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Delusions of Creativity

The insufferable spectacle of the Met's TEDx conference

Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images

When Thomas P. Campbell was tapped to lead the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009, he came across as a quieter, more self-effacing sort of museum director. Campbell—or “Tapestry Tom,” as his colleagues called him, as he is a specialist in textile arts—was not a wheeler-dealer with proven fundraising skills. At just 46, he’d never led a museum or even a museum department. But he was a scholar, with a scholar’s concerns. “In an age of instant media and visual overload,” he told the Guardian soon after his appointment, “there is something profoundly nourishing to the human soul when you come face-to-face with an object.”

This was not the man who strode across the Met’s small stage with an open-necked shirt and a Madonna-style wireless microphone headset on Saturday, emceeing a budget-busting revival meeting-cum-variety show called TEDxMet. This all-day event, held in the museum’s auditorium, featured artists, curators, a couple of scientists, and one moronic comedian delivering prewritten spiels against a glowing version of the Met logo. The Met billed the conference as “the launch of a whole new way of thinking about the Met and its collections.” It would be a pity if that were true, since this weekend’s exercise in digital hucksterism ran against everything that Campbell, we’d thought, was eager to defend—and against everything that the Met does best.

What went down under that giant neon M? I am happy to report that nobody propounded a scheme to topple Bashar al-Assad through still-life painting or suggested that an Alexander McQueen frock can show us how to end the climate crisis. There was one pop neuroscience talk, since this was TED, after all. But mostly things were pretty tame. A few Met curators, who have clearly grown gifted at these soft-core lectures after years of seducing donors, performed stump-speech recitations. A decorative arts curator told a few goofy stories about ancien régime vases, and Andrew Bolton, who organized that blockbuster McQueen exhibition, rattled off a few platitudes about the late British designer while standing in front of glossy installation shots.

These curators’ interventions were not especially insightful; in everything but production design they were a lot like standard weekday lectures, and indeed the audience of TEDxMet seems to have consisted of Upper East Side doyennes as much as social media interns. Still, at least the curators knew a thing or two. I cannot say the same about the unbearable comedian who, in and among jokes about twerking and “boobs and booty,” decided to make a few observations about art, despite the fact that the word “fresco” was beyond her faculties. “Paul Cézanne painted fruit outside of a bowl,” she wheezed, “and for this crime he was beheaded.” Comedy gold, people!

There were also several important cultural figures who threw themselves into the mix, such as the choreographer Bill T. Jones, his name prefixed by the epithet “legendary,” and the photographer and video artist Lorna Simpson. One welcome intervention came from Maira Kalman, a TED veteran who exhibited much better timing than that insufferable comic. She showed illustrations she’d made of her favorite objects in the Met’s collection, including Bonnard’s Terrace at Vernonnet. “I’m sure that a lot of you will not know that this is a copy I made,” Kalman said, to raucous laughter. The joke was on them.

Oh, and there were performances. Meredith Monk, the grand old composer of the American vocal avant-garde, sent two performers to sing a short a cappella excerpt from her 1990 music theater work Facing North. But if you wanted to know why Monk was an important figure, or how her work fit into the history of American performance, or what Monk’s composition might have in common with Jones’s choreography, you were at the wrong shindig. Here it was just a nifty little entr’acte, just four minutes long, with none of the hypnotic effect that a longer Monk performance can produce; they might as well have hired a juggler.

It was all pretty sad, though goodness knows it could have been worse. TEDx, if you are lucky enough not to know, is a spinoff of the TED conference, a cut-rate Davos from Silicon Valley that promotes a neo-Panglossian worldview of endless, unstoppable progress and profit via brief lectures delivered with glossy production values. TED is the big-ticket affair, with tickets running $7,500 a pop. TEDx is the franchise, which allows the conference’s less affluent admirers to make their own fun. Since its launch in 2009 it has spread with kudzu-like invasiveness: think TEDxUtica, or TEDxUniversityofNevada. TEDxMet was one of these second-order shindigs. The Met applied for a license from TED central command, and a museum donor put up funding.

I am not the only person disturbed by TED’s high church technolibertarianism, and its espousal of a malign Silicon Valley consensus that marries endlessly rosy visions of the future to an ugly insistence that the rich know best, the poor get what they deserve, and government is always in the way. Thomas Frank, in a recent issue of Harper’s, astutely described TED as a propaganda machine that dresses up the economic predations of Silicon Valley in the garb of “creativity.”

How desperate are these technocapitalists to cloak their nastiness with the mantle of creativity? So desperate that Chris Anderson, who organizes TED, actually stole his job title from the art world: he calls himself not a CEO or a president, but a “curator.” TED likes to throw artists and other creative types in front of its audience of search engine optimizers and food delivery app makers (Campbell himself has done the conference), but art and other forms of creative expression are not just commercial breaks. They are what TED acolytes feed upon to perpetuate the myth that they are creative too, rather than just out to make a buck.

I therefore approached TEDxMet fearing the worst: a cavalcade of technolibertarian bullshit artists glomming onto an actual art museum to transmogrify their business into alleged culture. It turned out to be less overt than that, but no less insidious. TEDxMet hinged more on TED’s style than its substance. The Met wanted its gloss, its brevity, its relentlessly upbeat tone, and it wanted to offer it at a reassuringly high price that made participants feel as if they had bought their way into the elite. Tickets cost $100, though in fairness that included an “exclusive” box lunch, which guests dutifully Instagrammed.

TEDxMet skirted Silicon Valley clichés—there was no Singularity worship, no teach-a-starving-child-to-code palaver—but it offered no erudition or insight or even surprise. All it offered was the sensation of being borne along on a lazy river of what TED likes to call “ideas.” That, rather than any individual lecture, was what made TEDxMet so dispiriting. Not for these folks was the museum a place where, like Rilke at the Louvre, you could be struck dumb by an archaic torso of Apollo and realize that you must change your life. The experience of art, which Campbell spoke about so ardently in his early days, is too risky for TED. Instead art was reduced to just another nifty kind of shareable content, accelerating rather than resisting the tech world’s malign delusion that it participates in creative activity.

There was, though, one bizarre element of TEDxMet that I liked. For no apparent reason, the organizers included as one of the conference’s “speakers and performers” the financier J. Pierpont Morgan, who died a century ago. The dominant figure of the tail end of the Gilded Age, Morgan spent the equivalent of $900 million in today’s dollars on art and was one of the Met's most important benefactors. Yet if the industrial titans of America’s first Gilded Age gave us the Met and other civic benefits, the digital titans of this second, crueler Gilded Age have had no similar saving grace. If TEDxMet had any virtue, it was to remind us of the gap between that Gilded Age and this one. For Morgan, business was business and culture was culture; whatever he did in the American economy, his generosity to the museums stood apart from his business and was a gift to all. But for the new tech overlords taking over the economy is not enough. They want to take over culture too, and the Met, sad to say, seems to be welcoming them in.