One For Your List
If you love museums, as I do, I have a book to add to your reading list: "The Quality Instinct, Seeing Art Through a Museum Director's Eye" by Maxwell L. Anderson. I found this to be a fascinating read.
I admit it; when I'm in a museum and I see a work that I find incomprehensible, unappealing, or even just confusingly simple, I wonder, why is this art? And why is it good enough to be in a museum? That's exactly the question that this book addresses, while providing an insider's view into the activities and objectives of a museum director.
Anderson is clear about what he looks for in artwork, "If a work of art does its job properly – by inspiring us, for example, or stirring, provoking, or engaging us – then it has a claim to being measured by how well it does one or more of these things."
Technical Skill of the Impressionists
The French Impressionists were startlingly original in their time and are now admired worldwide; Impressionist exhibits are very popular and profitable for museums. However, Anderson is discriminating regarding the technical skill of individual impressionists. He does not mince words when he talks about why he sees Manet's work "The Bar at the Follies-Bergère" as a masterpiece, whereas he views Renoir as "the poster child of the overrated artist."
A Risky Business
The author speaks of the gamble that museum directors take when displaying work that isn't considered part of mainstream art. "This is a risky business, and one beset by doubters for every quadrant: critics, curators, collectors and dealers."
A controversial exhibit at the Houston Museum of Fine Art in 2001 featured the quilts of the women of Gee's Bend, Texas, at a time when quilt making was considered a craft, not an art form. Ultimately, the exhibit was a major success and it changed the perception of the artistic value of quilts, an art form originating in the most humble of materials.
Originality is Key
Sculptor George Segal (1924-2000) used unique materials in his work. The piece at right, "Walk, Don't Walk", 1976 is made of plaster casts of real people, cement, metal, and a lit crosswalk sign. I would ask: why is this art? Isn't it cheating to make plaster casts of people instead of sculpting them from stone?
Anderson says that the casting from life is in part what makes Segal's work original. He says that the artist was responsible for "transform[ing] our thinking about the direct appropriation of forms from life, so integral to the character of what we today call Pop Art."
Throughout the book Anderson analyzes seemingly disparate works of art such as the Nairobi mask, Bernini bust, and Mendelssohn observatory shown above, and explains why they all meet his five criteria of artistic quality.
In addition learning more about artistic quality, I was intrigued by Anderson's many tales of the inner workings of top-tier museums and the challenges they face.
I found that reading this book on an iPad had distinct advantages; I could easily look up less familiar vocabulary words (inchohate, plebiscite, adduced, invidious, evanescent, etc.), and also zoom in on the illustrations to study them carefully. I highly recommend "The Quality Instinct", a fascinating read. Enjoy!