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Bois: More to See, and More Obstacles to Enjoyment

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Sunday, October 7, 2007

Yve-Alain Bois, one of the world's leading scholars of 20th-century art, is on the faculty of the prestigious Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. He has also curated major exhibitions at museums including Washington's National Gallery and Paris's Pompidou Center.

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I was recently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York with my 25-year-old son, and it was a kind of torture. The hordes there were completely preventing anyone from having the slightest aesthetic appreciation of the objects. It's good that more people come to museums, but there should be a way to prevent this somnambulic relation that the crowds impose on one's experience of the work of art.

And it seems that the sad thing is that the museums that are going to provide the kind of quietness that you need to really engage in a dialogue with a work of art are private museums -- which is not a concept I like at all. I am thinking of the Beyeler, the Menil, even the ridiculously pompous Barnes Foundation. Those are museums that either, by rule or by circumstance, get far fewer visitors than the big municipal museums.

If museums are acquiring works of modern and contemporary art, which tend to be big, I suppose that a modicum of expansion is impossible to avoid. But there are a lot of museums that expand without collections, or with not enough collections. For trustees, there are more advantages to giving a million dollars and having your name printed in a room than to giving the same amount of money to buy one Picasso.

Expansions are done, but people don't really know exactly why. They get their trustees to get excited about fundraising for a big new building by Zaha Hadid. And what are you going to put in it? It doesn't matter. It's a kind of machine run amok.

It's a worldwide phenomenon. The Mus¿e Fabre in Montpellier, in France, tripled or quadrupled its surface, and so it meant that a lot of works that were in storage are now on view. It was very chaotic before; now you can see a lot of things better -- but you can also see almost double the number of things, and a good half of this doubling would be better off in the basement. If there's no kind of idea that some works are more important than others, then it's just the end of the museum as we know it.

A museum can be, should be, a place to study, to reflect, to develop a more fruitful relationship with a work of art.

I remember at the National Gallery in Washington in the 1980s, when they had one picture -- Titian's "Flaying of Marsyas"-- that was shown in isolation. I was speaking about that with the eminent art historian Leo Steinberg, and he said to me, "That's exactly how I learned to look at pictures." He explained that, during the war in London, all the paintings at the National Gallery had been shipped away, and the people complained. And there was a compromise: One painting -- only one -- was brought back every month. And that's what you had to contemplate. And Leo went there each day to see this one painting. It's the complete reverse of the expansion of the museum. But in a way maybe that wouldn't be that bad.

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