IN THE MID-19th century, the world's great museums were founded to educate the public through morally uplifting works of art. A century and a half later, museums still aim at moral uplift, but the art of today seems reluctant to cooperate.
At least that's one implication of "A Grand Design," the exhibition of 200 or so objects from Britain's Victoria and Albert Museum currently on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The V&A show is as much about the changing role of the museum as it is about art. As a consequence, it raises -- if only indirectly -- a pressing and politically pertinent question for our own time: Just what are museums for?
The founders of the V&Atook it for granted that the purpose of a museum was public education. Initially, they aimed to raise standards among English artisans and manufacturers to make them more competitive with foreign producers.
Later, the educational emphasis shifted to a more general audience on the theory that visually sophisticated consumers would expand the market for quality goods.
That art and commerce went hand in hand was never questioned by the rising business class that founded the great museums. It assumed that beautiful things were morally therapeutic, and that a populace taught to appreciate good design would make better citizens as well as consumers.
Ironically, the assumptions of the museums' founders were being undermined by the very forces of modernity that the institutions were intended to celebrate.
Around the turn of the century, just as museums began to concentrate in earnest on collecting "the canon" of art masterpieces of the past, modern painters and sculptors were breaking with that past.
The divergence of modern art and the museum was evident at the Victoria and Albert. A gift of some leading-edge art nouveau furniture in 1900 aroused such controversy that the museum effectively stopped collecting contemporary works for the next 70 years.
Elsewhere in Europe and America, modernism was gradually admitted into museums' hallowed halls, but as time went on it became increasingly difficult to rationalize its presence there in terms of moral uplift.
By the mid-1960s it was obvious that the function of art itself had changed, from being a technique for representing reality to a new kind of instrument for modifying consciousness and sensibility.
The art of our own day is "moral" only in the sense that it exists to enliven our sensibility and consciousness -- without, however, signifying any particular moral code. Much contemporary art -- with its insistence on coolness, unsentimentality and impersonality -- strenuously resists the moralizing attitude.
It may be argued that this is a characteristic of the greatest art of any period. But in earlier eras the public meaning of artwork was at least mediated by a set of well-established conventions. Queen Victoria's insistence that a plaster fig leaf cover the V&A's cast of Michelangelo's "David" whenever she visited the museum was a notable exception that tended to prove the rule.
In the contemporary era, most of the old rules have been discarded, including even those that govern the public's expectation of what an artwork should be. Contemporary art aims to provoke an experience in the viewer that is ineffable, private and largely indifferent to convention, including conventional morality.
This has put the modern museum in an awkward position. The public, indoctrinated to believe in the reformative power of the exquisite and the old, fails to make the connection between the museum's mission of moral uplift and today's morally indeterminate art.
The compromise too often struck seeks to justify the museum not on artistic grounds but as an instrument for the amelioration of various social problems -- urban redevelopment, tourism, the symbolic redress of previously excluded ethnic, racial and gender groups.
Either the museum simply ignores contemporary art or it accepts the inevitability of continual controversy regarding its judgment, values and public utility.
From an artistic standpoint, the latter is by far the preferable course. But as the recent uproar over public arts funding all too clearly shows, it is also fraught with danger.
Museums are, after all, no more immune to the political battles of their day than they are to the artistic ones.
Pub Date: 11/23/97