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Portrait of a provocateur


Quick. Who in the art world would be audacious enough to summarize 2,000 years of art history in 164 pages? Who could actually pull it off -- and write it in such a way as to be accessible to, well, a bunch of dummies?

Thomas Hoving, of course.

Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, author of 12 books and former editor of Connoisseur magazine, has written "Art for Dummies," the latest in the series of bright-yellow how-to books for the intellectually intimidated.

In the book, published this month by IDG Books Worldwide, Hoving begins by defining art as that which occurs whenever "anyone takes any sort of material and fashions a deliberate statement with it." He then reassures skittish, wannabe art lovers that "you can become an art expert."

How so? By saturating yourself. "Almost anyone can become an expert with the right amount of saturation," he writes. "And only by saturation of the original art itself, not through books, or gazing at photographs, or attending slide lectures or taking copious notes at seminars. You will gain expertise and authority (and confidence) simply by soaking up physically all the art your eyes can digest."

"It's not dumbing down!" Hoving says in a telephone interview from Kansas City, Mo., one of the stops in his book-signing tour.

"You've got to bring something to the table when you read this book. If you're trying to learn to be a gourmet, you don't sit down at the table and say, 'Pass the ketchup.' This book is for people who have education, who have some interest, but are intimidated. Maybe they didn't take Art History 101; they took some other elective."

Hoving's newest venture may have some art professionals raising their eyebrows. After all, learning to appreciate art somehow seems different from learning the intricacies of a DOS computer program. But causing a little debate, a little controversy, has never before fazed Hoving.

Pioneering populism

As a museum director from 1967 to 1977, he invented the concept of large art exhibitions with broad public appeal that have come to be known as blockbusters. In doing so, he transformed the Metropolitan from a shrine to artistic contemplation into a tourist hot spot that beats out the Statue of Liberty as New York's No. 1 attraction. Hundreds of museums throughout the country have emulated his model -- and some art professionals have never forgiven him for his populist approach.

As author, Hoving published an account of his years at the Metropolitan titled "Making the Mummies Dance," in which he admitted having affairs with high-priced hookers on art-buying trips and sneaking past guards to touch masterpieces in other directors' museums. You can guess what a tizzy that caused.

Now Hoving brings to "Art for Dummies" his trademark blend of nearly unparalleled experience in the world of art, joie de vivre and chutzpah.

He takes pot shots at the art establishment (to which he belongs), pooh-poohs art historical writing ("This book was extremely hard to write: I had to write in English, and I haven't written it in years. I had to get the Ph.D. gobbledlygook out of my system.").

"This book is different from an art history book, it is all object- driven. It is written from the museum person's point of view," he says. "They told me they wanted definitions of stuff like 'lintel.' Now, 'frieze' I know -- but who the hell knows what a 'lintel' is?"

He explains concepts like minimalism, impressionism and abstract expressionism in a few paragraphs each: Minimalism includes "works that give up all claims to either illusion or raw expression in favor of an impersonal timelessness. The attitude is, 'I have nothing to say, and I am saying it,' " he writes.

And he gives his picks of 10 artists worth watching today, including sculptor Mark di Suvero and painters Helen Frankenthaler and Frank Stella.

There's also a state-by-state directory of museums worth visiting in which he names Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery "piece-for-piece, the best art museum in the entire United States." A few of his favorites? A dancing faun made of bronze by 16th-century Flemish artist Adrian de Vries; landscapes by 18th-century French artist Francois Boucher, and the Treasury Room, which is filled with Faberge eggs, Lalique jewelry and Tiffany jewelry and decorative objects.

Perhaps for people who really don't want to wade through a whole book, Hoving offers a pull-out "cheat sheet" that newcomers to museums may carry to boost their confidence.

For those willing to "cheat" a little, he suggests:

* Upon arriving at an unfamiliar museum, buy postcards. Whatever is pictured will represent the collection's highlights.

* Carry with you the author's list of the greatest works of Western civilization, which includes Giotto's Arena Chapel, Leonardo's "Mona Lisa," and Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," presumably so that you can spot 'em when you see 'em.

* Flex your critical muscles by making a wish list of the three pieces you'd "like to steal."

An audacious trend

Decades spent in the most elite strata of the art world serve the author well. Not only was Hoving able to draw on a bank of knowledge that allowed him to complete the book in six months, but he also was able to tell stories that few others could. In one anecdote, he mentions the controversy that surrounded the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel. Critics of the process charged that the cleaning changed the original colors painted by Michelangelo.

"Nonsense," writes Hoving. "I had the good fortune of ascending to the vault and being able to clean a one-foot-square area of the 'Separation of Light and Darkness.' The old grime, mostly years of coal dust, came off immediately. I was convinced that nothing was being taken away or disturbed."

Over the top? Of course. Still, Hoving approaches "Art for Dummies" with a rollicking sense of fun. For the most part, his methods aren't much more audacious than some of the efforts to attract huge crowds being made by contemporary museum directors. Consider the current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, "Sensations: Young British Artists From the Saatchi Collection," the show that was advertised with health warnings. Or singles nights at museums. Or gift shops that sell pasta inspired by masterpieces. Or the parade of impressionism shows that make one wonder if some art institutions aren't keeping a sharper eye on attendance figures than on scholarship.

Savvy dummies will spot mistakes in this book; some due to proof-reading errors, some due to sloppy writing. (Either way, Hoving swears corrections will be made in time for the next edition.)

For example, a painting of water lilies on the cover of the book is attributed to the sculptor Rodin. Another inaccuracy occurs when Hoving reviews the Walters Art Gallery: He praises a work by Faberge, the "Rose Trellis egg depicting Gatchina Palace." In reality, the object he describes is two works of art, the "Rose Trellis egg," created from green enamel, diamonds and gold; and the "Gatchina Palace egg," which opens to reveal a tiny palace.

But there's much here to gladden the heart of even the most conservative museum director: Hoving advocates that readers become members of their favorite or local museum. He urges them to ask questions and to closely observe all types of art, even works they don't like. Above all he exhorts them to look.

In a sense, Hoving's latest project is in keeping with a major theme of his career: Making art accessible to large numbers of people. And if the director/editor/ author can do that while making money and garnering a bit of publicity -- he is all the happier.

Asked what he hopes to achieve with "Art for Dummies," Hoving shouts into the telephone, "I hope it sells like hell, are you kidding?

"I hope people who are not familiar with museums read the book and say, 'Now I have a little confidence that I can walk into these big buildings that look like a bank or something and maybe feel OK, then start to look around and enjoy myself.' "

Editor's note: Portfolio, arts reporter Holly Selby's journal about people and issues in the world of art and culture, will appear bimonthly in Arts & Society.

Pub Date: 10/24/99

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