Nothing left to say after modernism: museums as theme parks for the 1%

Along with the New York Times, I recently have subscribed to The New Yorker. (I’m obsessed with New York right now. Maybe because of the immanence of the NY Art Book Fair? ).

Two articles in the August 27th issue of The New Yorker, read together have some interesting things to say about today’s art world.

First: “The veneration of the musical canon leds all too easily to a kind of highbrow theme park that trades on nostalgia for a half-mythical past.” – Alex Ross, “The Sounds of Music”, The New Yorker, August 27, 2018

And then: “An ever larger and richer upper class is amplifying its influence through large-scale [charitable] giving in an era when it already has too much clout.” – David Callahan, “The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Guilded Age,” on Callahan’s website Inside Philanthropy, quoted by Elizabeth Kolbert in her article, American Chronicles “Shaking the Foundations,” The New Yorker, August 27, 2018.

The popularity and pervasiveness of contemporary art in the modern style is something many of us back in the day wished for, or at least wished that the avant garde we aspired to was not so avant as to be completely inaccessible to a general public, leaving the idea of “making a living” laughable. Implausibly, the general acceptance and even popularity of modern art (contemporary art, post-modern art, performance and so on) has come about and now we face the opposite, the “theme park-ification” of, everything possibly, but certainly of the contemporary arts.

Is there a correlation between the 1%’s increasing wealth, and their use of the tax savings tools of charitable giving, and this efleurescence of progressive artiness of the institutional art world?

Is it time perhaps to dismantle the charitable tax exemption? As Kolbert points out, “In 2016, the tax deduction for charitable contributions cost the [US] federal government at least fifty billion dollars.” Kolbert worries that wealthy people, even while they are trying to help address social ills and economic imbalance, don’t really want to give up their privilege. System disruption and real change are not on the table at the 1% banquet. Should they be?

Kolbert talks a lot about David Carnegie, the great granddaddy of American philanthropy, who, not coincidentally, built most of the public libraries in Canada. Carnegie made a staggering fortune, possibly still the biggest in U.S. history. And he gave most of it away. He believed in Spenserian unbridled individual entrepreneurship, but with a social conscience. 

It’s a different philosophy than the one we have grown up with and live by, where wealth is distributed by social agreement expressed through democratic process, an elected and responsible government that makes balanced decisions, rather than by individual whim and fiat. Not that there’s anything wrong with celebrity giving. It’s just not reasonable to expect one person to know enough about where resources are needed, let alone to truly care.

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