‘There, This Is Life’

Philippe de Montebello
Philippe de Montebello; drawing by James Ferguson

“I don’t believe art has redemptive qualities.” The demur comes from Philippe de Montebello, who, having served as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an unparalleled thirty-one years before his retirement in 2008, must by any reckoning be one of the most eminent figures in the art world. Before asking why he of all people should make such a statement in Rendez-vous with Art, a book about aesthetic pleasures, one might try to define the proposition he is declining.

What would it mean for art to have redemptive qualities? It might mean that art has a necessary and structural part in human affairs, comparable to Christ’s in a religious scheme of salvation. It would at least imply that art compensates for some sort of lack in our lives or in the world and that it does so in a satisfying manner. This is a tenet that a great many people in the art scene—practitioners, collectors, dealers, critics, educators, curators—adhere to. It would seem a fortifying belief, whether you are conducting art therapy sessions or trying to persuade politicians to allocate money to cultural projects.

But de Montebello has no need for it. Rendez-vous with Art, a record compiled by the critic Martin Gayford of discussions he has held with de Montebello in the course of their visiting various museums, acquaints us with the style of the retired director’s agnosticism and with the complex of feelings in which it is lodged. One way to interpret de Montebello’s position might be that we do not usually regard the ground beneath our feet as “redemptive.” He has been a creature of the art world from the moment of his birth in Paris seventy-nine years ago. His aunt was the great patron of the Surrealists, the Vicomtesse de Noailles; his maternal grandfather Francis Croisset was a playwright; while his father, from a line of soldiers and politicians ennobled by Napoleon, had turned to painting and to art criticism.

Philippe, having crossed the Atlantic with his parents during his high school years, progressed to study art history at Harvard and then at New York’s Institute of Fine Arts. From this he launched into a surefooted career in museums that eventually led to his appointment as the Met’s director at the age of forty-one. As the spokesman for the largest art collection in the United States, de Montebello has appeared not so much an advocate as an embodiment of high cultural values: the steady-tempered, genially diplomatic, patrician discharger of a responsibility that is of its nature conservative.

How far does this impression tally with his own experience? Freer to speak now that he is retired, de Montebello qualifies it merely by emphasizing that a museum directorship is not a position of unassailable eminence. The curator may have the scorn of the academic to contend with: “Oh, what a waste!” was the comment he heard from…

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