The Newly Renovated Museum of Modern Art: The Logic of Cultural Democracy

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The newly revamped Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) just opened its doors to an increasing populace of visitors interested in experiencing the institution’s remarkable depth of holdings in art from the 20th century and later. This report is coming from America and not Europe, where there might have been some attempt to keep historical awareness of art alive, but for some time now, MoMA has taken the lead in (hopefully) creating a world free of visual hierarchies. The renovations are an expensive attempt to do so, but it may be that the innate complexities of modernism and its children are such that the impulse, as generous as it appears, may be doomed to fail as exemplars of cultural democracy. This is no one’s fault; it is more or less impossible to dismiss the wish to do away with cultural imperialism–especially in America, where our push to conquer and amass the spoils, visual holdings among them, resulting from economic rule has been alive longer than needed by far. Unfortunately, though, the effort may be been still-born from the start, in the sense that even if the size of the audience for art since 1900 has grown and grown, that does not mean we have improved the understanding and insight of those crowding MoMA’s halls. What can be done, in the face of artwork, especially work made in the last generation or two, that proceeds so indirectly as to force even art-world professionals into statements notable for their obscurity?

For one thing, the practice of visual metaphor is not seen as valid; current American political art is so transparent as to be imagistically unclothed. This aids the directness of what we want to see, but, even so, our presentation is usually obscure, requiring essays like this to explain art practice for an educated readership. This is problematic in the extreme, for a couple of reasons. First, the meaning of art is thus not necessarily being communicated to a larger group of viewers–we are only pretending this is happening. And second, the destruction of art hierarchies–between levels called high, middle, and low, can indeed backfire, placing subtlety and distinction in a place of no regard. What people want from art now is to be entertained, and while there is nothing wrong with such a desire, entertainment is not edification–the latter being the goal of earlier art. If Jeff Koons, the ongoing idol of the American art world who charges tens of millions of dollars for his sculptural appropriations of international popular culture, called a painting sequence of his “Easyfun Ethereal,” made in 2001, obviously his recognition is based on a populism one would find hard to disagree with–at least on an economic level.

Despite America’s cold pursuit of cash, money isn’t everything. Yet, more and more here, it feels like it does.We must remember that MoMA exists on West 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenue, surely one of our most expensive addresses. And without membership or a student or senior pass, it costs $25 to enter the museum; this is an expensive place to visit, especially if we are poised to enter halls and space deliberately changed to free the atmosphere of anything resembling social exclusivity. So, maybe from the start, there was a social disconnect between what we hoped for and the economic realities of present visual life (we remember that the Met Breuer, established in the old Whitney Museum on 75th Street and Madison, another expensive neighborhood, is closing simply because not enough people are visiting). America is now in a position where the need for a culture that is hierarchically uniform has taken over everywhere; fueled by political correctness, which is maintained by guardians of ideological purity who insist on a sameness of artistic approach, without paying much attention to the economics of a society in which hierarchy is exquisitely nuanced–where people make more than $25,000 an hour! But it does no good to belabor the point, mostly because art has always been expensive, usually requiring a social organization in which there is enough money around to support the free time and free thinking of the artist.

The truth is that the New York art world is heavily constrained by a lack of economic support and a larger-than-life egotism, both of which rule the way we interact in art schools, galleries, museums, and among ourselves. Part of this renovation is owed to the over-professionalization of art; in America, art school now regularly costs about $70,000 or more to study and to live, and is turning out hundreds of young artists deep in debt and lacking skills to make money. Of course, people come to New York from far away to participate in the genuine excitement the city’s museum and galleries (not always expensive galleries) can generate. But behind the excitement is a deeper political demand: the creation of a culture making no conscious reference to difference, economic or social, in the audience, if not the artists making the art. We dutifully remember that fine art was made by poor artists, especially since the time of an earlier inspired bohemia, as can be seen in the work of the abstract expressionists, whose examples of paintings MoMA has collected more than well. But even if the stated principle of this renovation is to remove divides, visual and social, in the museum’s spaces, it holds true that the gap between work and viewer is wider than ever, almost entirely for economic reasons.

To really see the new work being made by the large international community here, we need to become amateurs again, in the sense that our proximity to art worth hundreds of millions of dollars overprofessionalizes the artist, the art, and the viewer. Suddenly, in the face of so much economic value, the work and the person become important in a social sense (I mean as contributors to the art economy, worth billions of dollars yearly). In fact, MoMA’s reworking of art exhibits showing images made since 1970 turns on its hope that fine art can return to its anti-establishment origins. And we remember that much of the art valued so highly in MoMA has to do with an attitude bordering on revolt–or at least on the eschewal of convention. Our emphasis on openness and free discourse is laudable, but it comes at a price, not only metaphysical. Contemporary art, like other art before it, hopes to push art for forward by means of its independence, economically and visually. But as a crucible for new culture, America can be strange. Unlike Spain, where this essay will be published, America prides itself on its combination of freewheeling capitalism and a stringent, nearly draconian, code in regard to democracy and visual culture. As time goes on, it becomes increasingly clear that the merger is actually an opposition, one that cannot resolve the inherent divide between a libertarian economy and a highly regulated cultural output. The democratizing of culture at MoMA, based as it is on a rather facile internationalization of art—or artists—on its walls, results in a very strange presentation, in which everyone looks like everyone else, no matter where they come from.

As for the art itself, in the transformed second floor, which showcased work from 1970 to the present, the contributions were as much defined by the creators’ marginality in a social sense as they were indicative of a worldwide cultural tradition embracing erotic, racial, and gender particulars. The work of Wu Tsang, the transgender filmmaker, was evident in the film shown in a small video gallery; active with contemporary dancers whose movements were at once graceful beyond words and, equally, awkward beyond description, the video trades on a by-now-established dance and avant-garde tradition mediated by the moving image. It was powerful and beautiful if also terribly enigmatic. The black painters Jack Whitten and Mark Bradford were also represented, evidencing the mixtures of technical skill and adherence to black culture — the Bradford work was a visual homage to the pop singer James Brown — characteristic of much African-American art today. Christopher Wool’s black and white painting continues to prove that lyric abstraction can be furthered. And one room was given to the four sculptures by Richard Serra, each consisting of two cubes that didn’t quite match the other in terms of size, showed that the modernist base of MoMA simply can’t be extinguished. German artists, including Martin Kippenberger, Polish artists, and South American artists like Eugenion Dittborn were also on exhibit. The internationalism was at first thrilling and then a bit confusing–where did one culture end and the other begin? In light of the constant pairing of artists from considerable geographically distant origins in spaces close to each other, the audience could only muse about connections made proximate by magazines and the Internet, so that our art culture has truly become a world culture. (Or has it?)

There are two questions to be asked in response to this change: first, are we becoming a monoculture, in which the anxieties of private identity have been superimposed on the anxieties of public history; and second, if this has in fact happened, have the changes made by artists working in this way resulted in inspired work? In some ways, it looks like almost all contemporary art has been dehistoricized in favor of the elaboration of the artist’s identifying attributes, but this is dangerously limited to personal inquiry, which often and quickly becomes highly narcissistic. A worldwide cafe art may be fun but can easily lack depth–thus our reliance on popular culture, along with a permanent, often university-employed avant-garde (at least in America). It is easy to poke holes in the self-regard of the younger artists so determined to change the way we make things, but it must be admitted that in the recent work on the museum’s second floor, one had the sense that the direction has shifted in the direction of a permanent present, free of history and guided mostly by the body and desire. In a way, the artists are saying, that is all we truly know, so why should we engage the past?

This is a hard argument to refute because it is based on physical existence — a reality hard enough to generate a plausible esthetic. But, at the same time, it is impossible to create culture from a private context alone, largely because culture goes nowhere when it insists on the neutrality of an endless here and now. If we think about it, the idea of the present alone in art is an unknown territory much too quickly explored. So we invent other presents to accompany the one before our own, generating inevitably a sense of time past and history. There is no evading what preceded us! Even as radical, and ahistorical, an expanse as we experience in the imagery of Wu Tsang’s art comes from previous investigations in video. What is needed then, more than anything else, is a sense of continuity, which is exactly what the avant-garde has attempted to do away with for a century. For without continuity we have only a series of stops, endpoints that neither look back nor ahead. To offset the paucity of this kind of thinking, and to adorn the large amounts of money that support it, artists have been substituting the self-absorption of vanity as emotional support.

Even so, all artists need an audience, which inherently does away with the idea of a completely self-involved esthetic. And artists also need major venues to show in to convince the rest of the world that they are strong contributors to culture. The audience pays for the cost of the venue, and this isn’t isn’t cheap when it occurs on 53rd Street. Because very few people, critics or artists, are willing to say this is so, the amount of abstraction involved is colossal — the artist is abstract, the art is abstract, the money needed to support both is abstract. The abstraction occurs because nothing is real except the political conditions that some of the more sincere artists are trying to address (many artists are not). To offset the complexities of experience and interpretation we come across when the circumstances of art are nearly more important than the art itself, we find ourselves locked into populism and an ongoing effort to increase the number of viewers— this in an economic environment that is more than stringently elitist. One can hardly blame MoMA for trying, and the recent art that has been made has some remarkable successes. But the problem of the inherent entitlement of the artist and the greater and greater necessity of financial support won’t go away. A lot of the work is deliberately made for the museum; it is hard to buy on a private level. Moreover, if we look at economic geographies, financial empire surrounds MoMA on all four sides of its location in midtown, and given the bloated prices of much contemporary art, all we can do is to quietly comment about the lack of legitimacy sustaining its huge operation. Contemporary fine art is now worth more money than we can believe, and no revisions of those considered great will put a dent in the finances. But we go on attempting to re-work critical visions of the new. However well-meaning MoMA may be in its treatment of marginalized work, the new canon it is establishing will be just as vulnerable in a generation or two — and likely just as unfashionable — as art made before 1970 now is.

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