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Populism, Art, and the Future of Our Museums

Nizan Shaked

Everyone knows who Andy Warhol is, but not everyone knows what an Andy Warhol artwork means. Many are certain they know what a Warhol is worth, but most misinterpret what Warhol actually did. What we do know is that Andy Warhol, the name that has come to represent Pop art, is being tossed back and forth in the recent controversies about the leadership and direction of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), where art’s populism is a central question. Increasingly, it appears that those supporting populist director Jeffrey Deitch greatly misunderstand the complex relationship between popular culture and art.

The recent growth of the art market, art’s popularity in mass culture, and the future direction of our museums are currently entangled in an unhealthy way. Museums are institutions that hold collective cultural heritage in the public trust. Art’s popularity and prices fuel a different economy. To keep the elements apart is not only to serve a democratic ideal, but also to ensure the value of our collective future investment.

The criteria for assessing art works require depth and breadth, and the process of evaluation functions differently than short-term market value or entertainment ratings, which are fickle. Based in objective distance and critical thinking, art is the binary opposite of celebrity culture. Celebrity culture celebrates. It seeks approval. It fears and deflects criticism. Art is a human endeavor that thrives on disagreement and debate. Art needs criticism as a propeller for its advancement. The vast majority of art since Modernism has been rooted in social engagement and civil rights struggles. Our museums need to reflect this fact, not be swayed by celebrity culture.

That some art is expensive today hardly means that it will be important in the future. In fact, basic knowledge of art history will prove that this is not always the case. The contemporary art market has changed dramatically in recent years and is standing on very shaky ground. Beginning in the late 1970s, the market has been artificially enlarged through agreements between auction houses and banks that have devised financial tools to monetize and leverage art objects. In his role as a gallerist in New York, Jeffery Deitch played a major role in setting up this system, which, since the financial crisis of 2008 has been showing record returns. These are of course theoretical returns, as the real return that art can actually yield will take years to assess.

It doesn’t take a specialist to predict that the question of this bubble bursting is not one of if, but when. We must therefore ensure that our museums are using independent criteria that will endure the test of time.

The colossal rise of the art market has made museums much more dependent on private wealth. Sadly, the wave of new patronage is mostly composed of laymen confusing their personal proclivities with knowledge. Based on their financial giving, they strive to influence the content museums generate. Indeed, one could claim that the origin of museums is in private wealth. However, we must remember that this history came before the advancements of the enlightenment age, and that a major milestone of cultural progress was the autonomy of art from monarchical and absolutist ruling classes. We need to ensure that the wealthy do not monopolize the future of our culture.

As a scholar of museums and curatorial studies, it is my job to speak up when our museums are swayed by transitory trends. The new patrons of the arts follow the cue of a mass culture that is there to entertain. Reality television and gossip columns perpetuate outmoded notions about the artist as an eccentric misfit, or the artwork as something that can be intuitively understood. These are mythologies that belong in the twentieth century, if anywhere. Relying on fiction to frame the future of our culture is clearly the wrong bet, if we are to speculate what types of aesthetic and cultural engagements will endure the test of time. Especially in Los Angeles, where we are steeped in entertainment, why use museums to produce more of the same? The new patrons take advice from dealers whose agenda is profit. Neither the market nor mass culture can even begin to gauge what art will be important for posterity. I am not claiming that curators or historians have the tools to predict the future, but I am certain that those who work for knowledge are far more qualified and, I hope, less biased in their decision-making process.

The example of Andy Warhol can illustrate a complexity lost on the new mass culture of art. Warhol was so sophisticated that he managed to package a layered aesthetic, social, and economic analysis into work that was also palatable for direct consumption. The import of his work lies in the criticism, not the adoration, of the celebrity culture he was enamored with. The same goes for the art market, which he exploited at the same time as planting a time bomb within it. Think about it: the biggest selling artist of our day devised his oeuvre as a series of multiples. As a result, so many fake Warhols are circulating in the market that much of his work is almost impossible to authenticate.* Thus, Warhol’s popular appeal is based in the very same thing that undermines the art market’s reliance on originals. Of course, the most widely distributed artist it also disseminating the undeniably queer content of his work internationally. How many sheiks and oligarchs realize that they are decorating their walls with artworks engaging homosexual content? Warhol’s work is far more sophisticated than its reception in the new mass art culture. Throwing his name around is thus no proof that art should aim for the lower end of the brow. Warhol’s populism was a subversive strategy; to read his work in any other way is to misunderstand his place in history.

Enlightened patronage and diverse and scholarly programs are not a dream. From 1976-1996, under its founding director, Marcia Tucker, the New Museum for Contemporary Art, in New York, became one of the most important and influential institutions of its time, all on a shoestring budget. Demanding nothing less than full autonomy from her donors, consulting with historians and artists (and not just the successful ones) about programming and the structure of the institution, ethically employing committees of professionals to make choices, and exhibiting experimental artwork, Tucker created a model for a contemporary art museum that we should look to and emulate.

Why not seize art’s recent popularity as an opportunity to educate? I teach at a public university, where many of my students are the first in their families to attend college. Over and again, I witness them engage with so-called difficult materials and experience the reward of viewing art based on learning. The growing number of visitors to museums is no reason to compromise quality or dumb down the educational program. It is a mistake to underestimate the will of the public to be challenged.

Dr. Nizan Shaked is Associate Professor of Contemporary Art History, Museum and Curatorial Studies at California State University, Long Beach. In 2010, she was on the curatorial team for the MAK Center for Art and Architecture’s exhibition How Many Billboards? Art In Stead, which brought Conceptual art to the streets of Los Angeles, and was very popular indeed.

Shaked published a related piece, titled “Something out of Nothing: Marcia Tucker, Jeffrey Deitch and the De-regulation of the Contemporary-Museum Model,” on Art & Education (www.artandeducation.net), March 30, 2012.



  1. In her article “Warhol Foundation Will Donate or Sell Its Whole Collection,” Robin Pogrebin wrote: “This year the foundation got out of the authentication business, partly because legal disputes—over its verification process for works whose owners said they were by Warhol—were a financial drain.” New York Times, September 5, 2012.
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