Dining in a Paris restaurant in 1865, a small group of Americans celebrated the fourth of July by making some American history of their own. They planned a national institution of art known today as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But while it’s an American institution, most of the Met’s collection is from Old Europe. Now an exhibit launching the Met’s new exhibit hall, the Met Breuer, is likewise European, if not non-western.

America’s inferiority complex

How did a Fourth of July celebration end up celebrating European history? Former Met director Thomas Hoving unwittingly provided an answer in his memoir “Making the Mummies Dance,” when he speculated that the reason the Met “reeks of history” (something the U.S. is too young to reek of) “probably has something to do with America’s deep-seated cultural inferiority complex.” After all, he explained, New York started with little more than a few Indian beads and some Dutch silver and therefore was driven to possess “a slice of every culture on earth.”

Well, not exactly a “slice.” The Met holds pretty much all of humankind’s visual history of some 50 centuries.

As Hoving put it, when it comes to art treasures, whether in quantity or quality, old or modern, “the Met puts most fabled art repositories of all other cities to shame.” (Note the wiggle word “most” in case he’s mistaken).

Comparing the Met to the Vatican

Hoving went so far as to compare the Met to the Vatican for its “aura, style, presence and set of beliefs.” And even a cursory glance at the Met Breuer exhibit examples tells you “the set of beliefs” is the same as those at the Met: European and non-Western art continue to be their objects of affection.

One may wonder, then, where that leaves all those New York insecurities that Hoving mentioned.

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Is this art unfinished?

Of course, it’s enough of a bragging right to corner the market on the best non-American art ever made. And it’s not like American art goes without a dedicated museum. The Whitney Museum of American Art has made-in-the-USA art covered.Still, you have to ask yourself why an opening exhibit at the Met Breuer, ballyhooed as a new bastion of contemporary art, features “the unfinished” art of Old Masters like Titian.

What exactly is contemporary about his “The Flaying of Marsyas”?

Even Titian’s theme is old. Marsyas was a satyr in Greek mythology. What’s more, the Met isn’t even sure the painting is unfinished. Exhibit text says it doesn’t know whether it was finished or even whether someone else altered it after he died.

Sign of the times

So again, why Titian? Unless Met Breuer curators saw the frenzied air and utter violence of the painting as a reflection of our time, the Titian painting doesn’t fit the Breuer’s mission statement.

Just how old-fashioned is Titian? Art historian Edward Lucie-Smith quotes him talking about being an artist: “This profession requires an unruffled temper.” Where does that leave all the known hot-heads like the homicidal Caravaggio?

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