On Defending the DIA: A Reply to Roberta Smith

In a June 13, 2013 photo, The Detroit Industry fresco by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera is seen at the Detroit Institute of Ar
In a June 13, 2013 photo, The Detroit Industry fresco by Mexican muralist Diego Rivera is seen at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit. In a quest to balance the budget in cash-strapped Detroit, the city's emergency manager is proposing a controversial idea: sell the city's art. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

When Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr suggested last spring that the DIA's art collection could be sold off to pay Detroit's creditors, he started a drama that has shown no sign of fading away -- just when you think the issue has been settled it re-appears with new urgency. Will the Detroit Institute of Arts' art collection really be privatized to pay the city's debts, or is the whole thing just a political gambit? It's hard to tell anything from outside Orr's offices, but it has spurred discussions of the social importance of art in an impoverished city, most recently in a defense of the DIA in yesterday's New York Times.

Some critics have followed the lead of Orr's spokeman Bill Nowling by asserting (and then sheepishly retracting) the claim that it is indefensible to maintain a valuable art collection while city workers lose their pensions.

Still others have asked why so much criticism of Detroit's bankruptcy focuses on the city's fine art museum, an elite institution that receives a lot of suburban visitors. Why isn't anyone as outraged about the cuts already suffered by the city parks department, say, or its public schools? The answer is obvious, but it would be self-defeating to sacrifice the DIA's art collection on the same altar of economic efficiency where we may currently find the mangled corpse of the Department of Recreation.

Which is why the defense of the DIA by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith is so unsatisfying in spite of its welcome assertion that any sale of the collection would be a betrayal of the public. Two arguments keep reappearing among defenders of the DIA's publicly-held collection. The first is the old-fashioned aesthetic claim that museums provide spaces to contemplate beauty and appreciate the best in human achievement. The second is really the most bizarre, yet in our desperate times the most common. It's the one Smith comes around to in her article: art as an instrument of economic development. Speaking of cuts to art and music in the public schools, she writes:

One reason such cuts are tolerated is America's shortsighted separation of education and economics. If the United States aims to produce more and import less, it needs designers and inventors of things to be produced. Such skills require just the kind of imagination and ingenuity that are nourished by art training from an early age and by museums.

Put aside, for the moment, the obviously wrong assumption that well-paying American industrial jobs have vanished because we lack designers. The bigger problem is the idea, from an art critic, that art is important for training little entrepreneurs. Even if this was true, or in any way provable, it's an awfully impoverished notion of art: we need Van Gogh today if we are to have an all-new Chevy Malibu in 2033. If only we separated education and economics in the United States, as Smith says we do. We do pretty much the opposite -- measure the "value" of educational institutions like schools and museums in terms of whatever financial value they can realize for creditors or consumers (today and those yet unborn).

The irony is that the jewel of the DIA's collection, Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry, is brilliantly resistant to all this, particularly the awkward business logic of art as an economic engine. For one thing, as a mural painted on the walls, Detroit Industry can't be sold without dismantling the building. It also, of course, dates to a revolutionary time, in both Mexico and the United States, in which fine art was routinely understood to have a radical purpose, to mobilize popular consciousness and to antagonize the middle classes. And I doubt it occurred to anyone in Depression-era Detroit that Rivera's mural would revitalize the Cass Corridor.

It doesn't square well with the elitist ideal of the museum as a space of "civic virtue," as Mark Styker describes it in his recent Free Press history of the DIA's finances. He quotes the museum's director in 1927, who spoke of the importance of "the beauty of art and the spiritual and moral beauties which lie beyond and above the beauty of art alone..." Detroit Industry, however, took great pains to irritate and scandalize the guardians of Detroit's "spiritual and moral beauties." And even as it has become canonical, a required destination for generations of Detroit-area school field trips, Rivera's mural remains provocatively open-ended, a dialectical account of industrial civilization built out of the clash of labor and capital, nature and technology, faith and science, the underdeveloped south and the industrialized north. Nor is it an artwork well suited to solitary contemplation, but one best viewed in a group, and as the beginning of an argument.

Of course, most elite art museums (and art critics) in other cities never have to justify their existence like the DIA does -- nobody ever asks the Art Institute of Chicago why its collection shouldn't just be sold to pay municipal debts. And maybe there's no point searching for a good answer to a stupid question. Incidentally, I think the DIA should be open longer; I think it should stay free to the people who sustain it; and I think our children should be taught to make and criticize art in all its forms. As for a defense of art and its value? Well, I like Detroit Industry, at least, because I enjoy exploring it, it makes me think, and I like to talk to other people about the questions it keeps raising. Other than that, I don't have a defense.