on a more sinister note

The murkier side of blockbuster art exhibitions

A heated debate over so-called blockbuster exhibitions goes under the radar of most museum visitors, and it begs the questions:

What are they? What is is so bad about them? And why are so few aware of the cold wars waged over them?

They are temporary exhibitions of culturally and historically significant art brought to an art museum. We all have an idea why Blockbuster exhibitions are so damn enticing that we queue for them. As an example, Londoners can go to the National Gallery and enjoy important works by Caravaggio or Leonardo da Vinci. That is, for a limited period of time the public has world heritage art right on their doorstep.

Add to that the carbon footprint is minimal, the cost of seeing the art locally is low in comparison to travelling abroad. In addition, museums – as eagerly rated on performance as any other business – can prove that they reach targets and engage the public. Moreover, the local economy receives a slice of the action. So what is the fuss about?

The wranglings are all about the impact that blockbuster art exhibitions have on art itself.

Put bluntly, the question is whether art should live in a suitcase or whether it ought not travel at all.

The two warring parties appear to have entrenched their views over the years, and understandably so.

Important exceptions are the few museums and governments who now consider the views of organisations such as ArtWatch to strike an ethical balance (cf video to the right which is not about blockbusters per se, but exemplifies opposing views over lending art out from a collection).

Both parties have the interests of their constituencies at heart; and we are now sitting on the fence with splinters in our backside. Tweezers anyone?

For us, at least, the argument is not as clearcut and simple as you would formulate it when forced into opposition. It very much depends on what art we are talking about. As a sweeping generalisation, it is a resounding yes when it comes to migrating contemporary art. However, if it is older art, there must be some compelling reasons for shuffling the items around as frequently as is increasingly the case.

Enter the museums

The first thing to realise is that museums are big brands run like private businesses except that their commercial interests are referred to with such subtlety that you would suspect money is taboo.

Far from existing in vacuum, museums are connected internationally with other museums, private collectors and government bodies. They are lending (although peculiarly it is termed loaning) art to each other. The net result is a growing industry with a well-oiled operation, which writes condition reports followed by posting the art with care and due diligence.

Now the criticism concerned

The trouble is that things go wrong as a direct result of handling and transiting the art occasionally. No one could tell you how often exactly and it is obvious when you think of it.

Upon its return, the art must sometimes be touched up by a restoration expert. These embarrassing mishaps are either budgeted for or insured against. When luck is out, only a few persons will ever know about the incidence. It is similar to the news of having caught some venereal disease in the sense that information is only being shared on a need-to-know basis.

This loan practice leads to unnecessary losses. As decades and centuries go by, it becomes impossible to establish how much of the art is from the hands of the originating artist or a succession of art restorers. The latter all blame the previous generations for their heavy-handed brutality and potent solvents. Reversible art restoration methods such as painting on top of a removable varnish layer, are at a loss with some canvases. E.g. Turner would interleave layers of varnish between oil paint and bees wax in some of his maritime work.

Plus if you think the problem is confined to easel art, think again. Ancient Greek or Roman sculptures fare no better despite being chiselled out in hard marble — unless, of course, you believe most of those sculptures began life as amputees? Simply bits get knocked off, and though hard to fathom, part of the Elgin marbles had half a millimetre sanded off to appear cleaner.

More importantly, those are not examples of the worst case scenario. There is the risk of significant art being lost forever through irreparable damage. Hypothetically, the plane that flies the work to its destination may crash, a ship may sink or a courier could drive recklessly. The works of art could be stolen outside their high-security custody, and evidently thugs are not the gentlest short-term custodians. The probability might be low according to some, but if you do it long enough, it is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’.

When everything goes according to plan, there is no reason to feel neither smug nor relieved. Over time, minor changes in temperature and humidity take their toll on art, which in turn speaks for keeping the art where it is already.

Some might argue that it is ‘just’ art not ‘religion’ and that there is too much of either. As a separate discussion, we can further question the justification for the cult of the celebrity masterpiece. But it is besides the point.

The point is that the more we slush art around in this global network, the sooner we lose some cultural heritage that has captured the collective imagination for centuries. Maybe we have to lose Mona Lisa at the bottom of the sea at Louvre Abu Dhabi before we can expect a swift change of policy.

The exceptions

An exception to all this is perhaps a temporal matter. Much contemporary art is almost purpose-built for these events. On the upside, the originating artists would very much approve of their works being shared publicly and internationally with as many people as possible. To them the concept of their art is the most important thing to bring across, and the craft and finish of their work – whilst still important – rank a bit further down their list of priorities.

The whole Warhol factory system fits really well into the mass-media spectacle of the blockbuster. Think here Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. Each of these guys have their own private army of assistants. Collectively, they feed not only a hungry market of private collectors, but also a market of museums whose imposed targets are to ramp up their visitor numbers.

‘More bums on seats’ your local cinema would call it.

Without offending anyone, the cumulative effect of restoration is not the biggest concern in this ilk of Duchampian art. After all, the work has been carried out by anonymous people whereas the role of artist was to crack the idea for the work. It suggests that the average art restorer might actually improve the finish of the art one day. Famous examples are Damien Hirst’s spot paintings. Clearly they delight in colour, though the actual concept escapes some of us. More pertinently, there is great elasticity in both supply and demand here. The work force can be scaled up and down accordingly, whereas no one could clone Titian today. Unsurprisingly, Hirst’s work already exists in a limited amount of multiples. That conveniently introduces just enough scarcity to keep up the market value, but ensures there is enough supply to go round to all museums. Plus there’s more where it came from.

As for the frail and/or older art, maybe we should consider going to the location where the art normally resides on our next holiday. Visit Musée D’Orsay to see Impressionists, go to Galleria Borghese or the Vatican Museums for the all-in Bellini and Caravaggio experience. The same goes for Preraphaelites and BMAG or the Nolde Museum to look at Nolde’s work in context of his home and studio.

The accessibility argument is slowly but surely disappearing

One of the arguments for the blockbusters is that it brings art to the masses. It is understood here that it is then not just benefiting the elite who can afford travelling to the art. It is a mute point today considering that many more people can afford to travel abroad than previously. The only real question is: how often?

There are other important developments. The Sistine chapel has gone online. The Rijksmuseum has made their entire collection public on their website. The Google Art Project has photographed, documented and made online entire art collections from the most progressive national galleries in the world.

Granted, it can absolutely floor us to look at an old master portrait and see how the sitter is brought to life in a way that an online photograph could never achieve. Arguably, it is richer to experience the art in situ with its impasto, and its translucent layers of glazing.

Still, the technology has evolved to a point where you are 80% there with the online experience. The aforementioned Sistine Chapel is available with high-end zoom and 360 degree panoramic view in X,Y and Z axes. The Google Art project has carefully photographed inventory in such a high resolution that you would be able to spot hair left from the original painter’s brush by mistake. If you really want the remaining 20%, stop sulking and save up to visit the custodian art venue.

Has blockbuster art exhibitions always existed?

No to be exact, the phenomenon dates back to 4 February 1963 according to the late Robert Hughes. In his swan song, the documentary the Mona Lisa Curse, Hughes claims to have foreseen the development. Hell broke loose when minister André Malraux of cultural affairs in France decided to loan Mona Lisa to the Metropolitan Museum in New York on the request of Jacqueline Kennedy. What followed was total media frenzy. Thomas Hoving at the Met saw it as an opportunity. He considered the Museum similar to the local cinema, which explains why the word ‘blockbuster’ entered the museum vernacular. Soon he adopted all the tactics of public relations. He turned the museum into a tangible and accessible brand. He hoisted up large banners outside the museum, and arranged evening openings. With his staff he introduced sponsorships to organisations who in return could wine and dine their clients at VIP events on the premises. Although being much criticised at the time, Hoving is today the pioneer of the Blockbuster practice, that all major art museums and national galleries have adopted wholeheartedly. Even the smaller museums aspire to the business model, only to be held back by funding.

The future may be brighter

Hell freezes over at some point. As it is a bonus that society is more engaged in art, the future art museums may continue to use all the acquired publicity tricks on contemporary exhibitions. The only difference being that these exhibitions would concern themselves more with contemporary art, and why not? The latter deserves as much attention from us as the more dusty inventory. Then it is easier to let the older works of art stay in their respective permanent exhibitions around the world.

If this becomes the norm, it takes on full custodian responsibility in the sense that we only look after art as trustees to the rest of the world. The art transcends generations and cannot fend for itself. At the same time some works of art are so important in telling us who we are, that they risk losing or changing their meaning with overexposure.