jean Antoine Houdon of the head of a Black woman, later repurposed by the artist with an inscription commemorating France’s first outlawing of slavery. By giving the woman pierced earlobes, Houdon, we are told, has “emphasized the exoticism of his subject.”
Much of the focus on Carpeaux’s work centers around the fact his model is unidentified. After noting that Why Born Enslaved! is “a virtuosic display of artistic achievement ... recorded in exquisite detail,” the curators go on:
Yet this bust is not a portrait. Rather, it depicts the Black figure as an eroticized and racialized ‘type.’ Created twenty years after the abolition of slavery in the French colonies (1848), the sculpture debuted in Paris in 1869 under the title Négresse, a pejorative term that reinforces the fallacy of racial difference.
For a museum to tell audiences this is not a portrait—that the artist has not captured in the precise turn of his subject’s head, in the strain of her brow, the set of her jaw, her lips, and her unforgettably defiant eyes a singular human expression—is astonishing. No, the Met says. This figure is a “type.”
That word shows up frequently. About a bronze work Carpeaux sculpted after a living man, the label reads: “While the artist has carefully modeled the features of his sitter, the bust’s historic title, Le Chinois (The Chinese Man), transforms this likeness into an idealized ‘type,’ or stand-in for an entire people.” This bizarre statement assumes the title of an artwork overrides the experience of looking at it, implying a viewer’s aesthetic impression of the sculpture is so hollow and fleeting that, upon learning the work’s title, she will discover her eyes were lying. It’s an oddly insulting assertion for the museum to make. But Carpeaux’s sculpture, the curators insist, cannot be divorced from the barbarity of his time: “At the same moment that this dignified representation proliferated in elite European interiors, Chinese workers in the French West Indies labored under coercive contracts intended to facilitate the continued production of sugar after the abolition of slavery.” That is how the artwork should be understood.
For a wall text, a University of Chicago Law School professor provides a definition of abolition from the antebellum period, and ties this to the modern movement to abolish police and prisons. Addressing the question “What is representation?” a filmmaker and professor of French studies recalls a racist children’s television program from the 1970s, and likens false representation—extraordinarily—to “shackles or a rope around the neck.” Elsewhere, an artist offers the following insight: “Despite his best intentions, as a white male artist Carpeaux is only able to convey his perception of a world about which he has only an idea ... If we don’t [contextualize his imagery], the bust allows us to accept that the Black female body can still be collected and consumed, be gazed at, desired, despised, dissected, and distorted by all.” The presumptions behind this grand rhetoric are baffling, but the exhibition’s stakes could not be more explicit: There is a right way and a wrong way to think about this work of art.
I am heartened that a major Hogarth exhibition was mounted in 2021-22. Given prevailing attitudes within progressive institutions to dead white men, it might not have happened. Ironically, because of the obscene art market, it is highly unlikely that museums will ever divest themselves of their canonical works in any major way. Their collections are worth far too much. Instead, the institutions will continue finding expert voices to insist, in chorus, that the evils of the past trump the paintings on their walls, whose value they continue to assert by mounting exhibitions.
For herself, if she wishes to have aesthetic experiences, the individual art lover must come to recognize and reject the institutions’ utilitarian framing of art. The diagnostic approach of experts is baked in to new exhibitions, as it is in humanities departments, the arts media, and philanthropic foundations. Categorically ignoring any but the most basic museum labels is the first thing an art lover can do.
Beyond that, she is on her own. But she always was. The great debasement of art reminds those of us who have cultivated in ourselves the ability to have powerful aesthetic experiences that real art encounters always are private and unfolding, never imported; that we are not social beings only; that artworks engage the mind in the broadest sense, as well as the body and spirit. So long as experts remain ignorant about the terms of the art encounter, we are best off disregarding them.
Alice Gribbin is a poet and essayist. Her writing on literature and the visual arts appears at alicegribbin.substack.com.