Good, Better, Best: words from Philippe de Montebello




An excerpt from the Sunday, March 21, 2010, NYTimes interview with Philippe de Montebello, who retired in 2008 after serving more than 30 years as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  He now teaches at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.

Q. You were a student here. How has teaching changed?

A. There’s no question it has become more theoretical: more looking at the anthropology, the sociology, the economics surrounding art history. But the institute, like Columbia, is still one of the graduate schools that, while it does some of the theoretical teaching, is still a place where connoisseurship is not the “C” word; where it is taught; where there is a fair amount of object-based teaching; where professors cross the street and take their students to the Met. On the other hand, the whole field, if you start looking across the United States, has become very theoretical.

Q.Why do you think that is?

A. I think a lot of it may have to do with postmodernism and a kind of P.C. mentality of relativism; increasingly there are a lot of people in the academic world who have trouble with the masterpiece, with the concept of good, better, best [my emphasis]. I don’t know why. I think it’s egalitarianism. But it’s changing back. My very presence here now teaching the history and culture of museums is an indication of this.


Object-based teaching in art history pedagogy and objective values (as opposed to relativism) are important markers in the cultural landscape and are dependent on one another. Concerning the current hold on art history departments of object-based teaching, where the art itself-- not interdisciplinary and theoretical exegesis of the extrinsic conditions of the art-- is of primary and ultimate reference, I think Montebello is being honest and tentative.  I spoke to a colleague who's in-the-know about this last week who said that the new hires made at schools like Harvard and NYU, which used to be bastions of object-based teaching, do not reflect a commitment to that tradition.  As to the supposed swing back to objectivity in values, away from postmodern relativism, there's hope, but let's not use Montebello's hire as evidence of it.  (a) As my colleague said, "Who wouldn't have hired him?", given his experience and expertise, and (b) Montebello is, unfortunately, of the older generation.  The operative question is, Who is replacing the old regime?  

I welcome any comments, especially from those who'll inevitably think I sound like a fascist in this post. 

Photo by Damon Winters for the New York Times