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Exit Through the Novelty Exhibition

Winnie the Pooh, destroyer of art museums

Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Art Institute of Chicago may reasonably expect to enjoy millennia-old fiber arts or Jeff Koons ego trips—a fully encompassing assemblage of artworks, in other words. And in recent years, the encyclopedic mandate of global art institutions has become still more generous, such that it now includes not just art, but the art-adjacent.

Yes, Pooh is a major influencer. But is he art?

Perhaps it all began with the inclusion of high fashion, as typified by the hit Alexander McQueen and Jean Paul Gaultier retrospectives that won over New York City earlier this decade. Next came pop culture, with, for example, the traveling exhibition “David Bowie is,” which garnered some two million visitors globally. And now, with the arrival of “Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the novelty exhibition trend has cynically bottomed out into outright mania for triviality.

Conspicuously absent from the advertising materials for this family affair, which brings together some two hundred odd drawings, photographs, and items of vintage merchandise featuring the beloved bear, is any gesture at the museum’s stated mission to provide “information and perspective on art through time and throughout the world.” Instead, the only justification for this showcase of Pooh is his popularity. Given that the bear is “one of the most famous children’s book characters of all time,” the exhibition promises to treat visitors to “a journey exploring how the stories of Pooh and his friends Eeyore, Kanga and Roo, Owl, Piglet, Rabbit, Tigger, and Christopher Robin have stood the test of time and continue to delight generations of readers around the world.”

Yes, Pooh is a major influencer. But is he art? While star curators like Andrew Bolton built their careers on the gambit that the average museum-goer (or better yet, her aunt) could be convinced that fashion designers and pop stars were major artists on the order of Georgia O’Keeffe or Takashi Murakami, the Museum of Fine Arts (as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which originated the show) has little interest in making a similar case for Pooh. Upon entering the gallery, the visitor is greeted not by any sort of explanation of the cartoon bear’s relevance to the art world, but rather with a shock-and-awe display of not-for-sale Pooh merchandise. There’s a Pooh board game, Pooh sake cups, and a pair of Vans, printed with Poohs. “Pooh is everywhere,” the gallery seems to be hollering, drowning out any questions the discerning visitor might broach.

As for actual artworks, the preponderance of the show is drawn from a trove of E.H. Shepard’s original sketches. Many are paired with Wikipedia-style explanations of the fundamental components of illustration, subjects like “Technique,” “Character,” and “Composition.” Under the heading “Expression,” one can learn that “Shepard uses facial expressions sparingly. He distills the toys’ characters into simple outlines, often with just dots for the eyes,” while “Setting the Scene” explains that “Trees were especially important to Shepard.” The ostensible purpose of these way stations is to give the visitor language for interpreting Shepard’s art—sure, illustration is art, however unreservedly commercial—but they are severely undercut by the exclusion of any examples of illustration from outside the world of Pooh. None of the turn-of-the-century techniques Shepard was surely instructed in are mentioned, nor competing children’s books from 1920s Britain offered. There is, in short, no context, no world beyond the Hundred Acre Wood.

This is a perplexing turn for an institution like the MFA, which, in the rest of its programming, never shies from leveraging its enormous collection to illuminate a subject. At “Ansel Adams in Our Time,” a concurrently running survey with similar mass appeal, curator Karen Haas has situated every dentist’s favorite photographer between early monochromes of the American West and artworks made there today. While the Adams landscapes are exactly what you’d expect, the choices of what to include around them allow the exhibition to generate art-historical gravity. In presenting Adams’ photographs of ceremonies at the Tesuque and San Ildefonso pueblos in New Mexico, Haas turns to both an array of earlier, exoticizing John K. Hiller silver prints of women from the Zuni pueblo and the contemporary Diné artist Will Wilson’s tintype portrait of the world-champion Hopi hoop dancer Nakotah Larance. The contrast is forceful. A historical arc is created whereby a native artist defiantly seizes the means of artistic representation from the bumbling hands of white tourists.

“Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic” is, meanwhile, relentlessly unprovocative. There are no illustrations of other subjects, past or present, nor any serious engagement with the consequences of a character borne from an English genteel milieu having an enduring global footprint. What those omissions make clear is that this isn’t meant to be an art exhibition. It’s a children’s attraction. Any lingering doubts to that effect evaporate once the visitor reaches the midpoint of the gallery, which has been transformed into a playground. There’s a tent, a bridge over a projected river, a coloring table, and a massive mobile. Children run wild here; woe betide the adult who glances around the wrong corner looking for more sketches and instead finds himself obstructing the path of a child racing to have another go on the slide, tweaked out on the Tigger Tails being sold in the adjacent café.

It’s fair to assume we’re probably only a year or two out from the first Miley Cyrus residency at MOCA.

The deepening entrenchment of exhibitions like “Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic” in the art world’s consciousness has brought with it a sense of malaise. While Klaus Biesenbach’s infamous 2015 Björk spectacle at the Museum of Modern Art led even Jerry Saltz to warn that MoMA was on “a suicidal slide into becoming a box-office-driven carnival,” this Pooh exhibition has been received with ambivalence. The Wall Street Journal’s Edward Rothstein, the only prominent American critic to bother penning a review, bemoaned not the show’s existence, but that the iteration he saw at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art felt “a bit abrupt, filtering too much away from the expansive atmosphere evident in photographs of the London show.” Maybe this coming to terms with novelty exhibitions as a fact of life—a phenomenon to be ignored, rather than reviled—has something to do with the appointment of Biesenbach himself as Director of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art earlier this year. Disregarding the critical ridicule heaped on Biesenbach over the years, MOCA’s board voted him to the position unanimously. It’s fair to assume we’re probably only a year or two out from the first Miley Cyrus residency at MOCA, and in the meantime Californians can look forward to the Ed Hardy retrospective San Francisco’s de Young Museum has slated for this summer.

What the slope-shouldered acceptance of these exhibitions as inevitable money grabs misses is how damaging their ingratiation has been to their host museums. Killing time at the MFA before my entrance into the dark forest, I found myself wandering down a colonnade of Qing ceramics only to arrive at “Zetsu No. 8,” a sequence of three immense, architectural agglomerations of porcelain and glaze made by the sculptor Nishida Jun. The experience created by this savvy work of spatial curation was electrifying. It was as if all the material that I had been passively perceiving in the hallway had suddenly become one whirled-together artwork, familiar yet utterly new.

There is no room for such kismet in the Pooh exhibition or its forebears. These shows are instead onanistic celebrations of their subjects, untethered from any reference point that might confuse or alienate the visitor who has come only because they listen to Björk, or watch Tim Burton movies, or find Tilda Swinton charming. Rather than broadening the scope of the encyclopedic museums they’ve infected, novelty exhibitions are delimiting, reshaping galleries from rooms where new discoveries are possible into known spaces. You go to see Pooh because you like cute bears; you go to see Ed Hardy because you like tattoos. No artworks, even the ones on display for the hordes, is served by this approach to curation. Instead, the museum becomes a funhouse of the familiar, a forgettable amusement where you get exactly what you pay for.