15 JANUARY 1977, Page 28

New York Letter

Art and communication

Eugene Victor Thaw

Three events took place recently in New York featuring Thomas Having, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—a man accustomed to making news and standing at the centre of controversy.

Hoving gave the principal address to a jam-packed conference on the 'Art Market' held at the New School in New York on 29 October. A few days later, the New York Times reported his resignation as Director of the Museum to take effect at the end of 1977. Subsequently,II November, the New kon Thursday, ork Times reported that, thanks to a massive gift of twenty million dollars from former Ambassador Walter Annenberg, the Metropolitan Museum was creating a new entity: an Art Communication Centre which would aim to reach the widest audience through the use of the newest and still developing media techniques. This centre Will be located in part of the Metropolitan still to be constructed, and will thus have access to the museum's vast collections and archival material. It will, however, have separate trustees and staff. Its Director will, of course, be Thomas Hoving.

Douglas Dillon, the President of the Metropolitan Board of Trustees, called the gift the 'most important in the museum's history of 106 years.' It may well be more important than is even now realised, although in ways that are still unsuspected.

In his speech on The Future of the Art Museum,' read at the conference, Hoving made the interesting point that the Metropolitan and most other museums in the US were tidying up the work of their nineteenthcentury founders, finishing building programmes and completing collections. The next phase, Hoving believes, will be based on a 'Technetronic Era' now under way. He sees an end to the art market, to collecting as such, a strong world-wide emphasis on the conservation of existing art, and the introduction of new technical devices into museums. Some devices will be for guarding and preservation—Hoving sees paintings in self-contained glass-enclosed areas with 'different climate systems' from the areas passed through by the public. Other devices will be educational. To avoid distortion, I will quote Hoving's own words : 'The role of the art museum as educator will very deeply change from museum education as it is known today, to a broad, relevant, dynamic communication of the entire world of the fine arts and the visual arts. This area will connote the most significant change of all. The breakthrough will come when the art museum profession emerges a little bit further from its role as depository and recognises the utter necessity and smooth

feasibility of the full span of contemporary communications devices which are the very bases of the Technetronic Era. Through these devices, some of which are already in existence and have yet to be used by museum professionals, some of which are already invented and will be perfected in technological and financial terms, the art museum will itself most certainly grow from a global village to a global city and in this future role as the prime disseminator of world art will emerge as one of the most powerfully ameliorative forces that exist in the world. If the art museum does harness the contemporary tools, techniques and aesthetics of the very best aspects of communications, it can go beyond art education, art appreciation, and art history and can become the broadest and most powerful communicator in visual history.' (Excerpt from Art Museums: Then, Now, and Then Some by Thomas Hoving.)

These are noble sent irrrents but they have, somehow, a frightening ring. A primary article of faith in a democracy is surely the separation of art and politics. The absolute freedom of expression required for the flowering of art in modern times has made most of us suspicious of any 'political' use of art and, until recently, any funding of the arts by the US Government. The danger is that standards might be imposed which would be primarily acceptable to congressmen. It is above all crucial that so-called high art, with its apparatus of criticism, historical scholarship and highly individual areas of preference and taste among 'cognoscenti' should be kept free of any subservience to 'mass-cult' or 'mid-cult' prejudices.

The new Art Communication Centre just announced will follow Mr Hoving's most recent personal triumph at the Museum, his Andrew Wyeth exhibition, now drawing great crowds. This patriotic manifestation culminates in a final gallery—a shop offering for sale Wyeth icons, relics and mementoes. This is art the people can like: a 'mass-cult' apotheosis.

Aren't, in fact, mass media and the arts fundamentally antithetical? What most people want will never be high art, and rightly so. If one tries force-feeding art to the public, both will suffer. 'So what?' the new Art-Communicator replies. Reproductions, television presentations and multimedia events will entertain and educate a vast audience which will then clamour for the real thing, or so the argument goes.

Popularisation is offered us as the ultimate democratic purpose of the art museurnThe museum must be active, not passive: People must be told what to look at and how

to look; the message received and absorbed Will make us more content and the world a better place (a 'powerful ameliorative force').

One cannot help asking a number of Sharp questions about the implications of Hoving's speech, and the Art Communication Centre announcement. First of all, IS Hoving, demonstrably the most 'political' of museum men, the right wielder of such a Powerful communications weapon ?

Should anyone—in this case Annenberg,

a newspaper publisher with vast wealth, the Close friend of Nixon—be permitted to 'buy' space in the Metropolitan ? Will the manipulation of works of art in the variety of media techniques proposed bring the public closer to art or keep them further removed ? Have any studies been done? Are the premises valid? How long will it be before art history, like human history itself, is subject to the distortions of mass brainwashipg or, at very least, the truth being bent to serve Special purposes?

For a generation that remembers Degenerate Art' in Germany, that hears Constantly about artists defecting from Russia, that is becoming more and more sensitive to the 'politics' of cultural exchanges, the Hoving-Annenberg '1984' useum threatens to be a nightmare. The

Ideas that are being put forward must be examined and re-examined. It may be that freedom of thought and democratic ideals of popular education are both better served by the passive museum which simply Puts the best art it can on display and lets each of us form his own ideas about it.

Extreme nationalism, which has become epidemic in recent years, has begun to play a decisive role in the international art market. It Is self-evidently justifiable that a Unesco. e, (Invention. legislate protection of archaeological sites and restrain illegal traffic in °b./ects of cultural importance. But the hitherto free market in non-archaeological works is now seriously restricted.

Italy, which for a long time has 'notified'

,works of art which may not leave, is no longer a serious source for masterworks despite continued Smuggling. No selfresPecting museum or collector will buy

flYthing fresh from Italy these days which

'Facks an export document, 'notified' or not. „ranee has less restrictive laws but pays I attention to them. Exports are arbitfarilY held up for months or years when it suits the authorities; licences are sometimes denied even for works which are not pur?lased for the State. England, which also an export licence requirement for works art, only withholds permission for items °1 national interest which must then be ,D,urchased or released. It is the least restric"ve of art-regulating count r ies. I Now Canada, with a new law modelled °selY on the English example, has joined e growing crowd of nations regulating the exPort of art. 1 Herewith is a summary of the Canadian aw called : 'An Act Respecting the Export

from Canada of Cultural property etc, etc...'

I. A National Review Board will consider, in due course, all proposed art exports initially refused permission to leave by local screening authorities. If it decides the object is indeed of national importance a delay of up to six months may be established. In that period the object will be available for purchase by an institution or public authority.

2. If no cash offer has been made by an institution within six months, the export permission will be issued.

3. There will be a procedure (not clearly specified) for determining what is a fair cash value in the event the parties cannot agree.

4. The above applies to all works of art, manuscripts, etc, that have been in Canada for a minimum of thirty-five years regardless of country of origin. Exempted from restrictions are objects that are themselves less than fifty years old and any works at all by still living artists of no matter what age.

The law also embodies sections irrelevant to this discussion, reinforcing the Unesco Convention on repatriating illegally exported pieces from other nations.

Penalties for flouting the law range up to 825,000 in fines, five years' imprisonment or both.

What is the next step in this protective reaction of nations to preserve their artistic patrimony ? How long, one may ask, will Great Britain keep its present law ?. Might economic conditions provoke unacceptable losses to richer nations? If some day new restrictions ultimately destroy the monetary value of 'blocked' art (as happened in Italy) would not such neutralising of the market be a good thing ?

There is, of course, a strong counterargument which is not likely to be popular these days. Most works of art stemming from Western European cultural traditions, the bulk of what comes into our art market; were created to be portable. Such moveable paintings, sculptures, objects, drawings and prints constitute ideas in the history of mankind and are just as valid far from home in Texas, for instance, or Canberra, as are Shakespeare's or Chaucer's words. No one would wish to be identified with restrictions

on the free movement of ideas from literature and philosophy nor the widespread performance of great music. Should works of visual art, which demand an experience of originals be singled out as political pawns and prisoners of national pride ?

Additionally, it can be argued that a healthy and active art market identifies, protects and promotes what would be lost or neglected if it lacked value or was not cherished by competitive suitors. Human nature makes us less likely to pay attention to or be dazzled by something which has no value. Consider that one less supersonic bomber or one less submarine would give any modern nation an annual purchase fund for works of art which would be adequate to save all those special things which ought to stay home. Such modest commitments would make the spread of restrictive laws unnecessary.

As a footnote to the Canadian experiment it is rumoured that one of their greatest collections of paintings has left the country in anticipation of the new law. Clearly, there is some cynicism over the prospects of actually getting fair value under this system. The alert collector, cherishing his freedom of action, will certainly watch the calendar and not allow his treasures to stay in Canada for a full thirty-five years. How counter-productive and discouraging to the ideals the law was meant to foster!