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Can Detroit's Art Museum Be Saved?

Getty/Andrew Burton

It’s heartbreaking to live in a country where art is expendable. I couldn’t shake that thought the other day, after spending a long afternoon at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), one of this country’s greatest museums. Detroit, as everybody knows, is bankrupt, and the treasures in the DIA are by some people’s reckonings assets that can be sold to satisfy Detroit’s creditors. In the past few days a number of foundations, many with historic ties to Detroit, have come together in an effort that may well save the DIA and its collections. I certainly hope they succeed. But something terrible has already happened.

How can people who purport to be grownups have a serious discussion about dispersing some of the DIA’s treasures? How can anybody, after spending a few hours in this glorious place, even conceive of such a conversation? This is the question that really needs to be asked. A conversation that never should have occurred has occurred. Only a country that has lost track of the fundamental, dynamic relationship between cosmopolitan culture and democratic experience could have allowed this to happen. An extraordinarily wealthy society has revealed the poverty of its imagination. Christie’s, the auction house, has been brought in to see how much Detroit can get for a Bruegel, a Matisse, and a few other masterworks, as if treasures bought by an American city in its heyday are now concubines to be inspected before being sold to the highest bidder. Some sophisticates have even suggested that the DIA’s masterworks be sold off and replaced with reproductions—on the theory that hardly anybody would know the difference.

The lift you feel when you walk into the grandly proportioned halls of the Detroit Institute of Arts isn’t just the lift of great art—or of nostalgia for Detroit’s heyday. What you feel is a cultural optimism that is finally indistinguishable from a democratic optimism. A visitor moves easily through the DIA’s unfolding galleries, encountering a panoply of cultures and experiences, from Arts and Crafts bowls, to Japanese scroll paintings, to Medieval ivories, to African statues, to Early American portraits, to rapturous pinnacles of European painting, including Poussin’s Selene and Endymion, a tragic love story teaming with allegorical devices, all wrapped up in the artist’s most luxuriant, honey-dipped early manner. Going through the DIA, you can see what Ralph Ellison meant when, in his great essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” he wrote about a place where there are “no facile certainties as to who, what, or where (culturally or historically) we are.” The arts in America, Ellison believed, comprise “a collectivity of styles, tastes and traditions.” The DIA is just such a collectivity—“a vortex of discordant ways of living and tastes, values and traditions,” as Ellison described. And it is by learning to experience all of this that we figure out who we are.

In a great public museum like the DIA the lines between civic experience, artistic experience, and even erotic experience are not clearly drawn. Yes, of course, education is part of the museum’s purpose. But so is rapture. And so is community building. That the DIA has always been committed to both the past and the present—and both the power of tradition and the tug of the workaday world—is not a matter of speculation. This is the theme of the magnificent murals that Diego Rivera painted 80 years ago in the DIA’s central hall. Here Detroit’s automobile industry is reimagined as a spectacle as splendid as anything conceived by Mantegna or Raphael to decorate a Renaissance palace. Rivera’s murals are realized with a firm yet delicate hand, without any of the bombast that disfigures so many paintings that aim for social significance. His individual workers may lack the comic profundity that Bruegel brought to the peasants in his Wedding Dance, by many estimates the greatest painting in the DIA. But Rivera catches the easygoing humanity of the autoworkers. And he renders the heavy machinery of the plants with a poetic precision and architectural authority that does indeed bring to mind the greatest frescoes by Piero and Masaccio. Rivera is precisely the kind of artist Ellison described as “repelled by works of art that would strip human experience—especially American experience—of its wonder and stubborn complexity."

The man who brought Rivera to the DIA was W. R. Valentiner, the museum’s director from the 1920s into the 1940s. Valentiner’s interests ranged from Rembrandt to the German Expressionists; his books include an important volume on twentieth-century art, Origins of Modern Sculpture. Born and educated in Germany, he approached the DIA (and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and other places he worked) in a spirit of cosmopolitan freedom. The DIA was buying works by van Gogh and Matisse at a time when few museums had moved beyond the Impressionists. The sculpture collection is astonishing, with terra cottas by Donatello and Bernini. The American collection includes a rich group of works by the wonderfully idiosyncratic nineteenth-century painter, Washington Allston. At the DIA all these works have become part of the same pluralistic family, a far-flung family now at home in the Midwest. Just as the melancholy of Watteau’s solitary Mezzetin, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is knit into the spirit of New York, so the rough and tumble pleasures of Bruegel’s Wedding Dance are knit into the spirit of Detroit. The brushstrokes with which Bruegel constructed his immortal quotidian vision are by now inscribed in the heart and soul of an American city. This is why no reproduction can do. To stand before the Wedding Dance is to time travel—to find the distance between sixteenth-century Flanders and twenty-first-century Detroit collapsed, to enter a parallel universe. What was particular to one time and place has become particular to another time and place. Perhaps this is one definition of universality.

The hue and cry about the DIA, loud as it has been, is not loud enough. Detroit would be a much smaller place without its Bruegel—or its great Poussin or its great Matisse. If the future of the auto industry is a matter of national concern, then why isn’t the threat to the DIA regarded as a national scandal? For years our elected officials have been backing away from any serious engagement with the arts. In some intellectual circles the cultural ambitions of the Kennedy White House, with gala evenings honoring André Malraux and Pablo Casals, are now mocked as little more than social climbing. Obama is only the most recent in a string of presidents of both parties who seem to regard culture as little more than a frill; an opportunity to invite a few Hollywood stars to dinner. No doubt the rancor of the ongoing debates about the NEA and government funding of the arts has led many to conclude that the entire subject is radioactive. What has been forgotten is that the health of our cultural life is one measure—and by no means an insignificant measure—of the health of our life as a nation.

We are all imperiled when a great encyclopedic museum is imperiled. Speaking of Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ellison wrote that these are “meeting places for motley mixtures of people.” In a museum, as Ellison observed of American culture in general, “our old familiar pasts become, in juxtaposition with elements appropriated from other backgrounds, incongruously transformed, exerting an energy (or synergy) of a different order than that generated by their separate parts. And this with incalculable results.” I cannot imagine a better description of what happens to you when you spend a few hours at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Ellison quotes Malraux—that visitor to the White House—who declared that “art is a way of possessing destiny.” In Detroit there has been talk of auctioning off our destiny to the highest bidder. Say it isn’t so.