To Matt and Ann Schneider, without whom I would never have gotten to the top of that hill

The other day, Matt Schneider was kind enough to show me around the new Getty Center, the museum-cum-art-institute everyone in Los Angeles has been talking about for the past year or so. The Getty is the product of a nobly uncompromising effort to adapt the presentation of high art to the conditions of our age. Anything more familiar would have been merely condescending. Yet in its effort to put anonymous mortals in contact with unique art objects, the Getty succeeds only in making us feel still more anonymous.

I’m not sure if Jean Baudrillard has visited this site, but it offers the best available evidence for his idea that the postmodern is a world of simulacra that has abandoned all criteria for distinguishing between reality and simulation. (This is, of course, a utopian vision of the horizon of the postmodern market system rather than its reality.) The “simulated” atmosphere of the Getty was brought home to me by a curious experience. While touring the museum, we chanced upon a film clip describing a computer-generated virtual reality depiction of, if memory serves me, the Roman Forum in the post-Augustan period. The graphics put the viewer in the Forum and allowed him to “walk” within it, the perspective changing as in a computer game. Getty spokespeople touted the virtues of such simulations as a teaching tool: to the child who wonders “why should I care about this?” they provide not dead information but “live” participation.

Far be it from me to condemn simulation as a pedagogical technique. (Although the manipulative insistence on “participation” is the great weakness of American education, the child typically transcends the manipulation by relating less to the content of the simulation–e.g., the Forum–than to its ingenious technique, becoming in the process less a future classicist than a future programmer.) But what struck me most about the Forum simulation, in its straight-line coldness and inhospitality to human existence (a few scattered figures seemed afterthoughts in the emptiness), was its uncanny resemblance to the Getty itself. The museum and grounds seemed to be a gigantic computer simulation whose hundreds of human visitors were altogether superfluous.

When one visits an ancient temple or a medieval cathedral, one feels one’s ephemerality beside these stones that have witnessed the passage of so many generations. The building models the sacred atemporality of human culture by embodying the eternally self-renewing deferral of its own destruction in the sacrifice that is commemorated here. This is not at all one’s emotion at the Getty. One feels not mortal in the face of immortality, but human in the face of inhumanity, the lone explorer of a planet deserted by an alien culture. My fellow visitors seemed dwarfish and out of place, and that is surely the way I must have appeared to them. The consequence of this dichotomy between my intuition of myself and my vision of others is to alienate me from my fellow humans. My guess is that young people seldom meet and fall in love at the Getty. As in the Roman Forum simulation, our primary relationship is with architectural space, not with the other visitors who seem to have been added to the decor only in order to make the space appear more real.

The most obvious explanation of this alienation is that the site itself–the obsessive straight lines and multiple coups d’oeil offering misty views of the city far below, the overpowering brightness of the Travertine marble in the sunlight, the elimination from the concourses of the irregularities of plant life, scraps of waste or dust–is so dominating that the visitor stands upon it as a profane on the Temple mount. As Matt observed to me, the art collection, quite respectable if not comparable to that of older museums, is so overwhelmed by the architecture that it seems a mere pretext for it. Yet this grandeur is quite the opposite of that of, say, the mausoleum-like Nazi architecture of Albert Speer. In the overall geography of Los Angeles, the Getty is not central but peripheral. One sees it from the 405 freeway not as a fortress guarding the passage but as a curiosity, a vaster version of the idiosyncratic personal architectures that punctuate the hilltops. The swarms of security forces are there only to guard objects we have freely chosen to look at; if we don’t like the atmosphere, we can just go home.

No, the Getty’s dehumanized geometry exemplifies not tyranny but postmodern democracy. Humanizing it would have been a cop-out. Indeed, the Getty is humanized, for children at least, in the “art information” rooms where the young can draw pictures, don costumes, pose before mirrors, surf computers for information… These delightful little rooms–I wished the costumes had been big enough for me to get into–demonstrate that “user-friendliness” is not the Getty’s problem. But to doodle on a piece of drawing paper provided by the management is no more interactive than to wipe one’s hands on a paper towel provided by the management. Our inputs may be valuable to us; they are of no value to the institution. The paradox is that this is not a sign of the institution’s undemocratic nature, but of the opposite.

In traditional aristocratic societies–for example, in the European Middle Ages–art, particularly plastic art, is created by artisans rather than “artists” for the greater glory of God or his earthly representatives. With the growth of the market system, the artist’s work comes to be individualized as a unique source of revelatory value. Just as stockbrokers get rich by picking the richest stocks, recognition of esthetic value is itself a value. Even when the modern artist assails the public’s bourgeois Philistinism, his attack is implicitly or explicitly addressed to the connoisseur who will appreciate the value of his work.

If our experience of medieval art is relatively serene, this is because its religious context mediates the relationship between artist and audience in what Girard calls the “external” mode. The artisan-artist never presents himself as our rival; we admire his specialized skill, but our attribution of meaning to the signs he creates does not fall under his authority. In the secular world of modern art, as the source of significance becomes increasingly personal, my relationship with the artist becomes increasingly complex. The refusal of late modernist artists to “draw well” or even to represent anything at all points to the fact that it is the artist’s dominant position in this relationship rather than his reproductive talent that confers meaning on the artwork. Yet the more the artist attacks his audience, the more he expresses his need of it. Provocation is just another form of love. Even when he just pours the paint on the canvas, the artist is trying to communicate to us a unique revelation of truth.

The traditional art museum, the heart of whose collection consists of works of the era in which this complexification was taking place–roughly, from the Renaissance to 20th-century modernism–reproduces in its audience something of the connoisseur’s complicity with the artist. The spectator, assumed to be already familiar with the paintings, is given little information about them. The museum is a temple of art in which the visitor’s communion is presumed to be informed by esthetic competence. Cartoons of the “bourgeois” visitor nonplussed before an incomprehensible painting deny the authenticity of this communion in a particular case only in order to emphasize its institutional necessity.

In contrast with the traditional museum, the Getty embodies a new, postmodern perspective in which communion is no longer a meaningful concept. (This perspective is not expressed in the choice of the artworks themselves: the eminently traditional permanent collection contains very few works of modernism, let alone postmodernism. There is, however, a tendency toward special contemporary exhibitions, explicable, as Matt suggested, as public relations efforts toward the local community, where, with a deadpan neutrality worthy of Warhol, postmodern ephemera are presented as seriously as the most venerable masterpieces.) Postmodern democracy has in principle put an end to the struggle between artist and spectator. Each person is presumed to be a specialist in his own field; outside it, he is expected to defer to other specialists. Because the artist too is a specialist, he should therefore be judged by specialists in his field. Specialization, far from being undemocratic, is “universalizable” in the terms of Kantian ethics. The restriction of authority to specialists means that no individual can claim a special “aristocratic” relationship to any object of study; he must gain authority by working in his specialty, by doing, not being.

The most elaborate example of democratic specialization is no doubt the university, with its departments subdivided into fields and subfields. The Getty implements this principle in the field of art. Instead of standing in a problematically complicitous relationship with the artist, the visitor to the Getty views the paintings and sculptures through the mediation of the specialized commentaries attached to each artwork. These commentaries, useful and relatively unobtrusive, nevertheless confirm the alienating impression engendered by the overwhelming architecture and the detachment of the site from the city below. The museum is user-friendly, even interactive, but its interactivity is confined to providing knowledge to the ignorant.

At the end of the concourse stands the Research Institute, where knowledge can be created as well as consumed. Matt and I tried to get into the library to look around, but, despite our PhDs, we were told that browsing is not permitted and that we could only be admitted to consult with a librarian about a specific project. Research is to be conducted by specialists meeting with other specialists; no enlightened amateurs here. Nothing about this incident is undemocratic, but it points up the paradoxical elitism of democracy. In principle, anyone in our broadly educated society, on obtaining the appropriate certification, can become an expert in any field. It is not consonant with democratic principles to make scarce resources available to those unqualified to make socially valuable use of them. The result, however, leaving aside that PhDs in Art History are rarely given to the sons and daughters of the lower or even middle classes, is that even the best educated layman is excluded from dialogue with the institution.

On this apparently typical day, the museum’s demography recalled to me that of south Florida, where I could still feel like a youngster in my 50s. It is well that retirees visit museums, and normal that they do so in groups, but a museum in which the typical visitor is a senior citizen overawed by the Brave New third millennium is not a very endearing place to visit. The art collection would have to be many times as distinguished to compensate for the visitor’s sense of institutional humiliation.

What does this experience tell us about the place of high art in the postmodern era? Postmodern culture is often described, particularly by conservatives, as one of mystification and posturing. But perhaps the simplest way of characterizing it is as a culture of specialists. This is most obviously true of what is still called “classical” music, but it applies as well to all the arts, even, within the limits of the profitable, to the popular ones. Artists who attempt to maintain the revelatory posture of “high art” can appeal only to the expertise of other artists and scholars. This is an unanticipated consequence of the progress of democracy. For mature market society is not an undifferentiated mass but an increasingly differentiated army of specialists, each jealous of an expertise acquired through years of study and practice. If we reluctantly accept the Getty as the cultural institution of our time, it is because we recognize that we are better off separated from each other by the rhetoric of expertise than brought together by the undifferentiating violence of ideology.