Self-portrait by Rembrandt

An object.

The Frick Art Museum in Pittsburgh is hosting an exhibition worth traveling to see. It brings together some of the highlights of both Frick collections, Henry’s in New York and Helen’s in Pittsburgh. It has generated much publicity and mobs of visitors for the museum. Some of the greatest works of art in the history of art are on display there, including the colossal self-portrait by Rembrandt you see above.

As you leave the exhibit, you come to this sign, in which the museum apologizes for making you suffer through all that art. We duplicate it here for the purpose of comment and criticism.

Epilogue. As single-collector institutions, The Frick Pittsburgh and The Frick Collection are invariably linked to their individual founders. Both museums originate from a place of privilege, built on the backs of laborers in western Pennsylvania. Although genuine in the impetus to create something for the public good, many of the principles that guided the founding of our institutions no longer ring true. Today, museums strive to be centers of creativity, thought, and conversation, rather than temples of objects chosen by (and to represent) an elite few.

Here are a few essay questions on our assigned reading.

1. If museums are not to be temples of objects, then where should the objects be?

2. If the objects in museums are not to be chosen by an elite few—for example, by the vanishingly small number of intellectuals who have studied the history of art—then by what sort of democratic referendum are they to be chosen?

3. What will happen to the objects once we succeed in transforming our museums into centers of creativity, thought, and conversation? Will the objects go back into the hands of private collectors who will exclude the general public from viewing them?

4. If a museum is to be a center of creativity, thought, and conversation, how is it different from a coffeehouse? Is it just that the coffee is worse?

Dr. Boli will be very straightforward here. In his opinion, this is simple old-fashioned Yankee anti-intellectualism dressed up as fashionably enlightened righteousness. It is as silly to say that the “elite few” should not choose art as it is to say that a trained auto mechanic should not rebuild your transmission, or that a trained surgeon should not remove your appendix. What, you think I’m not good enough to perform an appendectomy? Just because I’m a cashier at the Circle K? I thought we were done with that kind of snobbery. It’s so nineteenth century.

It is also particularly antidemocratic anti-intellectualism, because of course the logical consequence of abandoning the idea of the museum as “a temple of objects” is that the δῆμος shall no longer have access to the objects. In the Frick Pittsburgh’s permanent collection you can see a colossal landscape by Boucher, and a portrait by Reynolds, and another by Gainsborough, and a whole room of early Italian Renaissance devotional art, and it’s free, because Helen Frick endowed the museum so that the public could always have free access to her art collection. The cleansing of the temple would mean that the art student who had taste but no money would no longer have that privilege.

What would our hypothetical impoverished art student see instead? Beside the “Epilogue” was a station with a table where visitors could think, exercise their creativity, and join the conversation by writing their thoughts on sticky notes and sticking them on the wall. This is what you should see in a museum, instead of stuffy old Rembrandt, who looks sad for some reason.

One of the questions you could choose to answer on sticky notes was “What would you like to see in a museum?” After thinking for a while, Dr. Boli picked up a pencil and wrote, “A temple of objects, chosen by an elite few.”

Titian painting

Portrait of a Man in a Red Hat, by Titian.


  1. tom says:

    The whole issue is moot. Everything is now available in some sort of electronic version, which can be easily altered via AI to conform to the viewer’s own personal world-view. Thank god for science, which saveth us.

    • dan says:


      The problem with things being online is that one loses the serendipity of visiting a museum — or a library — and finding something that you weren’t looking for.

      • No matter how smart AI and the Google Algorithm gets, I’m pretty sure a Google search (or whatever even more insidious scrappy start-up eventually dethrones them) will always include a few things you were not looking for.

        After all, that’s how I first stumbled upon this celebrated Magazine, as an irrelevant result near the top of a Google search for I-forget-what.

  2. Von Hindenburg says:

    Is there any way to replace the elite few at the Carnegie who are piously replacing beautiful and inspiring works of art and craft with random piles of clutter?

  3. KevinT says:

    Perhaps the museum (bad-coffee shop) will be displaying mob-selected art such as: https://www.jean-michel-basquiat.org/philistines/

  4. Adam K Gehr Jr says:

    This sign must have been written by a graduate of a “Museum Studies” program. The main message taught in these programs is that museums are evil places which should be abolished.

  5. Fred says:

    I’m always impressed by the big fancy lichens growing on the picture frames.

  6. Arkadiy Belousov says:

    Silly Doctor. They just want to have different objects chosen by different elite few.

  7. The art professors are not the elite few the sign is talking about. They’re talking about the rich industrialists who know a lot about running steel mills and crushing union-organizing efforts, but who know nothing about Art-with-a-capital-A other than that it gives them yet one more way to demonstrate their superiority above everyone else, by enshrining their personal “taste” in art in a museum full of nothing but art they personally bought, and thus permanently marking them as arbiters of what is good and bad in art.

    The folks who made that sign are themselves Art Professors, albeit Art Professors of a more modern style, who feel Art is only Art if it has a message, and the only acceptable messages are (and here’s one of Dr. Boli’s favorite words) “transgressive” attacks upon the status quo and the powers-that-be and Western Tradition and other things they blame for all the troubles of the world. Artworks, no matter how beautiful, no matter how well-executed, that uphold the dominant order, the dominant religion, the then-current regime, can not be true art, they can only be tools of domination and subjugation. True Art must be done by the poor, the powerless, and the outsiders, as an attack upon the rich, the powerful, and the well-connected.

  8. John Salmon says:

    The worst part of this is the self-aggrandizing idea that the person who wrote that trigger alert, and the people who agree with it whole-heartedly, are radically better human beings than the people who assembled the worthy collection of objects. Take their word for it.

    It’s a cliché to call this “virtue-signalling”, but the cliché fits.

  9. Dutch says:

    The author of the epilogue forgot to apologize on behalf of those who stole the land under the museum from its previous owners.

    If one is going to play the guilt trip/virtue signal game, one must keep up on all the current and ever-changing rules of the game. To not fully exploit one’s moment of attention for maximum shame and emotional pummeling is wrong. To not fully play the shame game demonstrates an unacceptable laxity in self-discipline, and a lack of attention to current standards. I assign a “C-minus, needs improvement”.

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