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Are blockbuster shows like Michael Jackson: On the Wall the end of art, or the reforming of it?

A lot of snobbish British eyebrows went as high as they possibly could when it was announced that the National Portrait Gallery in London would be exhibiting a huge show on the theme of Michael Jackson. The exhibition, set to open June 28, proposes – in a deadly serious way – to juxtapose all the contemporary visual art that the late American singer inspired. Noting that Jackson is “the most depicted cultural figure in visual art” – and, coincidentally, that 2018 would have contained his 60th birthday – the museum promises to bring together the work of over 40 artists who have portrayed him in a variety of media.

Critics immediately noted that such a celebrity show would bring in a lot more visitors than this beautiful, august and rather highbrow gallery normally would, and that that was obviously the point, because the gallery was known to have been a bit worried about its revenues. Its visitors had declined by 35 per cent in 2016. It had, just before announcing the show, gone through a round of voluntary buyouts and redundancies to reduce its staff. The place is hurting; it really needs a blockbuster.

Doubts and criticism also arose over the worth of the show’s content, especially since the most famous piece of Michael-Jackson-themed art in history, Jeff Koons’s life-size ceramic statue Michael Jackson and Bubbles, will not be part of the show. (There are actually four copies of this, and they are all committed to other locations or too fragile to travel.) Without that seriously weird piece of postmodernism, will it be nothing much more than a lot of portraits of the same guy?

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(And personally, I wonder why there is no outrage this time over the veneration of an artist accused of sexual abuse by multiple people, but that is another issue entirely.)

Jeff Koons’s life-size ceramic statue Michael Jackson and Bubbles.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

An essayist in the online magazine Artnet wrote a piece about blockbuster gallery shows in general, arguing that they are in fact bad, in the long run, for institutions’ bottom lines, no matter how many guests they bring in in short bursts. The audience that comes to the big-budget, poppy blockbusters tends not to come back as regular visitors, claims columnist Tim Schneider, and so the expense simply wastes away budget with no long-term results. His analogy is to a failing marriage in which a husband tries to revive his spouse’s waning interest with ever-more expensive gifts. “It’s couples therapy by game-show prize,” he writes. “Eventually, you’re going to lose.” He went on to quote the CEO of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Daniel H. Weiss, who wrote in a recent blog post that blockbuster exhibitions “… are not a reliable source of revenue that can be either predicted or accounted for in long-range budgeting.”

This is vindicating news to the kind of person who works in the arts or who regularly attends galleries. The kind of person who loathes the vast crowds preventing him from seeing the Mona Lisa up close and the current fad of posing for selfies in front of every beautiful tableau. In short, a privileged person. People like that are opposed to blockbuster shows that gather celebrity memorabilia on principle. Those shows are more prurient than scholarly, on the whole, and they suck all the media oxygen away from subtler endeavours. And hey, let’s admit it: They crowd up the gallery with rubes. The only recurrent criticism of the recent Yayoi Kusama show at the Art Gallery of Ontario was honestly that there were too many people there. We would rather keep the galleries deep and quiet.

But are not these experiments in mass outreach more than just cynical fundraising – are they not part of a larger reforming of the mandate of publicly funded institutions in a more democratic age? Is it not part of the larger discussion about the value of the canon – a corpus largely made up of dead European males and no longer relevant to a globalized audience? Is it not necessary, in a time when privilege itself is so much under attack, to deprivilege the art galleries?

Other changes of focus going on in public institutions at the same time are generally not considered tacky: The Baltimore Museum of Art has announced that it will sell off a number of works by famous white artists, including Andy Warhols and Robert Rauschenbergs. With the money it raises – it is estimating the sale will bring in US$12-million – the museum hopes to buy contemporary pieces by women and people of colour. The director, Christopher Bedford, is explicitly trying to correct gaps in the historical record, and to better represent his constituency – as the population of Baltimore is 64-per-cent African-American. Nobody is calling this move cynical. This “deaccessioning” is merely a piece of a larger cultural move toward eliminating a Eurocentric canon; it is found in literature as well. Universities are rapidly reconsidering the need to teach Homer and Shakespeare, and those names are disappearing from syllabuses.

The tendency to blockbuster pop-culture shows is not exactly the same thing, of course: Including Toni Morrison over J.D. Salinger is not exactly a populist concession. Baltimore’s move to a more locally representative collection does not mean it is necessarily buying less difficult or serious artists. Still, could the embrace of popular entertainers on the part of an arguably elitist institution like the National Portrait Gallery not be seen as a move toward inclusion – and reality – as well?

For me, it’s the either/or imperative that is the only worrying thing. Surely we could teach Homer and Zadie Smith as well? I’m happy for the National Portrait Gallery to have as much fun with Michael Jackson as it wants, as long as it doesn’t sell off the Gainsboroughs.

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