If only Britain had a place like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. This great compendium of art and culture on the edge of Central Park is about to rebuild its modern wing – in other words, to improve on what is already an unrivalled cocktail of past and present. Meanwhile it has just launched so much of its collection for free download that its website temporarily crashed under the pressure of public excitement.
No other great museum has the Metropolitan’s range. Its name is appropriate for it turns the whole world, across all time, into one buzzing city. You can stroll from an Egyptian temple to a Renaissance studiolo, from a roomful of Rembrandts to an encounter with Jackson Pollock.
American critics have so far been deeply cynical about the renovation, and about its “spotty” collection of modern art – which just goes to show that people don’t know when they are well off. From a British point of view, the idea of a museum where you can immerse yourself in Rembrandt then be blown away by Jackson Pollock’s majestic Autumn Rhythm sounds like some delirious artistic utopia. New Yorkers have the luxury of sniping at their local museum: I just feel envious of them.
Britain’s leading museums are not exactly failing – they’re crowded – but they are trapped in the 19th-century mindset of their creators. The scars of an archaic civil service mentality define each like a government department with a rigorously specified area of responsibility. The British Museum does not collect European paintings. The National Gallery does not display Egyptian mummies, or modern art beyond early Picasso. Only the V&A has a little bit of the Met’s truly encyclopedic spirit.
The Metropolitan accepts no limits: art here does not stop in 1900, or in 2013, but feels like a living process. Yet unlike museums of modern art this rich palace of wonders does not pretend art began in 1900, either: Jasper Johns, it grandly assumes, belongs in the same building as El Greco.
Museums are models of the mind. How a museum shapes its collection exerts a subtle and profound influence on how a culture sees art. American ways of seeing art are generally free of the dull ideological battles between “conservatives” and “modernists” that still paralyse so much discussion of art in Britain. Is that down to the copiousness of the Met? More likely it reflects America’s inherent comfort with modernity.
Europeans invented modern art but over here it was consciously at war with the old civilisation that surrounded it. In America there are no Roman ruins to rebel against. Modern art here was simply a description of reality – skyscrapers were already starting to soar when Marcel Duchamp arrived in New York. The Met’s big broad canvas mirrors that matter-of-fact American modernity.
At the Met, the art of the modern world is not an add-on and neither is it a destroyer. It’s all cool. I wish, with all my heart, that Britain had a place like this, if not in reality, at least in our imaginations.
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