By Schiller, Herbert I.
The Nation , Vol. 249, No. 2
Fifteen years ago, the artist Hans Haacke produced an exhibition in New York City called "On Social Grease." The show's six photoengraved magnesium plates reproduced the statements of six national figures on the utility of the arts to business. Robert Kingsley, an Exxon executive and founder and chair of the Arts and Business Council, gave Haacke his title. "Exxon's support of the arts," announced Kingsley's plate, "serves as a social lubricant. And if business is to continue in big cities, it needs a more lubricated environment."
Today, a walk along Manhattan's museum mile - or through the not-so-hushed halls of major museums elsewhere in the country - is more slippery than ever. Most Americans take for granted that they live in an open society with a free marketplace of ideas, in which a variety of forms of expression and opinion can be heard and flourish. This condition, while not yet entirely transformed, is increasingly unrecognizable. The corporate arm has reached into every corner of daily life, from the shopping mall to the art gallery, from the library to the classroom itself. Like television, advertising and other obvious weapons of America's pervasive corporate culture, museums are also adjuncts of the consciousness industry, a role they play with increasing enthusiasm as the money pours in. Thus, the Chase Manhattan Bank avers that it is committed to "enriching lives not only financially but culturally," and entices the director of the Guggenheim Museum, Thomas Messer to pose against the Frank Lloyd Wright building for a newspaper advertisement and wisecrack: "Individual and corporate support has kept us in the black. Not to mention cobalt blue, cadmium yellow and burnt sienna."
Just down Fifth Avenue, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an engraved plaque near the entrance offers a long roster of corporate benefactors, among them A.T.&T., Ford, Coca-cola, Xerox and CBS Inc. An exhibition of Southeast Asian tribal art now on display at the Met is "made possible by Reliance Group Holdings, Inc." Elsewhere in the museum, visitors are prominently advised that the Goya show is sponsored by Manufacturers Hanover and the New York Stock Exchange, institutions not widely noted for their "spirit of enlightenment," the exhibition's subtitle.
The Met, regarded by many as the country's leading museum, also has become a prime party palace for the very rich. Just over a year ago, for example, some 500 guests gathered in its marble precincts to toast the newly married Laura Steinberg, daughter of Saul Steinberg (C.E.O. of Reliance Group Holdings), and Jonathan Tisch, nephew of Laurence Tisch (C.E.O. of CBS Inc.). "Candlelight Wedding Joins 2 Billionaire Families," enthused The New York Times, whose publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, is chair of the museum's board of trustees.
Tiffany & Company took over the Met in September 1987 to mark its 150th anniversary with an exhibition modestly titled "Triumphs of American Silver-Making: Tiffany & Co. 1860-1900." Later in the year, the firm persuaded another of the nation's major cultural institutions, the American Museum of Natural History, to mount a show called "Tiffany: 150 Years of Gems and Jewelry." In Boston, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum had not been used for commercial promotion until 1987, when it leaped into the postmodern corporate age and turned its premises over to the Elizabeth Arden Company, which was introducing a new perfume to local shoppers.
Each week, the art pages of The New York Times carry listing of shows in galleries and museums underwritten by the Philip Morris Company. Last year, Canada passed a law expressly forbidding the linking of tobacco brand names to cultural and sporting events. But in the United States, as The Wall Street Journal headlined not long ago, "Tobacco Firms, Pariahs to Many People, Still Are Angels to the Arts." In 1987, Philip Morris took out a two-page color spread in The New York Times Magazine to promote an exhibition of an in black America, all the while saturating black neighborhoods with cigarette advertising. …