In his catty memoir of his years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, former director Thomas Hoving recounts an exchange with a certain associate curator of European paintings, Philippe de Montebello. De Montebello had come to Hoving in 1969 for career advice, says the former director. Happy to oblige, Hoving let fly that de Montebello's future in the European paintings department "wasn't promising." Entre nous, Hoving gleefully shares with the reader, de Montebello's supervisor was convinced he "had no eye."

Another colossal blunder by the colossally self-centered Hoving.

De Montebello would return to the Met after a stint away (sneered Hoving: "I was glad to get rid of him") to become the longest-tenured and most respected American art-museum director of our time. That respect is surprising, for de Montebello explicitly rejects every dogma that pervades the museum world today. Where many museums furiously troll popular culture for exhibits that appeal to the lowest common denominator, de Montebello mounts shows based on the highest standards of connoisseurship. Where other museums repudiate their aesthetic authority as oppressively "elitist," de Montebello insists that a museum's primary duty is to exercise aesthetic judgment. Where some museums undercut the distinction between high art and mass entertainment, the Met stands for the proposition that there is such a thing as high culture and that it is worth our attention and respect.

De Montebello's great accomplishment unquestionably depends in part on the Met's enormous resources—its encyclopedic collections, its billion-dollar endowment, its location, and its worldwide reputation. But having resources in no way guarantees that they will be used wisely: Harvard University's endowment, several times bigger than the Met's, doesn't save it from all the trendy clichés of race-gender-class reductionism. Another director could turn the Met into a blockbuster mill or an up-to-the-minute "site" for "deconstructing gendered imperialism." Just recall the very different reign of Thomas Hoving, unintentionally parodied in his attempted jab at de Montebello: "I knew he was conservative, but I hadn't quite realized that he was opposed to everything I was trying to do. . . . He wanted no razzmatazz, but scholarly shows." The horror!

De Montebello has corrected Hoving's mistakes without diluting the institutional charisma Hoving created—proving that a large audience exists for uncompromised excellence. This is a lesson other museums should heed.

Four New York shows last fall exemplified the divisions in today's museum world. At the Met was a classic de Montebello exhibit—scholarly, beautifully mounted, and intended to bring to the public's attention an artist neglected for not being named Monet or Matisse. "The Music of Silence" presented the work of Evaristo Baschenis, the leading still-life painter of seventeenth-century Italy. Baschenis loved the sensuous musical instruments of his day, whose satiny finishes and graceful curves he captured with striking virtuosity. His masterpiece, the Agliardi triptych, includes a self-portrait of the somber, middle-aged artist playing a spinettina, while at the other end of the triptych the deep-set eyes, the pallor, and the full, pouting mouth of Bonifacio Agliardi, one of three brothers in the composition, mesmerize with their aristocratic languor. Between the figures, an overturned lute is shrouded in dust, streaked by a hand that had tried to draw the instrument out of its long silence. The work embodies the exquisite melancholy of baroque music, and hits an American viewer as the freshest of new discoveries.

Seven blocks up Fifth Avenue, the Giorgio Armani show at the Guggenheim reminds us that the "art" in an "art museum" these days is optional. The Guggenheim has turned its entire spiral ramp into one endless advertisement for Armani; by the fourth turn of the screw and the hundredth loose-fitting pantsuit, the nightmare sensation of being trapped in a tiny Bloomingdale's boutique grows overwhelming.

Just how tacky is this use of museum space? Read the museum's Family Activity Guide. Next to advertising photos of models in two Armani "power suits," identified with scholarly precision as "from his spring/summer 1979 men's collection" and "his fall/winter 1984–85 women's collection," is this direction to the museum's grade school patrons: "Circle the word or words below that might describe your feelings if you were wearing this suit: important, comfortable, proud, confident, elegant." Where is the left-wing critique of consumer culture when you need it? But what Marxist academic would dare utter a peep against an institution that runs a homosexual-film series, featuring such titles as Safe Sex Slut, AIDSCREAM, and Reclaiming Desire: How to Have Sex in an Epidemic?

Across the East River, the Brooklyn Museum of Art presents a heartbreaking spectacle of a once august institution beached by demographic change, now flailing desperately to find a new audience—whatever the cost. "Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes, and Rage" presents the billion-dollar hip-hop industry, complete with gangster rap, obscene, misogynist lyrics, and city-killing graffiti, as art worthy of inclusion in a museum dedicated to man's greatest achievements.

And back in midtown Manhattan, the Museum of Modern Art is displaying some of the grotesque products of contemporary Soho and Chelsea, created as props to the cultural elite's favorite "issues"—AIDS, sex, AIDS, feminism, AIDS, homosexuality, AIDS, the patriarchy, AIDS, the irrelevance of artistic skill, AIDS, and capitalism. Kiki Smith's contribution to the AIDS "issue" is 12 silvered water bottles all in a row, marked with the labels "semen, mucus, vomit, oil, diarrhea, urine, sweat, pus," and so on. Jeff Koons's cynical kitsch is represented by a high-gloss ceramic bust of a porn star on whose breasts the Pink Panther is pressing his crotch. The section allegedly on childhood claims that our age is "marked by a new consciousness of the body and sexuality," hence it requires art of a particularly disgusting nature: a little girl's Mary Jane shoe made of white wax, from whose insole obscenely sprout long black hairs, or Charles Ray's mannequins of a naked man, woman, boy, and girl, all of the same size, whose genitalia are represented in excruciating detail, down to dime-store wigs for the pubic area.

As different as they are today, all four museums originated from the same progressive conviction that a democratic society needed access to the finest culture. Art ennobles, so it should be available to all people, reasoned the democratic elitists who founded the Met, Washington's Corcoran Gallery, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1870. As late as 1937, the Guggenheim's charter sounded the same themes: the museum would "provide for the promotion of art and for the mental and moral improvement of men and women by furthering their education, enlightenment, and aesthetic taste," declared its founders.

Corporate lawyer and Met trustee Joseph C. Choate issued a bravura challenge in 1880 that captures the era's exuberant hopes that a young, rapidly industrializing nation could rival Europe in its cultural treasures. Opening the Met's dumpy new Central Park building (eventually swallowed up by later additions), Choate let his rhetoric soar, as Calvin Tomkins's masterful Met history recounts: "Think of it, ye millionaires of many markets—what glory may yet be yours, if you only listen to our advice, to convert pork into porcelain, grain and produce into priceless pottery, the rude ores of commerce into sculptured marble, and railroad shares and mining stocks—things which perish without the using, and which in the next financial panic shall surely shrivel like parched scrolls—into the glorified canvases of the world's masters, that shall adorn these walls for centuries. . . . [O]urs is the higher ambition to convert your useless gold into things of living beauty that shall be a joy to a whole people for a thousand years."

The Met's founders had no doubt that such a thing as high art existed (unlike many of today's museum and art professionals), but their feeling for what it was was a work in progress. A taste for the Dutch masters and the early Italian Renaissance was only just beginning to replace enthusiasm for the syrupy salon paintings pouring out of the European academies in the 1870s; the Met bought Franz Hals and his compatriots and Bouguereau and his circle with equal gusto. The trustees regarded the impressionists with alarm.

Democratic elitism was one thing in theory, another in practice. The city, which contributed to the Met's maintenance and owned its land, demanded that the museum open on Sundays, so workmen could visit. The trustees recoiled at this assault on the Sabbath but in 1891 morosely acceded. The first encounter with the working class was tense, with grumbling about the "repulsive" habits of the new visitors, but the practice endured, to the apparent benefit of all. When the tabloid press clobbered the Met in 1897 for ejecting a smelly plumber in work clothes, the museum's feisty first director, General Luigi Palma di Cesnola, shot back that the Met's etiquette code was civilizing the city: "You do not see any more persons in the picture galleries blowing their nose with their fingers. . . . There is no more spitting tobacco juice on the gallery floors, to the disgust of all other visitors. There are no more nurses taking children to some corner to defile the floors of the Museum."

Donations started pouring in during the 1880s from the new industrialists and financiers: Etruscan and Venetian glass, musical instruments, Vermeers, Rembrandts, lace, enamels, porcelains, metalwork, antiquities, and furniture, as well as million-dollar legacies for the endowment. In many ways, though, the museum remained an amateur organization with a rather tolerant sense of aesthetic inclusion. That would change in 1904, when J. P. Morgan became president. Perhaps the greatest art collector in American history, Morgan turned the same voracious appetite toward the increase of the Met's possessions as toward his own. The Met would now be about masterpieces and only masterpieces. The museum would start rejecting gifts if they did not meet its standards of excellence. "There was money in the air, ever so much money," wrote Henry James. "And the money was to be all for the most exquisite things—for all the most exquisite things except creation."

The first 50 years of the twentieth century saw numerous internal developments at the museum. Slowly, the Met started organizing itself on a corporate model, with efficient systems for cataloging and purchasing (though for decades, only the MFA in Boston would command Europe's respect as a truly professional museum). In the 1920s, the Met jumped happily into the age of Egyptian excavations, setting up a permanent camp at the Nile, financed and often visited by Morgan. The new American wing for decorative arts opened in 1924. The Cloisters, the magical sanctuary for medieval art and architecture in northern Manhattan, followed in 1938, a labor of love by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and future director James Rorimer. In ever greater numbers, collectors lavished their treasures on the museum.

The trustees' earlier resistance to the impressionists eventually evaporated, but a much longer battle raged over living American artists. First the Ashcan School, then the abstract expressionists wanted in; Stuart Davis branded the Met a "totalitarian regime" for its exclusion of abstraction. The Met's erudite director, Francis Henry Taylor, fired back that a new, pro-abstract "Academy of the Left" in the art press, the universities, the Whitney, and MoMA, was itself suppressing representational art. In their crusade to liberate artists from all formal constraints, Taylor charged, these propagandists had created a new tyranny that merely "substituted the rubber girdle for the whalebone corset." Taylor was known to refer to MoMA as that "whorehouse on 53rd St.," according to Calvin Tomkins.

But the power of that "Academy of the Left" proved insuperable, and by 1950 the Met was mounting its own abstract expressionist shows. The trustee purchasing committee would greet abstract canvases with howls of laughter and snorts of disbelief, but it meekly bought them, conforming to the dictates of the "art community" rather than personal taste. How much more interesting the art world would have been had the Met created an alternative canon of twentieth-century art, rather than mimicking MoMA.

Meanwhile, a different strain of criticism was growing more insistent: that museums were too "elitist." Critics both inside and outside the museum profession argued that museums should focus on practical objects of good design and help housewives and immigrants with homemaking tips. As early as 1942, the call for "social consciousness" went out from no less important an institution than the American Association of Museums. Museums had become "hypnotised by the charms of collecting and scholarship," the AAM charged. Since collecting and scholarship formed the backbone of any museum, a defense was swift in coming. Museums had already gone too far toward popular outreach, argued the connoisseurs. John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art, snapped in 1944 that a "work of art is not a specimen, not primarily an historical document, but a source of pleasure, analogous, say, to a musical composition."

Still, the museums tried, with varying degrees of imagination, to increase their educational and outreach activities: joining the urban beautification movement, loaning objects to hospitals, shops, and schools, offering extension classes, and opening junior museums for children. The Met regularly brought schoolchildren through and offered classes in art appreciation.

With post-war prosperity, the baby boom, and increased college attendance, the masses started coming, whether the museums sought them out or not. Life magazine began a regular fine-arts feature. The Book-of-the-Month Club sold over 8 million tiny Met reproductions between 1948 and 1958. The Met's annual attendance hit 2 million in 1950; in 1963, the "Mona Lisa" drew a million visitors, many willing to wait hours in line. The era of the blockbuster had arrived.

With the perverse logic that still governs museum management today, the more the public came, the more the museums contorted themselves to stuff even more bodies in. One dissenting director warned in 1961 that museums of all stripes—science, art, and history—were starting to resemble "cocktail lounges or drive-ins." "Where once museums sought to collect, then publish the results of their collecting in scholarly reports," he observed, "today we are often expending nine-tenths of our energies to see how much and how fast we can make the public fall in love with us." And indeed by 1962, museum professionals, whose language of enlightenment was giving way to that of consumer choice and marketable product, put museum-going in the same category as bowling or going to a baseball game.

So by the time Thomas Pearsall Field Hoving, son of Tiffany chairman Walter Hoving, took the Met directorship in 1966, museums were already moving in the direction of mass entertainment. Hoving floored the accelerator.

A serious medievalist, Hoving nevertheless embraced the sixties' countercultural belief that the past was stifling and "irrelevant" to the far more exciting and important present. He apparently convinced a critical mass of Met trustees that their own museum desperately needed shaking up, just as he had shaken up the city parks department as commissioner by staging "happenings." His pronouncements in the Met Bulletin had the biff-blam-pow breathlessness of pop art: "In these critical times it would demean the intent of our founders were we merely to sit timorously behind our collections," he wrote in October 1968. "It is time to be daring, innovative, highly imaginative, and to be so not at the expense of, but in the service of the highest levels of scholarship. Great art must be shown with great excitement. We shall be merely a musty vault if we do otherwise."

The key words are: "sit timorously behind our collections." Hoving's innovation was to focus attention away from a museum's permanent collections and onto an ever changing array of glittering exhibits, which he advertised like Broadway shows. He ushered in the blockbuster mania with "The Treasures of King Tut," and "In the Presence of Kings," encouraging visitors to think of museums as a location for the temporary staging of large numbers of loaned objects, preferably made of gold, instead of places where great works can be consulted again and again. "People now ask, 'What's new at the Met?' instead of, 'What's still there?'" laments George Goldner, the Met's chairman of Drawings and Prints.

Hoving's memoir of his Met directorship, Making the Mummies Dance, is a remarkably unapologetic display of wildly immature self-infatuation. In his ruthless contempt for the trustees and other donors, Hoving comes off as a spoiled brat sticking his tongue out at his elders. His megalomania was stamped all over his disastrous 1969 intervention into America's race problem, "Harlem on My Mind," a massive show of photojournalism (the Met's first) documenting black culture and white racism, accompanied by dozens of slide projectors, audiotapes, and music.

With an unfailing ear for the clichés of the time, Hoving had already called on the American Association of Museums to "become relevant and help cure the agonies of the nation." He would show how. "As a member of the white liberal establishment," he writes (one hopes, ironically), "I was mesmerized by the idea of a photographic history of Harlem at the country's most distinguished art museum."

It was the catalog that blew up Hoving's preposterous ambition to serve as the Great White Healer. A remarkable production for an art museum, with chapter headings that read like a New Left sociology textbook ("Race Riot," "Landlord Brings in Negroes to Get High Rents"), the catalog contained a prose poem by a 16-year-old Bronx high school student blaming Jews for blacks' problems. (Hoving added his own fictions as well: an account of his privileged childhood with two wholly fabricated black servants. So much for liberal scholarship.)

When word of the poem got out, thousands protested outside the Met; the City Council voted to withdraw city funding; and even Hoving's patron mayor, John Lindsay, denounced the catalog as racist. Hoving dug himself in deeper by defending the poem's social analysis as accurate. The show's opening night was a downer, temporarily redeemed only by the arrival of a real live Black Panther, Hoving recalls. Museum staff later discovered that ten paintings throughout the museum, including a Rembrandt, had been slashed with an "H."

Harlem on My Mind" nearly cost Hoving his job. Nevertheless, he managed to stay on for another seven years, continuing to shake up what he scornfully called the "silent repository of great treasures." His ambitious expansion plans (he initiated five new wings, completed after he left) and his flamboyant bidding wars for acquisitions created the largest debt in the museum's history—$1.5 million in 1971—and led to the institution of "voluntary" admission fees. He boasted of his merchandising deals for sheets and towels, and claimed finally to have turned the museum into a modern business.

On the unequivocally positive side of the ledger, he restored the Great Hall to much of its original Beaux-Arts splendor (and his perverse plan to tear down the majestic inner staircase blessedly came to naught). He created the great external stairs to the entrance and improved many of the museum's permanent installations. And for better or worse, he made the Met a must-see attraction.

But his preference for "razzmatazz" over scholarship even now provokes bitter feelings. Robert Rosenblum, a New York University art historian, recalls the furor when Hoving drastically shrunk a 1974 show on French painting from the Louvre, on the grounds that it was too scholarly. Two head curators resigned in protest. By the end of his tenure, antagonized curators were not answering their phones, out of the conviction that the imperiously dismissive Hoving had bugged them, says art critic and New Criterion editor Hilton Kramer. "There was a great sense of relief" when he left, observes Keith Christiansen, the Jayne Wrightsman Curator for European Paintings.

Hoving's influence outside the Met was if anything even greater than within it. By creating the expectation that going to an art museum means going to a big, highly publicized exhibit, Hoving of course made such exhibits de rigueur. Smaller museums without the clout to assemble blockbusters struggled to keep up. By casually throwing around terms like "dullness" to describe traditional art museums, he also helped shatter for good the already wobbly self-confidence that museums once had regarding their aesthetic mission. After Hoving's dismissal of quiet collections—gazing as outmoded, the mass entertainment juggernaut encountered almost no resistance.

Without consensus about their purpose, art museums today are stumbling off in different directions. Some cravenly worship at the altar of popular culture. Arnold Lehman, currently director of the Brooklyn Museum, mounted shows of jukeboxes, Dr. Seuss, and Looney Tunes cartoon characters when he ran the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts showed Star Wars props last year; the Brooklyn Museum will, too, in 2002. The South Carolina Art Museum has put on a hugely popular show of Elvis memorabilia. The Guggenheim asked Dennis Hopper to write the catalog essay for its blockbuster 1998 show on motorcycles.

The popular-culture rationale is this: if we sell museums like (or, eventually, with) popular culture, we can get people in to see the real stuff. The American Association of Museums reported enthusiastically in the early seventies that if you stage jazz concerts in a planetarium, for example, people say, "Hey, this is a groovy place," and may come back later for the planetarium show. No one knows if visitors lured by easy-viewing shows graduate to higher things, and the museum may forget about those things, too. The New York Times asked Guggenheim director Thomas Krens last year if new viewers of the motorcycle exhibit ever returned. Krens retorted defensively: "We don't tag them like whales and find them."

The second current trend is a cringing curatorial populism. Let the people do the curating! is a widespread doctrine. Heaven forbid that museums make value judgments or demonstrate specialized knowledge that the average Joe may not possess. That would be just so authoritarian! Better to open everything up to democratic decision making, however uninformed. The Wichita Art Museum hands out Xeroxes of visitor viewpoints. The Denver Art Museum asked visitors to rank a series of prints of women based on how "realistically" they portrayed the female sex. Instead of traditional wall labels, it has asked visitors: "If you like [or don't like] this painting, is it because . . . " with a list of possible answers to choose from. In the early 1990s, the Art Gallery of Ontario offered "reflective imaging exercises" that guided visitors into reveries regarding particular paintings, the better to help them explore their personal reactions, feelings, and memories. Taking the narcissism of the viewer to its logical conclusion, the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, provided a psychologist-led counseling session in 1998 for viewers of photos about married couples.

Many art-museum directors are terrified of the charge of elitism. Several years ago, Philippe de Montebello pilloried the director of a major American museum for saying: "It is essential to demystify the museum-going experience, to let people know we are not just some stuffy institution." As de Montebello rightly pointed out, the mystery of high creation is precisely what an art museum should celebrate.

This cheerful curatorial populism gives way to a more surly variety in the third museological current: the application of French post-structuralist and post-colonialist theory to "deconstruct" the museum's own aesthetic authority. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MoMA, the Maryland Historical Society, and the Seattle Art Museum, among others, have mounted shows purporting to expose their own exhibition practices as racist, imperialist, classist, sexist, and intellectually arbitrary.

Deconstructive dourness never stays put, however, so of course the deconstructive acid seeped over from museum practices to high art itself. Art-history schools today embrace revisionism as a moral duty. They analyze art as an ideological tool of the ruling classes, believing, presumably, that they are thereby laying the groundwork for the revolution. The most infamous museum example of this cutting-edge art history was the "West as America" show mounted at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art in 1991. The curator pinned up boilerplate academic screeds against capitalism and white privilege under canvases of the American West, often to hilarious result. In one of its few lapses, the Met itself labeled nineteenth-century American landscapes and genre scenes in 1994 as ideological masks concealing labor unrest and economic inequities.

The final feature of today's museum confusion is the dominance of identity politics and "diversity" ideology. The American Association of Museums sports the usual identity-based subgroups—the Alliance for Gay and Lesbian Concerns, the AIDS Network, the Asian-Pacific and the Latino Networks, and so on. The College Art Association awards fellowships based on race, religion, gender, age, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or history of economic disadvantage, as if any of those categories were relevant to one's aptitude for understanding and communicating about art. The Boston Globe, summing up the spirit of the moment, ran a four-part series in 1991 called "The Fine Arts: A World without Color," absurdly charging that the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Symphony Orchestra were "elitist citadels," since they didn't use racial double standards in hiring and aesthetic decisions.

The diversity movement reached its most perfect expression in the AAM's 1992 report, "Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums," which distilled the anti-intellectual, anti-knowledge vapors of the previous 30 years into a purely racial essence. If the academic disciplines that traditionally lead to museum work don't yield enough black or women candidates for curatorships, announces the report, then museums should recruit outside those disciplines, effectively eliminating artistic or scientific knowledge as a prerequisite for curating. What use are the traditional museum functions of "preservation, scholarship, and exhibition" if carried out "independent of the social context in which they exist?" the report asks. Racial correctness, in other words, must be the touchstone of all that museums do.

This report leads directly to Brooklyn's "Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes, and Rage," an exhibit of such paraphernalia of inner-city teen culture as rap music and graffiti. It is the saddest manifestation of the diversity ideology I have ever seen. I spoke to a willowy girl from Adelphi University visiting the show one day for her anthropology course. The syllabus had ordered her to find a gallery exhibit that "touches on your own sense of ethnicity," then to answer the question: "Do you feel valorzed [sic]?" This is a pathetic question for a college course, and it is equally pathetic that the museum world is playing right into the idea that education is about personal "valorization," rather than learning about something outside of the self.

Nevertheless, Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman offers a therapeutic rationale for the show. I asked him: Is the most important thing blacks learn from "Hip-Hop Nation" that the Brooklyn Museum of Art cares about them? In a word, yes. "We are saying we value this material, we value you, we value the people who have made this culture part of world culture," Lehman explains. "Everyone's ideas, values, and attitudes are valuable," he adds. That blacks might learn anything about art from the show, of course, is something Lehman does not dare suggest.

"Hip-Hop Nation" offers up the ordinary detritus of commercialized popular culture like precious remnants from a lost civilization. Vitrines carefully display and annotate designer sunglasses, Tommy Hilfiger parkas, magazine covers, sneakers, and baseball caps. Conspicuous consumption may be crass in whites, but in inner-city blacks it is expressive and interesting. "The pursuit of the perfect sneaker . . . reflects the importance of labels in hip-hop fashion," gushes a vitrine marked "Accessories." "If gold is good, more is better," adds another label.

So how else do you demonstrate to an ethnic group that you care? In this case, by romanticizing or excusing bigotry and vandalism if committed by the target group. Those rappers who portray women as animals to be violated at will, says the show, have had those sentiments forced upon them by American society. Under a heading delicately phrased, "Gender Issues in Hip-Hop," the exhibit explains that "inner city men have used hip-hop to express and empower themselves in the face of racism and classism, substandard school systems, and a lack of meaningful job opportunities. But because hip-hop is a subculture of the larger American society, it is little wonder that the same patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny that permeate all levels of mainstream America are also omnipresent in hip-hop."

The show includes a graffiti-smeared door, covered with bright pink, green, and blue dots. The wall label purports to take a neutral stance toward graffiti—"For some, it was a symbol of vitality, for others a symbol of urban decay and a society gone astray"—but a "graffiti masterclass" offered by the museum was not so cautious. Graffiti veteran Lee Quinones compared the subway system's war on graffiti to "a kind of genocide."

I asked Arnold Lehman if graffiti was art. "Absolutely," he shot back without hesitation. Would it be allowed to stay on the walls of the Brooklyn Museum? "We are not a studio in which to create art," he said primly (and incorrectly, as it turns out: the day I visited the hip-hop show, a group of students were happily sketching in the museum's Rodin galleries on the fifth floor). Where then is an appropriate spot for graffiti? I asked Lehman. "I think we're getting into another subject," he answered, closing off that line of inquiry.

Visitors to "Hip-Hop Nation" may attend gallery tours led by "young scholars" (in reality, teenage and young adult hip-hop fans). Heated discussions break out over whether the actor Will Smith or white rapper Vanilla Ice should be included in the hip-hop pantheon. These pressing matters are undoubtedly debated in school lunchrooms across the country, but it is hard to understand why the Brooklyn Museum of Art finds them part of its educational mission.

What makes "Hip-Hop Nation" so heartbreaking is that the museum continues to create shows of unimpeachable beauty and interest. Its American watercolors show from its own collection several years ago was unforgettable. Its more recent William Merritt Chase and Martin Johnson Heade shows were nearly as rich. Concurrent with "Hip-Hop Nation" was an elegant display of Scythian goldwork with superb wall texts. The museum continues to demonstrate what it is capable of, even as it betrays its mission of cultural uplift in a desperate search for bigger audiences.

Into this depressing mix of wayward institutions comes the Metropolitan Museum under Philippe de Montebello, more perfectly realizing its founders' hopes for democratic high culture than ever before in its history. Since he became acting director in 1977 and director a year later, show after show has won unequivocal acclaim for uncompromised aesthetic and scholarly standards. This past year alone saw New York's first exhibit of the still-life painter Jean-Simeon Chardin, a tour de force of understatement and elegance; portraits by Ingres; the relatively unknown mummy portraits from Roman Egypt; the definitely unknown (at least to American audiences) late Gothic sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider, whose striking figures have faces of haunting individuality. Past shows that are still talked about include "Van Eyck to Brueghel," "Rembrandt, Not Rembrandt," and celestial gold-ground Renaissance paintings from Siena.

De Montebello's gallery reinstallations are an even more important benchmark of his tenure. Hilton Kramer calls the new, light-filled, architecturally grand, and historically lucid Greek and Roman galleries "one of the greatest contributions to civilization." The Islamic and Chinese collections have been beautifully re-displayed. The museum just opened up a fascinating arched space under the grand staircase for Coptic art as part of its new Byzantine galleries.

These successes are the products of a coherent philosophy diametrically opposed to reigning art-museum orthodoxies. "Elitism is the very essence of democracy, in that it seeks to bring as many people as possible to a higher level of understanding and appreciation," de Montebello told The New Yorker in 1997. One hundred years ago, such sentiments would have been unremarkable; today, they sound as wildly anachronistic as they are true.

De Montebello daringly believes that there are hierarchies of aesthetic merit; a museum's job is to select the best and present it beautifully to the public. He cast icy skepticism on the trend toward populist curating last year in the New York Times: "The notion of opening to popular suffrage decisions that require a great deal of knowledge and discrimination is one that I don't understand," he said.

A backslapper de Montebello is not. Well born into a Parisian family with art-world connections, he retains a certain hyper-civilized European hauteur toward strangers. Seated at a large round table in his new fifth-floor office, the director bristles at the suggestion that he is a lone voice of excellence. "I'm not as unique as all that," he says impatiently. "What distinguishes me is that what I say is printed." Wearing a three-piece, impeccably quiet glen plaid suit with an equally understated orange-flecked tie, he stretches his hands out before him and leans forward: "If I were the director of the Guggenheim, would I run it as the Met?" he asks rhetorically. "No: I'd run it into the ground in five years." The Met, he points out, provides him with freedom that other directors don't necessarily enjoy. "If I don't want to do restaurants, I don't have to. I don't have to worry about attracting an audience."

Despite de Montebello's protestations of non-uniqueness, he views his role, he says, as "putting the brakes on museums that do, rather than museums that are." Museums are becoming "hyperactive," with a focus on process, not product. Imitating mass entertainment may bring short-term popularity, but in the long term, "you've set yourself up for failure," he maintains. "You're not in the entertainment business. There will be limits on the number of people you can bring in." The "hyperactive" strategy, moreover, is a betrayal of mission. "If you don't work to emphasize and valorize what makes you different, you have abdicated a fundamental responsibility," de Montebello believes.

A "perverse" reversal of priorities has occurred over the last 20 years, de Montebello observes. When museums still functioned as retreats for the "cognoscenti," the "budget was totally in support of the program." Now the program is beginning to support the budget, "in an insidious way."

He set out to change that, by reining in the public's expectation for blockbusters and the museum's incentives for mounting them. He abolished the special fee that the Met once charged, and virtually all other museums still do charge, for temporary exhibits. The fee sends a message to audiences: the exhibition is more important than the permanent collection. It also tempts museums to mount shows based on their box-office potential.

De Montebello has staged more and more shows drawn exclusively from the museum's own collections, such as the popular "Van Eyck to Brueghel," some of whose contents even the curators of European painting had never seen. "The permanent collections are the most important thing. They're what a museum is all about," de Montebello said upon leaving the Metropolitan Museum in 1969 to run the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. "Exhibitions are a passing sensation." He has made his case. The highly regarded in-house millennial show, "The Year One," juxtaposing masterpieces from the five leading world civilizations at the time of the birth of Christ, could only have been put together in a museum with collections of the depth and breadth of the Met's.

De Montebello gave the curators back their professional integrity, and they repay him with devotion. They brag about the museum's scholarly catalogs, which often win prizes for art-historical research. Walter Liedtke curated the upcoming "Vermeer and the Delft School" show. The 250-page catalog Liedtke originally proposed ballooned to 640 pages, with five essays by Liedtke, and three others by different specialists, along with a 25-page bibliography. "When this daunting prospect emerged without a corporate patron lined up," recalls Liedtke admiringly, "Philippe said: 'It's not about the profit margin, but the research, and doing it right.'"

The curators cheered de Montebello's facing down Karl Lagerfeld last year as a vindication of the museum's independence. The Met was planning a major retrospective of Coco Chanel's couture. Lagerfeld, current head of Chanel, insisted on including in the show contemporary installation artist Jenny Holzer, with her brain-dead sloganeering—or at the very least some video artists. "I'm not interested in an exhibit that's just old dresses," Lagerfeld breezily announced. When the designer refused to back down, de Montebello canceled the show, charging that Lagerfeld's demands were unacceptably eroding curatorial authority. Predictably, the New York Times's head art critic, Michael Kimmelman, complained that the Met was not sufficiently "attuned to contemporary culture" and lacked "fresh ideas."

The Met refuses to pander to multicultural sensitivity with dumbed-down, color-coded shows. "No sentient being will not find his heritage under this roof," de Montebello says emphatically. Yet the museum wins the approval of the city's schoolchildren, anyway, simply by pursuing the color-blind path of excellence. One day last November, the seventh-grade class from Intermediate School 125 in the Bronx was visiting "Art and the Empire City," a show of fine and decorative arts marking New York's antebellum rise as a national power. Several girls are standing in front of a still life of a porcelain bowl and partially peeled lemon. "You like it?" asks a guard. "It's wonderful," they exclaim. "It's so real."

I question two of the enthusiasts further. "These artists is very artistic; they're unique," raves Shanell Thomas, 13. Vonice Santos, 11, in pigtails, recalls coming to the Met two years ago with her family. "It's better when you're alone [i.e., not with your classmates], because you get to see a lot of paintings, and get to think about the pictures." She adds philosophically: "If you come two times, you never see the same picture the same way."

The class assignment today is to pick a favorite object from the show and write about it. These two girls are partial to an Andreas Achenbach seascape. "It's one of the best so far." But they add judiciously: "'Modern Rome' is interesting—how he got all those paintings in." Not to be too exclusive, they generously acknowledge: "The sculptures, they look nice, too." The girls laugh when I tell them of Brooklyn's hip-hop show, and they express a wish to see it. But in response to the million-dollar question—do exhibits have to be color-specific?—they are firmly in the aesthete's camp. "It doesn't matter what race you are, because art still affects you today," Vonice announces.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is New York's number-one tourist attraction, its glittering gift to the world. It is a beacon of excellence that proves the Founders' wager: if you build a temple to high culture, the public will not only come, it will revel in it. High culture may be under attack on every politically correct campus and trendy newspaper arts page in the nation, but the Met's success is a resounding vindication both of high art's unquenchable power and the inextinguishable appeal of democratic elitism.


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