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Art and Society

March 11, 2001

In a Perspective piece called "These Walls Can Talk--Eloquently" (March 4), Christopher Knight asserts, without naming me, that I am somehow "befuddled" because I had the temerity at a recent panel discussion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Institute for Art and Cultures to caricature the old cliche "art speaks for itself" by imagining a painting equipped with loudspeakers and a tape loop intoning "I am a masterpiece; I was created by a genius; admire my beautiful brush strokes."

In the sound-bite format of what was a brief and rather raucous panel discussion, it was impossible to lay out a more nuanced position. But what Knight seems intent upon missing is that art is a social phenomenon. What and to whom art communicates are conditioned by the viewer's education and background.

Knight applauds the Museum of Contemporary Art for putting on an exhibition with "hardly a word of interpretive text." If you come from a relatively privileged place, then MOCA's installation might provide a rich experience. But most Americans do not enjoy such advantages. As a consequence, only the wealthiest 20% of the population visit art museums with any regularity.

For some, the museum's exclusiveness is no cause for concern. In a Feb. 16 column, Knight argued that "it is entirely possible to live a long, happy and productive life without ever seeing a painting or sculpture." Such complacent condescension may be unseemly, but it accords with a traditional view of art.

Still, the question of who visits the art museum and on what terms goes to the very heart of the experience of art in our society. Will art continue to be the occasion for feelings of cultural superiority or will its meanings be made accessible to a broader audience?

In recent years a number of art museums have begun to develop a fuller sense of their responsibility to the public--to the 80% who feel excluded as well as the 20% who visit regularly. Their efforts have resulted in imaginative exhibitions, like "Made in California," that look at art in relation to its historical contexts. This isn't a case of subjecting the public to "jackbooted direction," as Knight puts it, or somehow diminishing art, but of finally getting beyond the numbing, straitjacketed formalism of traditional installations.

For this reason, my vote goes to LACMA and other art museums that have taken their mission seriously and have defied museological orthodoxy in their efforts to democratize the experience of art.


Ralph H. Wark Professor of Art and Art

History and professor of American studies,

the College of William and Mary,


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