A few things militate against a cynical view of the question. First, the work on display is important and needs to be seen. Second, the Rubells probably bring more prestige to the relationship than the Corcoran, which has been damaged by financial and institutional mismanagement over the past decade. Third, museums would hardly exist without courting the favor of private collectors.
But McMillian’s “Untitled” demonstrates why one should never be blasé about even the appearance of a conflict of interest in the museum world. It is, after all, just a rug. Its status as art depends entirely upon a social convention: that it circulates in the art world as art. That’s a frustrating way to define art, but it’s the only one we have. When people who study art, collect art, preserve art and present art agree that something is art, by definition it becomes art.
Collectors are one part of this equation. But a more important, substantial and essential part of the equation is the intellectual apparatus of the art world, the critical and curatorial function, which has no vested interest in whether it’s just a rug, or a work of art that uses a rug as material.
If there’s a danger between the too-close relationship of museums and collectors, it is at this far horizon of the art world, where people legitimately wonder, is it really art? Does it really say something? Those are essential questions, which any intelligent person will feel standing before a work such as McMillian’s “Untitled.”
A respectable museum has the intellectual authority to ask its visitors to do something remarkable, dangerous and thrilling: Accept a soiled rug as art. If you can do that, there is an enormous reward. McMillian’s rug breaks through the intellectual torment of “30 Americans,” the sense that so many artists are in flight from something they never asked to be. It reminds us that the greatest art is never about the value of the object, but rather, its power to force feelings to the surface, evoke acts of empathy, engage currents of thought.
It’s a lot to ask of people, to accept a rug as art. Which is why the curatorial authority of a museum should never be compromised, even by the appearance of having perhaps too close a relationship with collectors.
at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through February 2012. For information about hours, location and admission, visit www.corcorcan.org.