One serious casualty of the Republican agenda is public art. Nowhere is that more evident than in the fete that is now planned for Bruce Ratner at the Brooklyn Museum. It is impossible for the museum, and should be for us, to ignore the steady decline of public funding for the arts. More importantly as the funds went down, an ever greater level of political coercion has gone up so that a kind of public orthodoxy pressures for ‘family values” in art. This from a party that day after day faces yet another indictment for corruption like the departing Secretary of HUD.
When you link that with religiously driven sexual hysteria, the landscape of our culture becomes ever more distorted. That is finally perverted beyond recognition by the subtle infusion of free market propaganda, which is promoted by free marketeers who do not believe in a free market. Nowhere is that more evident than with Bruce Ratner who has regularly sought to use the public treasure for his private gain. He sought and still seeks tax abatements no one else in NYC could hope to get. Now he has apparently bought himself a place as a cultural icon at the Brooklyn Museum. But, you may ask, what else are they to do? They need the money.
Yes they do, but there comes a time when an institution abandons the public good to such an extent that its downfall is not necessarily a loss. For more than a generation we have watched the NEA and NEH become the spokesmen for Republican ideas. As such they have moved further and further away from the real experiences of Americans. When you add in that their real buying power is so reduced as to be inconsequential, they have become the equivalent of Soviet puppet ministries of culture. At that point, I have long wondered if it might not be better to let them die.
The same may well apply to the Brooklyn Museum. Mr. Ratner has created nothing in Brooklyn that is not antithetical to the aims of art. He understands only blunt rectangles and lumpy distortions of them. His color sense involves fashioning new structures to mimic the grime of the ones they replace. Nothing he has built here – even though ALL of it was on the public cuff – has proven to be profitable as most of his large tenants are city or state agencies. No one else wants these spaces. Worse still, Mr. Ratner has arrogantly sidestepped every single form of public review and community involvement since the Atlantic Yards project was announced in August of 2003.
For the Brooklyn Museum to honor him is at best grotesque. It is obvious that Brooklyn needs and deserves a great international museum of fine arts. Does it, however, need a badly run one that, as a public institution, shows no interest in the public good. Every single person who works in the Museum does so at the public expense. Every single calorie of heat that fills the building is the product of public expenditure. Every single exhibit is the result of public investment in the public good.
I do not support the idea that the Museum should define its role by public consensus. Their function is to be cultural leaders, not a mirror of Brooklyn’s lowest common denominator. By the same token, however, as a public institution they have an obligation to do more than follow the money. Mr. Ratner’s effect on this borough thus far has been a minor disaster. I would not object if President Bush gave him a medal of freedom, which would be in keeping with the administration’s policy of honoring the inept. I do not see why the Brooklyn Museum should exhibit the same shortsighted enthusiasm for a man who is a tasteless opportunist and a profiteer.
I have donated money to the Museum off and on for some time. I fear that is at an end under its current policies. No doubt they will hardly care, but if a large part of Brooklyn turns its back on these policies, a new leadership may show more sense of common purpose.