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Death of the art museum?

| Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Joe Wos

Art might not be dead. But it is on life support. And the kids are about to pull the plug so they can charge their cellphones.

In their struggle for cultural relevancy, art museums are making themselves irrelevant. Today's generation views art in pixels on the canvas of a smartphone and titles of masterpieces now end in .jpg. In their efforts to connect, many museums offer their collections online, while others have opened their doors to Google, allowing for virtual tours of entire institutions.

At the Louvre, you view the tiny “Mona Lisa,” as she smiles nervously behind bulletproof glass, while a 90-year-old guard hollers, “Don't touch the art!” Or you can view it online, where you can zoom in with remarkable detail, down to the finest brushstrokes. Technology enables us to view art in ways that are impossible in museums.

Art is an important part of society. But museums to house it might no longer be needed. Art museums are a holdover from an elitist, patriarchal society that force-fed us hand-picked culture. They are becoming discarded relics of the past, much like encyclopedias, phone books and Bill Cosby's career.

The Internet gives us the ability to experience art of our choosing. We no longer need to seek approval, blindly nodding our heads, stroking our chins and pretending Jackson Pollock is any better a painter than the average 3-year-old. We can stop pretending: The emperor has no clothes and Robert Mapplethorpe has the photos to prove it.

We are all curators of our own museums of memes, pics, tweets and posts. Even art museums have reduced art into wannabe clever memes with outdated Jerry Maguire references like “Show me the Monet!”

Art relies on access. Andrew Carnegie recognized the general public lacked access to books, art and dead animals. With his white beard and jolly red nose, he went from town to town, shoving libraries and museums down chimneys.

We've come a long way. Today, an entire museum collection can fit on a single hard drive.

In pursuit of financial stability, museums such as the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh are trimming their staffs while expanding their gift shops. Prints of masterpieces can be ordered via their online stores without ever setting foot inside.

With the zeal and artistic integrity of the owners of Grumpy Cat, museums plaster their art on everything: “Last Supper” TV trays, “The Thinker” toilet seats and “The Birth of Venus” home pregnancy tests. It's enough to make Edvard Munch scream.

For 100 years, museums survived on subsidies, arguing that the public needs art but is unwilling to pay for it. The “eat your broccoli” argument is invalid in our consumer-driven artconomy. Take the film “Avatar,” for example. People spent nearly $3 billion on what looked like a “Lord of the Flies” remake with an all-Smurf cast. Consumers are eager to pay for art but museums might not have the right packaging.

Only a handful of high-profile art museums — such as the Met, Smithsonian and Louvre — are thriving. That's because they package themselves as “must-see” attractions, serving tourists as backdrops for cultural selfies.

Museums need to attract and retain young people without seeming like some 52-year-old creep at a nightclub trying to pick up 22-year-olds to prove he's still “got it.” They can no longer fall back on school field trips, with child chain gangs picking up culture on the side of the road.

Once those kids make a break for it, they are unlikely to return to a still-life museum in a fast-paced, swipe-through world.

Joe Wos, a cartoonist, writer and pop culture correspondent for WESA Essential Pittsburgh, lives in Penn Hills.

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