When you ride the tram up the mountainside to the new Getty Center in Brentwood, California, you realize that there are several Gettys perched on that magnificent site. All of the buildings, designed by the master of off-white modernist architecture, Richard Meyer, are intricate, somewhat baffling, and very impressive.
But some are more welcoming than others. Most beckoning is the Getty Museum. “Come in,” says its light-filled rotunda, “make yourself at home.” To your left are three other buildings, quite handsome but relatively modest: “We’re just offices and an auditorium,” they say, “not the main event.”
Then, as you pass in and out of the Museum’s five separate pavilions, dazzled by the art and the spectacular vistas of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean, you spy another building perched on the western promontory. A great cylinder cut open, the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities sends a cool, aloof message: “Do not enter,” it says. “Serious people at work. Plus we have the best views.”
It would be tempting, in writing about the several different institutions known collectively as the Getty, to contrast the friendly public face of the Museum with the more forbidding aspect of the Research Institute, as a way of faulting the latter. Yet it is important to probe beyond this obvious contrast of populism vs. elitism. The very different faces of these two key components of the Getty represent two very different strategies for meeting the central challenge of running an arts institution in our increasingly democratic culture.
This challenge isn’t hard to explain. It has always been there, because deep down in almost every American there is a powerful, bred-in-the-bone dislike of cultural high-falutin’ness in all its forms. As long as there have been fussy and discriminating collectors, curators, and connoisseurs in America, there have been people like my father-in-law, an upstanding Boston Irishman who once remarked to a waiter in a Back Bay restaurant, “This is connoisseur coffee, all right—it tastes like it came out of the corner sewer.”
Any American arts institution worth its salt must find a way to get on the good side of people like my father-in-law. That is, it must uphold standards of excellence while avoiding the appearance of snobbishness and pretentiousness.
Popular Elitism And Elite Populism
The Getty Museum is quite successful at meeting this challenge. Its strategy is an old one, one that might be called “popular elitism.” Popular elitism could be defined as making elite culture available to a popular audience that includes, to the greatest extent possible, groups that in the past would not have had access to it. It’s elitism because it’s based on high standards. But it’s also genuinely popular.
The Getty Research Institute, by contrast, pursues a strategy found on many college campuses these days. This strategy could be called “elite populism.” Rather than deal with the real popular audience, always an imperfect beast, elite populism imagines an ideal popular audience in which everybody is equal, everybody has equal access to art and culture, and everybody is equally interested in art and culture. Such an audience has never existed and probably never will. But that doesn’t stop the elite populist from using it as a yardstick by which to judge all cultural institutions.
These two strategies have a history, both at the Getty and in the larger arena of art history. The Getty Museum’s strategy of popular elitism grew out of the arts philanthropy of the late 19th century, which led to the founding of such remarkable institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. This type of philanthropy was very much an American innovation. The great American art collectors of the time, people like Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston, originally followed the European model of acquiring fine art objects and keeping them in their homes for private enjoyment.
To Europeans, there was always something suspect about these collectors. Even when they genuinely admired fine art, these American collectors also craved social prestige and the trappings of aristocracy. And they evinced a certain red-blooded concern for the price tag. J. Paul Getty himself, a 20th-century extension of this 19th-century tradition, loved a bargain. In his autobiography he recounts his adventures as “an incurable art-collecting addict” and often finds as much beauty in the deal as in the acquisition.
Whenever these collectors take the next step of bequeathing or otherwise sharing their treasure with the public, they are subject to what historians Barry Karl and Stanley Katz have called “the ‘robber baron’ analysis”—the charge that they are acting “in a self-interested manner, assuaging their guilt and seeking to improve their public image without giving up control of their wealth.”
In their own minds most collectors have higher motives, such as the desire to improve and uplift not just themselves but other people. Getty, who was a blunt man, put it this way: “Twentieth-century barbarians cannot be transformed into cultured, civilized human beings until they acquire an appreciation and love for art.” The sociologist Vera Zolberg has phrased it more tactfully: “Art museums are expected to expand the cultural horizons of previously excluded groups, ‘improving’ taste even for those not to the manor born.”
But here, too, motives tend to be mixed. To the sociologist Paul DiMaggio, the founding of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts was part of an “exclusionary strategy” by which Boston’s Brahmin elite placed the maximum amount of social distance between themselves and a city teeming with immigrants.
It’s easy to retort that if social elites really felt that way, they wouldn’t bother to open public museums. But to this DiMaggio would say that the purpose of public arts institutions is not just to share but also to impress and intimidate. Such motives are certainly in keeping with at least some of the historic uses of high art: self-assertion, self-glorification, and the public display of wealth and power.
Neglecting The Object
To be sure, most art museums also have an educational mission. But how well do they educate? Art museums don’t really tell you all that much about the objects they put on display. For example, only recently has the Metropolitan Museum provided an audio guide to its main collection.
The reasons for this are complex, having to do with a deeply ingrained tradition of connoisseurship that relies on highly developed powers of discernment to evaluate the authenticity, provenance, and aesthetic value of objects. You can’t put all that on a placard, so most museums don’t even try. As Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan, said recently, “It’s a snobbery thing. They really don’t want you to know.”
There’s a connection between this museum-based connoisseurship and traditional art history as taught in the academy. And they share the same besetting sin: a narrow and sometimes mystifying focus on the object. In the academy, this has meant “art appreciation” courses that deal only with stylistic details and rule out of bounds all the interesting “contextual” questions that students tend to ask.
But now things have changed. In the last 25 years a new school of art historians—the cultural theorists—has gone to the opposite extreme of debunking the object and focusing wholly on the context. Drawing on the social sciences, notably sociology and anthropology, cultural theory is less concerned with the work itself than with the social and historical context in which the work is “embedded.”
Cultural theory has been accused of politicizing the study of art—and with reason. Taking their cue from the German social theorist Walter Benjamin, who believed that “Every document of civilization is at the same time a document of barbarism,” cultural theorists talk about how the “privileging” of certain objects reinforces the power of certain social groups.
Cultural theorists also argue that art museums not only control access to valued objects but they also “construct” the value of those objects as a way of reinforcing the social order. To the contemporary Marxist, ethnic, feminist, or “queer” cultural theorist, the friendly public face of the American art museum is a mask behind which (in Zolberg’s memorable phrase) “cultural distinctions enhancing social inequality are legitimized.”
As might be imagined, the besetting sin of cultural theory is that it neglects the unique value of the art object. The one category that doesn’t fit into its scheme is the aesthetic. This neglect of the object poses obvious problems for the Getty Museum, which is nothing if not a collection of objects.
The first Getty Museum, which opened in 1953, was very much in the 19th-century mold. It was a wing added to J. Paul Getty’s Malibu home, described by him as “rather modest” but “open to the public without charge and [giving] Californians and tourists . . . a chance to see many works of art that had no comparable counterparts in any Museum west of the Mississippi.”
Then came “the Villa”—the painstakingly researched but partly imagined replica of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum near Rome (destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 A.D.). This vivid re-creation, nestled on a wooded hillside in Malibu, was completed in 1974 at a cost of $17 million. Because it was not in the approved stark modernist mold, the Villa immediately drew barbs from highbrow critics, who charged Getty the parvenu oil billionaire with producing another example of Los Angeles kitsch.
A wiser assessment came from Los Angeles writer Joan Didion, who noted the irony that the Villa was both “a monument to ‘fine art,’ in the old-fashioned didactic sense” and a huge hit with the public. In this memorable passage from her essay “The Getty,” Didion offers what strikes me as a pretty good definition of popular elitism: “On the whole ‘the critics’ distrust great wealth, but ‘the public’ does not . . . . In the end the Getty stands above the Pacific Coast Highway as one of those odd monuments, a palpable contract between the very rich and the people who distrust them least.”
The third Getty Museum is, of course, the one on the Brentwood mountaintop. In 1982 the estate of J. Paul Getty was settled and the Getty Trust received $1.2 billion. Under Harold M. Williams, its first president and CEO, the Getty Trust came to include not only the Museum but six other components—the Research Institute, the Conservation Institute, the Education Institute, the Information Institute, the Leadership Institute, and the Grants Program.
All seven components grew rapidly, fueled by a booming stock market and by the Trust’s legal obligation to spend a little over 4 percent of its endowment most years. But the Museum was always the flagship. It’s important to note that this is not a museum of contemporary art. In accordance with Getty’s will, most of the Museum’s collection is dated before 1900. And it is strongest in the two areas that Getty himself favored: Greek and Roman antiquities, and French decorative arts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Since Getty’s death the Museum has enriched its store of European paintings and sculpture and assembled world-class collections in three other areas: drawings, medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts, and photographs. Except for the latter, it remains a resolutely Eurocentric and pre-modernist institution. This does not faze the current director of the Getty Museum, John Walsh. “We’re not alone,” he points out. “L.A. already has a general art museum and several specialized ones. We think it’s better to be a wonderful museum for one swath of the world’s cultures than to have a little bit of everything.”
Walsh also has an interesting view of how the Getty Museum’s Eurocentric focus works in multi-ethnic Southern California. “However America changes,” he says, “there’s no denying that its origins are significantly European.” Walsh adds: “Live in L.A. for a month, and you realize that a full-blown re-creation of high European culture can look downright exotic.”
Cultural Theory’s Dirty Little Secret
This has not been the philosophy of the Getty Research Institute. It’s worth noting that until the Getty Center opened in December 1997, all seven components were scattered across Los Angeles in a physical fragmentation that was soon accompanied by a philosophical one. The new president and CEO, Barry Munitz, former chancellor of the California State University system, puts it diplomatically: “Throughout the ’80s and ’90s the different components of the Getty diverged greatly in style, tone, and substance.”
Between the Museum and the Research Institute, some of this divergence stemmed from what John Walsh refers to as “sibling rivalry.” After all, the Museum is not only the oldest member of the Getty family, it’s also the biggest and richest. What many people don’t realize is that the Getty Trust is primarily an operating foundation and spends only a fraction of its resources on grants to scholars.
For example, in the fiscal year ending last June, the Trust’s total operating expenditures were $177 million. Add capital expenditures (including the last stage of the building process) and the total comes to $353 million. The figure spent on grants, by contrast, was only $10 million. And that includes not only the Research Institute but also a number of grants given by the Museum and the Grants Program.
But sibling rivalry is not the whole explanation. Walsh points to “a certain animosity and a lack of communication” between the Museum and the Research Institute, “like museums and universities everywhere.”
In other words, as the Getty Museum continued to attract traditional art historians focused on the object, the Research Institute attracted cultural theorists focused on the context. Accordingly, the first director of the Research Institute, the Swiss scholar Kurt W. Forster, believed that the younger sibling’s mission in life was to mount a radical critique of the elder. Forster still felt this way in 1997, when the new Getty Center opened. “The Getty Research Institute,” he wrote on that occasion, “was conceived as the site of scholarship engaged in thinking and questioning the very premises upon which the museum predicates its perpetuity.”
For Forster, the Getty Museum “enshrines the works in its collection like so many impeccable (and immutable) trophies in stately halls.” So “instead of insinuating the permanence of values by celebrating ownership,” it falls to the Research Institute to “challenge the claims and the compulsions of their advocates.”
But what is the nature of the challenge? Early in 1997, I took part in a weekly seminar at the Research Institute called “The Humanities and Public Culture.” It included several cultural theorists and a handful of arts activists involved in an effort to organize arts centers in low-income and immigrant neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
I have some knowledge of the city’s politics and was eager to discuss how L.A. had been shaped by Progressive reformers at the turn of the century into a political system where parties are weak or nonexistent, and where office-seeking is driven not by community-based organizations but by money and media.
This history has considerable bearing on the difficulty of mobilizing L.A.’s poor and immigrant populations for any purpose, including the arts. But to my astonishment, the cultural theorists in the group did not show any interest in this history. They just went on discussing “hegemonic” and “marginalized” “cultural practices” in a way that made everyone else feel. . . well, marginalized.
It may be a worthy goal to analyze art objects and institutions in all their “social embeddedness.” But it’s also hard work. You have to scrutinize the social and political facts as carefully as a connoisseur scrutinizes a tapestry. And the dirty little secret of cultural theory is that in addition to neglecting the object, it neglects the context. The great bulk of its analysis is based on a single set of unquestioned social-political assumptions—Marxism on life support.
Return To The Object
So, as Lenin asked, what is to be done? One thing we can be sure of is that every part of the Getty, including the Research Institute, will continue to feel anti-elitist pressures. The question is, is there a better strategy for coping with these pressures than playing the populist critic of your big bad older sibling?
It may not sound like much, but the Research Institute is about to take one step in the right direction. In 2001 it will change the way it selects Getty Scholars. These are the senior people, the ones with the best ocean views, who have always been selected not on the basis of applications but via a lengthy and arcane process wholly initiated by the Getty.
For a couple of years, sometimes longer, the staff at the Research Institute tracks those scholars who, in their opinion, are doing the most exciting work. Then, when the selections for a given year are decided, the Institute reaches out and, in the manner of Touched by an Angel, places its hand on the shoulder of the chosen ones.
This placing of hands is said to be pretty exciting. But it also causes problems. Some chosen ones (Joan Didion, for example) simply refuse. Others, flattered, rearrange their whole lives to come, on the grounds that “You can’t say ‘no’ to the Getty.”
But as any self-respecting cultural theorist can tell you, such forced acknowledgement of an institution’s wealth and power can lead to resentment, and when things don’t go swimmingly, scholars come up with some pretty bizarre gripes. My favorite is the anthropologist George Marcus’s complaint that he felt “collected by who knows whom, on the basis of some unknown aesthetic.”
It is also likely that by taking applications the Research Institute will get a cohort of scholars more ready and willing to take advantage of its resources. For it, too, is a collection of objects. Its state-of-the-art library now holds over 800,000 volumes as well as an astonishing collection of drawings, photographs, and archival materials. Needless to say, the Research Institute’s focus on cultural theory has led to a certain neglect of this treasure trove.
Another step in the right direction involves what John Walsh calls “the return to the object.” This is partly a feeling that cultural theory may have yielded all the insights it can. And partly the influence of a certain core of art historians who have never ceased, in Walsh’s formulation, “to love the object, to be moved by it, and to describe its properties and affect.” With a smile, Walsh calls this “the love that dare not speak its name.”
To facilitate this “return to the object,” the Getty has been making use of what Deborah Marrow, the head of the Grants Program (and currently the interim director of the Research Institute) calls its “convening power.”
For example, in January 1998 the Research Institute and the Grants Program co-hosted a symposium called “The Case Study,” in which panels of invited art historians brought opposed perspectives to bear on a single object.
“The dialogue was so stimulating,” says Marrow, “most people came away with a new respect for what other scholars were doing.” It would be nice to think that by holding such events under its sun-drenched roof the Getty could foster a new approach to art history that would mesh love of the art object with scrutiny of its social-historical context.
It certainly sounds appealing. “Dialogue” is a fine thing, especially when program officers are reporting to their trustees about how their money is being spent. But let’s be realistic. The Getty is in no position to change the structure of the academic profession, which for good reasons is set up to encourage competition. Nobody likes to admit it, but some of the best scholarly work gets done out of motives that are, to put it politely, adversarial. The Getty can try to smooth these over, but it cannot quickly resolve the deep and genuine antagonisms that currently divide the humanities.
Diamonds And Rubies
The real challenge facing the Getty is to find some way for the Research Institute to set aside its elite populism and to participate, however indirectly, in the popular elitism of the Museum. This is not a proposal to “open up” the Research Institute and force it to have a friendly public face. But it does seem that the two siblings have something to teach each other. Consider this anecdote.
It is five p.m. on a winter night, and I am riding the tram down to the parking garage. Across from me is a middle-aged couple from Minnesota on their first visit to Los Angeles. The woman, Muriel, says she likes the Getty much better than “that tourist trap,” Universal Studios. Her husband, Frank, smiles indulgently. I suspect he might take a different view of the matter.
As the tram traverses the slope, we get a panoramic view of the 405 freeway, clogged with traffic. Gazing down at the solid river of white headlights southbound and red taillights northbound, Frank looks at me and asks, “Is it always like that? Backed up in both directions?” I nod, and he groans. But not Muriel. She says excitedly, “Oh, but it’s so pretty! Diamonds and rubies!”
For the Muriels of this world, the Getty Museum is perfect just as it is. We all know a Muriel: Someone uneducated in art who nonetheless blossoms when turned loose in a museum. She doesn’t have to be a middle-aged white woman from Minnesota, either. She can be of any age, race, sex, class, ethnicity, or religion. The point is that Muriel knows without being told that looking at art refines and deepens her pleasure in visual experience. She is blessed with what they call “an eye.”
Frank, on the other hand, is the type who gets frustrated in art museums. Given the chance, he’d probably ask the kinds of “contextual” questions posed by cultural theory, such as, “Why did those French guys put so much gilt all over their furniture? Who were they trying to impress?”
The Research Institute is not set up to have an educational mission toward the public. The few exhibitions that I saw there were esoteric and user-unfriendly. As for the lectures and performances that the Research Institute sponsors, they do not attract other professionals at the Getty, never mind the masses sipping cappuccino outside the Museum. But it might do the Research Institute good to be forced to deal on some level with the real curiosity of real people. At a minimum, this might prod the more radical cultural theorists to reality-test their assumptions.
One modest suggestion: The Research Institute should consider working with the Museum on a public version of the “Case Study” symposium. The two could choose a particular object and assemble a panel of scholars from both institutions to field questions about it.
It would not hurt the connoisseurs at the Museum to have to deal with Frank’s questions. Popular elitism thrives on this kind of rough-and-tumble exchange. And it would definitely not hurt the cultural theorists at the Research Institute to have to acknowledge the existence of people like Muriel, who enjoy art not because they have been brainwashed but because they have the capacity to perceive beauty. And who knows? It might help to pull the Getty together not only physically but philosophically as well.
Martha Bayles is the author of Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music and Ain’t That A Shame? Censorship and the Culture of Transgression. Ms. Bayles currently teaches at Claremont McKenna College and is the arts correspondent for the PBS series Religion and Ethics News Weekly. In 1998 she was a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities.