Thursday, February 3, 2011

When the Museum Becomes a Kiddie Park

There’s a lot of talk about the commercialization of museums and the arts in general. The Art of the Steal tells one story – the destruction of the Barnes Foundation, the last great private art collection – about self-congratulatory patrons and money-hungry politicians and trustees bent on sacrificing educational vision for a quick buck.

For other institutions, bigger (or more) is better. Quantity, overcrowding really, whether in Beethoven-padded concerts given by a local symphony orchestra or in Degas ballerina sculptures cluttering the local art museum, is appreciated more than quality. Snappy captions so poorly worded as to make English teachers cry entertain with trivia more than educate visitors about artifacts. Most docents are, at best, well-read amateurs. (I’ve been one and talked with plenty of others.) Gift shops proudly market gaudy jewelry and expensively-priced cheap reproductions to willing buyers. And all of this is done in the name of promoting the arts.

All this commercialization, the cheapening of the arts, is disheartening, but what has increasingly bothered me over the years is something similar but what may very well be more damaging: what I’d call the juvenilization of art, museums, and other institutions. If you go to any museum during the day, you’ll undoubtedly see flocks of school children “learning” about art, science, and adult topics. Their teachers get to feel good about organizing fieldtrips; their parents get to feel good about exposing these young video game-warped minds to “culture.” The nonprofit gets a pat on the back and millions of grant dollars for helping out our schools and giving back to our community. And in the end, the kids only remember getting pushed by Johnny or seeing Suzy’s new sticker tattoo.

Kids like Disneyland. Museums have become little Disneylands in a desperate attempt to get repeat visits. Some recent exhibits, although cleverly designed by knowledgeable curators and education directors, have left me worrying that we’re teaching kids to expect that anything worth appreciating must be all fun and games. It’s even worse in the science museums. Thousands of years of advancement are reduced to “Interactive stations” with blinking lights and rock muzak.

And, lest you think that this can be blamed on Southern California, where jeans and t-shirts have replaced black tie and movie studios are as numerous as educational institutions, I’ve noticed this problem in many other states. It’s a national emergency. A recent trip to Boston and Cambridge proved to me how even major historical and intellectual centers can catch the bug. All the while, it’s still unclear as to why children, unwilling consumers who are not inclined to make donations, are the target audience of what should be adult industries. By “dumbing down” arts and commercializing it, merely to appeal to those it wasn’t designed to reach en masse, something precious is lost. We might very well ask, “What’s the point?”