Who Knows Best?

Should an art museum care what you think?

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is testing that question with a special exhibition that opened on St. Valentine’s Day, called, “Boston Loves Impressionism.”

Modest in size but large in scope, the display seeks to showcase the museum’s impressive holdings from the famed 19th century art movement, and to underline Boston’s “early adopter” status of a genre that the rest of the art world had yet to take seriously.

What makes “Boston Loves Impressionism” unusual is that its contents were selected not by the museum, but by the public.  In effect, it is the MFA’s first-ever exhibition to have been crowdsourced.

In the weeks preceding the show’s opening, the MFA’s website allowed users to vote for their favorite Impressionist works in the museum’s collection.  The presentation, which runs through May 26, is comprised of the 30 paintings (actually, 29 paintings and one sculpture) that received the most votes.

That’s not normally how it works.  While the curators of any great art museum must always bear the tastes and interests of their visitors in mind, the decisions in building a particular show are ultimately up to the museum itself.

And why not?  Aren’t the people who run such an institution precisely the sort of folks who know what constitutes great art?  Is it not their duty to educate and edify the masses, rather than pandering by giving them what they already know they like?  Shouldn’t some things be left strictly to the experts?

The world of electoral politics would seem to function entirely differently from the world of fine arts.  It is, after all, a system in which voting is the rule rather than the exception.  In theory, elections are the purest manifestation of the principle of self-rule—the idea that we, the people, are the experts who should, and do, have the final say.

In practice, not so much.

While the first primaries and caucuses of the 2016 presidential campaign are still nearly two years away, behind the scenes the race has already begun.  While we like to think that a presidential primary is an opportunity for us to choose from a wide cross-section of possible candidates for high office, the truth is that by the time the polls actually open, a great deal of the most consequential decisions have already been made for us, and by people who fashion themselves much more important than us, indeed.

On the Democratic side, for instance, two facts have become abundantly clear.  First, that Hillary Clinton is probably going to run.  And second, that should Clinton proceed, several other possible candidates will be pressured by certain Democratic Party operatives and fundraisers to take this cycle off and wait until 2020 or beyond to take the plunge themselves.  They will be informed, in effect, that it’s Clinton’s “turn” to be president and that her candidacy is “inevitable,” and we might as well clear the deck of all the alternatives in order to make her path to the Oval Office as easy as possible.  Never mind if it turns out that actual voters think otherwise.

To be sure, not all of this pressure will be external.  As we have already learned, figures like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Vice President Joe Biden would love to run for president in 2016 but are waiting for Clinton to decide before laying out their own plans.  The implication is that a “yes” from Clinton would mean a “no” from Cuomo and Biden, in the interest of so-called party unity.  To challenge the Democrats’ presumed nominee would be seen as downright rude.  Again, never mind the part of the process where actual citizens cast actual votes.

And should some traitor break through the lines, accrue popular support and manage to secure more total delegates than Hillary Clinton, the party has a final veto mechanism in the form of “superdelegates.”  That is, a group of party members—some elected, some not—who can effectively overturn the will of primary voters by throwing their support behind the person who came in second place, if they believe the person who came in first could not possibly win the general election.  Say, a black first-term senator with a Muslim father and a funny name.

This didn’t happen in 2008, but it jolly well could have, and it could certainly happen in the future if the rules remain the same and primary voters go crazy and nominate someone of whom the party’s backroom dealers disapprove.

And it’s all predicated on the notion that the higher-ups of a political party in what’s supposed to be the World’s Greatest Democracy hold a lower opinion of the views (and rights) of the public than do the curators of an art museum in Boston.


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