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Make It a Blockbuster

Blockbuster shows brought long lines and ringing cash registers to the museums—but at a price.

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We may be seeing the last of the breed. A creature of the mass audience for art that has grown exponentially since the sixties, the blockbuster may soon be a thing of the past, though several prime examples are currently packing in the crowds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (“Manet/ Velázquez”) and the Museum of Modern Art (“Matisse Picasso”). Most people I know—including the people who make such shows—have mixed feelings about the genre. On the one hand, they are the occasion to gather works that have rarely if ever been seen together. And they do so on behalf of a general public that will never in a year of packaged vacations have a chance to search out the same group of pictures or objects where they normally reside. Moreover, both the specialist and the lay person can learn by sustained hard looking at the riches such exhibitions round up. Yet at most blockbusters, the looking itself is hard, a mass ballet of craning necks, bodies dodging and weaving to avoid one another and to stay free of the gridlock that can suddenly seize people as they approach a designated masterpiece.

Over the years, we New Yorkers have attended many such “events” in the history of taste. But I’ve also abstained from a few, preferring to keep my memories of the best works experienced under the best circumstances. Intimate artists like Vermeer, Vuillard, and even Van Gogh are ill-served by too big a “gate.”

But in the case of artists whose pictures and ambitions are in scale to the mass audience they attract, the crush of viewers can be part of the art. People went to the French salons of the nineteenth century, held in vast halls that resembled stadiums more than temples, to argue over the art out loud. Too often in blockbusters, the protocol is appreciation, depriving art—especially modern art—of the friction it was generally intended to create. When the voices of disputation rise above the sound of tape-recorded explanations, then it’s a fair fight between expert opinion and spontaneous response.

If the costs and risks of huge exhibitions rise at the rate predicted by some, then this advice may be moot and we will look back on their hullabaloo with a nostalgia that wipes away whatever irritation it caused.


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