Blockbuster Shows Reveal Mass Appeal of Great Art

It satisfies spiritual hunger, need for authenticity

Man does not live by bread - or politics, or TV game shows - alone. We also seem to need great art.

A report on leisure-time activity published in The Washington Post said several years ago that more people attend art museums than sports events, movies, or theatrical performances. During the summer of 1995, a retrospective show of the works of Claude Monet in Chicago drew nearly 1 million visitors. Great art, especially of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, satisfies some deep spiritual hunger.

J. Carter Brown, former director of Washington's National Gallery, says, "I think that a museum gives you a sense of proximity to the act of creation. Somehow, when you are standing in front of that Rembrandt, you see brushstrokes that were laid on in his studio - and you are there."

Despite rising costs, museums all across the United States have been staging blockbuster exhibitions to create that proximity.

Following on last summer's Monet show, the Art Institute of Chicago this fall is displaying an immense retrospective of paintings and pastels by Edgar Degas, which originated in London. Nearly 778,000 people went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a Paul Czanne show earlier this year.

There is an exhibition of nearly 100 of Marc Chagall's works at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In Washington, the National Gallery hosted a double-header - the works of the 17th-century Dutch genius Jan Vermeer as well as a separate but concurrent exhibit of watercolors and oils by Winslow Homer, considered by many people to be the greatest of all American painters.

Currently, the National Gallery is showing the dark, brooding pictures of Georges de La Tour, another 17th-century grand master. The public response to Mr. Brown's "Rings" exhibition in Atlanta to accompany the Olympic Games astounded the museum at which it was displayed.

These are but a few of the recent blockbusters that crowd American museums with members of an art-loving public.

The finances of these events are complicated. The government contributes what is known as the "federal stipend" to cover the insurance costs of such exhibitions.

The main burden of financing, however, comes from money solicited by museum fund-raisers and from corporate sponsors. The principal backer of the Degas show in Chicago, for example, is the J.P. Morgan Company. Frederick Allen, an executive in Morgan's donations division, declines to say exactly how much his company donated to the Degas show. It was, he says, "in the six figures."

Morgan and other corporations, Mr. Allen says, believe strongly in philanthropic support of culture and the arts. They feel it is important to do this in places where they do business. "Also," he adds, "it is a useful and effective way of projecting the image of the firm.... In a more business-oriented way, it is an excellent way to reach to leaders of the community and to entertain clients."

The increasing public interest in art reflects the immense changes in American society since the end of World War II. The gadgetry explosion has created a plethora of substitutions for reality; television brings us fantasies, nightmares, and blah sitcoms - all of them oversimplifications of the human existence they purportedly display (PBS and a few of the better cable channels are exceptions).

The computer has almost become the symbol of the age; it supposedly thinks for us (actually, it can only do what you tell it to do).

We are often surrounded by piped-in music, which is really just banal wallpaper of sound. If you don't believe most current political campaigning is more contrived than substantive, sit down and read a copy of the Lincoln-Douglas debates some evening before election day. (They are the exchange of real arguments about real causes by two highly intelligent candidates for the US Senate.)

In light of all this, many of us, without knowing it, are pilgrims in search of authenticity.

You can jazz up the works of Mozart and Beethoven, but the authentic versions are available in concert halls. Shakespeare's and Molire's plays are still with us in their original form. But those works of genius depend upon interpretation by contemporary musicians and actors.

Great pictorial art comes to us directly from its creators. There is pure authenticity present when you and Degas confront each other in Chicago, when you watch amazing creatures soar through the surreal skies of Chagall's fantasies, when you leave a museum deeply moved by the images, colors, lights, and shadows of La Tour, Czanne, or the sublime portraitist of gardens and wheat stacks, Claude Monet.

Despite the immense cost and labor involved, blockbuster art exhibits will continue. "The public," says a spokesman for a Midwestern museum, "won't let us stop doing them."

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