LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE

Observations on Art,

Architecture, Manners and

Other Such Spectator Sports

By Russell Lynes

HarperCollins. 254 pp. $25

FOR MORE than four decades Russell Lynes has been writing genial, urbane articles and books about style, manners and taste. His own style is upper-middlebrow; indeed his first book, published in 1949 (but for some reason unlisted in this latest book under "Also by Russell Lynes"), was Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow, which remains perhaps the definitive examination of the intellectual and anti-intellectual classes into which Americans tend to arrange themselves.

Apart from that first book, Lynes is best known for several other titles -- Snobs, The Tastemakers, The Domesticated Americans, The Lively Audience -- that take a similarly wry view of American foibles, especially those of the middle class, and for the columns he wrote for Harper's magazine in the 1950s and '60s under the heading "After Hours." In all of these endeavors Lynes mastered the art of getting into people's heads without at the same time getting under their skin; poking fun without giving offense is, in its way, no mean accomplishment and Lynes is a past master at it, hence his popularity not merely in print but also on the lecture circuit.

Lynes's 20-year managing editorship at Harper's ended somewhat abruptly in 1968, when that magazine's old guard was overthrown by a cadre of young Turks, but rather than take this as an excuse to retire -- he was then in his late 60s -- Lynes simply moved his column elsewhere. For two more specialized publications, Art in America and Architectural Digest, he continued to write columns in the "After Hours" mode; he also continued to publish books, of which Life in the Slow Lane is the fifth to appear since 1968.

It is a collection of more than 70 columns, the bulk of which appeared in Architectural Digest between 1974 and 1987, though relatively few of them deal specifically or narrowly with architecture. Like all such collections the book contains its fair share of ephemera, but most of the essays are concerned with questions of enduring importance about "the uneasy, often friendly, interplay of art and society, between artists and patrons, architects and clients, and also between art institutions and what they think of condescendingly as 'the public' -- you, that is, and me."

They are casual, chatty pieces that at times lapse into the chummy; Lynes quotes Dr. Johnson's definition of the essay as "a loose sally of the mind; an irregular undigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition," and happily confesses himself to be writing in that tradition. His method is to ramble along in a seemingly artless way, drawing the reader into his confidence as though the two were sitting together in his study, with a few logs in the fireplace and a bottle of port on the table between them; there is of course a good deal more art to it than first impressions may suggest, as anyone who has attempted to write a familiar essay will readily testify.

In many of these pieces Lynes's subject is museums. His favorite, to which he refers from time to time, is "the museum in my head," which "while it contains my favorite works of art, leaves out all sorts of things about museums that I do not find congenial," among them "long and wordy labels that tell me what I ought to think" and "docents lecturing to huddles of ladies in hats or schoolchildren pinching each other." Here, as throughout the book, Lynes offers himself to us as a patient, long-suffering friend of the arts, bemused but not outraged by the offenses others commit in their name. Elsewhere he writes:

"The function of an art museum is often defined as to collect, display, conserve and study works of art. Its mission is part educational, part scholarly, and part the stimulation and satisfaction of a very special kind of hunger. A museum is not a building; a building is merely a place. A museum is a collection, and its quality is what matters. It seems to me that the museum building boom has got its priorities backward. Art attracts art; fancy buildings attract curiosity seekers, politicians, boosters and climbers. If museums were to mind their primary business of refining and improving their collections rather than building palaces, we would not have less art for more people but more and better art for people to whom art, not gaudy display cases, is what matters."

The passage is quintessential Lynes. Its tone is friendly and reasonable, its arguments are made quietly and deliberately; yet the essential point it makes -- that art is not for everyone and that museums abrogate their responsibilities when they attempt to make it so -- is tough and, in many quarters, unpopular. The same can be said for Lynes's assessments of Disney World and Colonial Williamsburg ("a revolt against progress and an escape from what we are encouraged to believe are economic realities") and "junk architecture": "Just as slang can be vivid and appropriate and enrich the language, so junk can enrich architecture, but, like slang, junk gets limp from overuse, boring when it is a substitute for thought, and offensive when it is used in the wrong circumstances. It is cliche' architecture, a sort of greeting-card architecture -- jokey, sentimental, flashy, mindless."

What unites all of these observations, apart from Lynes's smooth prose style, is their amiable subversiveness; beneath the ostensible conviviality of Lynes's commentaries on American taste is the conviction that much of it, including much that is honored by the illuminati, is execrably bad. Lynes is at heart an old-fashioned man who makes a genuinely honorable attempt to accommodate himself to changing tastes and styles but who remains convinced that the flash and glitter of much contemporary culture are nothing more than just that.

He makes the point so politely, at times almost deferentially, that it's likely to sail right past some of his readers. But for more than four decades this is how he has chosen to address them, and in his 81st year he certainly is entitled to stick with what has worked in the past. Let it be noted though that the reader willing to dig beneath the bland veneer will find a considerably more opinionated and uncompromising writer than first impressions suggest; this is Russell Lynes working as secret agent for high standards and civilized style, and it is Lynes at his most interesting.