Is our culture too obsessed with the tastes of the mega rich?

A promotional still for the Jewels by JAR show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"The jewelry in this show would make Liberace think it's a little tacky," says art critic Blake Gopnik. "We're talking butterflies covered in gems, roses covered in gems -- anything you can think of covered in gems."

The show Gopnik is describing so disdainfully is Jewels by JAR, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York's exhibition of 400 pieces by the Paris based jeweler Joel A. Rosenthal. But Gopnik's issue with the JAR show is much bigger than the fact the jewels aren't to his personal taste.

"What really gets me about this, I guess, is I think it reflects a profound change in our culture," Gopnik says. "And that is the dominance of an entire society, economy, and culture by the 0.1 percent."

Gopnik, who describes himself as "one of the few critics in this country -- maybe the world -- who cares deeply about contemporary jewelry," insists JAR has never been taken seriously by the art establishment. So why is one of the most renowned art museums in the world suddenly giving him his due? Gopnik says it comes down to the fact that wealthy people buy JAR's jewelry, and at this moment in American society, the wealthy are casting their tastes across the rest of culture.

"What worries me is we have sort of all bought into the notion that money itself is what matters in the culture," Gopnik says. "And for the Met to have bought into that too worries me a whole lot."

Of course, the exhibition halls of museums around the world are filled with works that were initially commissions by wealthy patrons. But Gopnik says the difference now is that the rich are trying to make the walls of the museum reflect their 0.1 percent taste.

"It used to be that lucre was a little bit filthy, so the reason rich people got involved with museums was kind of money laundering. They could clean up their reputation by caring about things that were above money, things like great art. And in this case, what we have happening is that rich people are taking the things they already care about and installing them in museums. There's no laundering going on here because lucre ain't filthy anymore."

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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