by Miles Mathis
The Museum of Modern Art in New York City is one of the most important institutions of Modernism in the world. For decades it has propped up Modern theory by exhibiting trivialities and nullities as pieces of serious culture. It, along with the Whitney Museum and the Guggenheim, has made New York the world capital of Modernism, showing the way for such spin-offs as the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Guggenheim in Bilbao and the Tate Modern in London.
MOMA recently moved into a new building, precipitating a fresh round of articles in the world press. I suspect that such moves are made mainly for this purpose. Since these Modern museums are trumped-up spectacles from the beginning, there is little for the media to report on except the occasional new building. The Museum in Bilbao is the perfect example of this. Without Frank Gehry’s absurd building there would be nothing to comment on except ugly rooms of tinker toys and airplane wreckage. The same can be said of the Pompidou, which most visitors treat not as a museum but as a circus ride or a house of mirrors at the fair—a place to giggle and make faces.
The truth is that the Modern or Contemporary Museum has much more to do with architecture than with art. The original Guggenheim began this trend with its Frank Lloyd Wright “headless Michelin Man” design. [I have always thought that the Guggenheim would make more money if it rented rollerblades at the top and piped in pop music. The walls could be re-covered daily in canvas, the skaters could be given brushes, and they could paint masterpieces as they raced eachother to the ground floor.] No one but the most nebbish and deluded pseudo-intellectuals goes to such places to look at art. All the “art” could be taken down and replaced by Hefty bags and no one would know the difference. This is made clear whenever a second-level city like Austin or San Diego or Denver builds or thinks of building a new museum. No consideration is given to what collection the museum may house, since this is beside the point. All public and private debate is centered on the architect to hire and how to fit the promotional package around the new building.
The entire explanation for the continued existence of the Modern museums is the steady stream of propaganda that the media puts forth on the topic, and that propaganda is always heavy with kudos to the architects and chairmen and corporate sponsors. The writers of such pieces seem to understand that there is no art to report on, and that describing the possible content of the museum is counterproductive on every level. The press release is a sample of public relations, and to court the public it is best not to annoy it beforehand with papier-mache turds and piles of rocks. That can come later, once the funding has passed. At the beginning, all the public needs to know is that tourists will arrive, spending money and buying film and creating jobs so that babies may be fed and cars filled with gas (or the reverse).
For some reason which remains a mystery to me, nearly every mainstream publication feels it necessary to publish a squib from the avant garde on a semi-regular basis. Even the Wall Street Journal, which no one would accuse of having leftist tendencies, has for a long time reported on the avant garde, usually taking reports straight from the horse’s mouth (or the reverse). Time and Newsweek have also played pony for Modernism, although there is no chance that even a small minority of their readers is really interested in what Bruce Nauman or Cindy Sherman is up to. Reports on contemporary art would seem to fall somewhere between reports on Hollywood celebrities—which, though vacuous, really do seem to interest a lot of people—and reports on books and operas—which, though beyond the experience of most readers, are considered edifying. What is never explained is how Nauman sitting in a room in clown face is supposed to be edifying. Modernism has somehow continued to ride a cultural wave without ever having to justify its presence on any grounds. It does not satisfy on the level of kitsch, since no one is showing cleavage or getting married or divorced or dating Jennifer Aniston or telling jokes or sword fighting. And it does not satisfy on the level of art, since it consciously, explicitly, and with great fanfare gave up on that long long ago. The only answer seems to be that people are making a lot of money. Nauman is very rich, and that in itself is fascinating to the public. I suggest that it therefore makes more sense to put the articles about Modernism in with the articles about lottery winners. They have achieved their notoriety with equal amounts of skill and worthiness.
What MOMA has done that many of the other Contemporary museums have not is leaven their collection with a few actual works of art. MOMA’s status and longevity have allowed it to collect several works which bring real people through the doors for real reasons. Van Gogh’s Starry Night is foremost among these. But I am here to bury Caesar not to praise him. I am fairly certain that were Van Gogh’s ghost able to speak, he would tell us to please move him to the Met where he belongs, not here among all this fakery.
Those who want to read glowing reviews can be satisfied almost everywhere they turn; you must think of this article as the counterpoint to the Chamber of Commerce-approved opinion. For I have always found MOMA to be one of the most annoying places on earth. This should come as no surprise, since from its initial charter MOMA’s founding principle and raison d’etre has been to annoy people like me. The overriding aim of Modernism has always been to foil any natural desire for art. To weed it out, to chastise it, to mock it, and finally to extirpate it. Those like me who resisted this surgery, who did not go gentle into that good night, have been treated as atavisms—as the vestigial tails of art, refusing to be lopped.
One of the greatest unrecognized facts of recent history is that the artist was the first enemy of Modern art. He is still its greatest enemy. His presence is what kept art from being completely monetized for centuries, and his continued existence is the one true danger to the current market. Every dollar and every drop of ink is therefore ultimately spent and spilled to annoy, deflate, alienate, and finally destroy every last artistic impulse in every last artist. Once this is achieved, the father and god will have been killed, and the children will be free forever.
Many or most will not understand what I mean by this, I know. I may seem to be taking it all a tad personally. To show you why I am justified in these feelings, it is best to go to the works of the Moderns themselves. So that no one may accuse me of selective editing, I will take all of the examples below from MOMA’s own “highlights” reel, as chosen by its curators for the website.
Jenny Holzer’s intent may not have been as destructive as Gehry’s, but her Truisms, a list of very uninteresting clichés, pre-empts real art just as successfully. Truisms appropriate level of publication and payment I would put at Parade Magazine and $100. The idea is just that clever. Instead she has found space and fame through the top Contemporary museum in the country.
Similar in appeal and complexity is Lorna Simpson’s Wigs, a collection of wigs worn by African American women. This would be a proper display at a cultural center, where it was treated as a cultural selection, not as a work of art. It would go up for a week or two, generate small interest (since it is something that can already be seen on the street) and then disappear. Here it is offered to the audience as much more than that. Simpson becomes an artist, a person with vision. No doubt we will soon see a wig in the shape of an Absolut bottle.
Late in its career, MOMA discovered that it didn’t even need to bother with buying things that posed as works of art. It could just exhibit ball bearings and coffee tables and Sony TV’s and Pillola Lamps and save itself a lot of time and money. It was thought then that the Modern artist had finally finessed himself into obsolescence. Why pay a million dollars for a picture of a can of soup when one could be got for 79 cents? Why exhibit paintings of ballpens when real ballpens could be exhibited much more efficiently? Besides, the public as well as the curators could see that a design for a Jeep or a Swatch watch took some skill. Here at least were artifacts that were not absolute mockeries and absurdities. But, although these exhibits were popular, they did not stay at the heart of the Modern enterprise, which was to undercut all skill and meaning. This required real non-artistic intent, which required real non-artists. Designers were simply too close to artisans for comfort. MOMA has kept its ballpens as a sort of niggling annoyance to the high-minded everywhere. But the consensus was and still is that manufactured pieces of garbage like Nauman’s FACE MASK must remain central to the museum’s message. No real cultural artifact, taken from a real market, can hope to be as theoretically debilitating to the artist’s psyche as an obscenely rich poseur. Fake artworks are not nearly as annoying when they are separated from fake careers and fake people.
If you want to see real art, you will have to go to the Metropolitan or the Frick. So as not to seem to be a complete grumpus, I will close by recommending the works in New York City that I truly love.
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