The nasty, ad hominem attacks on Peter Schjeldahl after he came out in favor of Detroit selling the art from the Detroit Institute for Arts seem to have cowed the talented art critic. He has now issued a retraction of his position.
He need not have bothered. No one was asking his permission to sell the art. Indeed, the hysterics from the self-righteous art media are sorely misplaced. Detroit’s leadership is engaged in a massive, multi-level negotiation. That’s what a bankruptcy is, an opportunity to renegotiate obligations under the supervision of the courts.
Detroit is a poor city in the middle of a still wealthy region. It’s chief detriment is the loss of citizens and a tax base that can no longer support city services and the pensions and healthcare earned by city employees.
DIA is not relevant because of the value of the art. It’s a symbolic threat to the surrounding counties that have already tipped their hand and shown that they value the museum greatly by agreeing to pay its operating costs and taxing their own citizens to pay for it.
So when Schjeldahl and his former opponents make these kinds of statements, they’re missing the point of what’s going on:
I am now persuaded that a sale of the D.I.A.’s art, besides making merely a dent in Detroit’s debt, could not conceivably bring dollar-for-dollar relief to the city’s pensioners. Further, the value of the works would stagger even today’s inflated market. Certainly, no museum could afford them. They would pass into private hands at relatively fire-sale prices.
When Kevyn Orr puts the DIA’s art on the table, he’s essentially offering the surrounding counties the opportunity to keep the art in Detroit by contributing to the city’s balance sheet. The surrounding counties could issue bonds or levy more taxes on themselves to buy the collection from the city. Is it practical or politically viable? I don’t know. But it would be a simple solution that keeps the art and a museum as the center piece of the region’s cultural pride.
But the Schjeldahl’s critics don’t want Orr to have that bargaining chip. They want to give the suburban residents a free ride by making Orr’s threat impotent. Why? If the art were sold, it would not be destroyed (as Schjeldahl previously pointed out.) The art might find its way to more populous regions where a greater number of the public could have the benefit of its enjoyment. Few cultural trophies are sold and then disappear. They’re bought so the owners can show their largesse, loaning the works to travelling exhibitions and important museums that want to validate the buyer’s choice and status.
Others have suggested that selling DIA’s art would be like Greece selling the Parthenon. That’s spurious and ignorant. If Detroit were to sell a collection of classic cars made in the Motor City, that would be like Greece selling the Parthenon. DIA’s art being sold is like the British Museum selling the Elgin Marbles. Imagine the moral quandary the critics would face in that situation?
Would the Elgin Marbles be better off in London or Qatar? We all surely agree that Greece can’t afford them. (Not that they should have to pay—but that’s another discussion.)
Should the DIA’s art be sold? Of course not. It’s an impractical solution to a bigger problem. (Unless the surrounding counties want to write a $2.5 billion check, in which case it would be a great sale for all concerned.) But as economic and political theater, threatening the DIA’s art is master stroke. It exposes the shrieking, misguided and condescending culture snobs.
Schjeldahl had the courage to make a simple point preserving the cultural pride of the local elite is not a greater goal than honoring the simple commitments of pensions and healthcare for ordinary people who earned it.
WHAT SHOULD DETROIT DO WITH ITS ART?: THE SEQUEL (NewYorker.com)