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by Miles Mathis

I realized somewhat after the fact that I had failed to incorporate all my research into my long article on MoMA (which was assigned to me by ARC). In fact, as is my wont, I had simply begun writing and hadn't even glanced at my notes. In the end, the Muse did the writing for me and I just followed along on the keyboard. But when I was re-reading what the Muse had told us, I saw that a few things were left to be said. Hence this short follow-up.

Since all the articles I had read in preparation were about the architecture and the architect and the administrators and so on, I wanted my article to be about the art. My argument was therefore very thin on achitectural and administrative specifics. The first few paragraphs glossed my critique of the Modern museum in general, but did not really address the specifics of MoMA's renovation project. This should fill that gap.

The subtitle of the first article was "how to spend a billion and get nothing but new stairs." That billion dollar figure was obtained by taking MoMA's own total renovation estimate of 858 million and assuming that cost overruns would round it up to near a billion. The actual amount does not really concern me. I am an artist not an accountant: 858 million is already close enough to a billion to suit my math. The quip about stairs was to answer all the articles that had called the architect's approach a "shutes and ladders" design. I am all for shutes and ladders at Six Flags or a water park, I just don't think it is really a priority at an art museum. Think of it this way: as citizens of New York, do we a) spend a billion on new art, or b) spend a billion on shutes and ladders, and call it part of the experience of art? One answer is a rational answer, the other answer is the answer of people with way too much money and way too little art worth buying.

Another figure worth mentioning is MoMA's new admission fee of $20. To put that in perspective, the Prado (the National Art Museum of Spain, and one of the great museums in the world) charges 3 euros, or less than $4. The great museums in London, including the National Gallery, are free. In the US, the Metropolitan and the Chicago Art Institute are free (they request $12, but they are required by statute to let you in for whatever you want to give them, including a stick of gum or a handshake). In contrast, the Guggenheim, another avant garde institution that rarely has any art on hand, charges $18, take it or leave it. Saatchi Gallery, a private gallery in London that guarantees you will not have to look at any real art, is the worst deal in the civilized world. There you pay L8.75, or about $17, to see about 1/20th the nothing you can see at MoMA. The fact that there are enough clueless tourists in London to keep Saatchi Gallery in the black is probably one of the things that led the administrators at MoMA to make the jump to $20. I suggest they have still underestimated the gullibility of their target audience. If the people standing in line to get into MoMA are ignorant enough to think that ballpens and blank canvases are art, they are ignorant enough to spend $40-$50 as a fee, at the very least. Only P.T. Barnum could properly estimate the dollar value of the ignorance of such people.

[This is another reason to get Starry Night out of MoMA and into a sensible museum. I would love to pop in and see the painting from time to time. But $20 to see it surrounded by fake art and fake people is too depressing. I will just live upon my fond memories.]

Also amusing is this quote from Mr. Gara, the chief operating officer at MoMA: "We debated the 'Chinese menu' approach [charging separately for various tours and facilities] but decided it was annoying." An institution whose charter is built on annoying the public suddenly discovers scruples in pricing. Once again, the unintended farces of Modernism are much richer than the intended ones.

Now let us move on to some quotes from the museum website, where the administration touts the renovation project. The very first line of a letter from the director Glenn Lowry reads,

Throughout its history, MoMA has used architecture as a vehicle for self-renewal and regeneration.

I hardly needed to accuse the museum of this when it admits it in the first line of its PR. No one seems to see what a strange idea this is, so I will hit it one more time. Using architecture as a vehicle for the regeneration of an architecture museum would make perfect sense. It would be a logical sentence representing a logical idea. But how can architecture be a vehicle for the regeneration of visual art? Painting and sculpture can only be regenerated by painting and sculpture. Or, at worst, by videos, installations and concept pieces. But admitting that installations and architecture are different forms and different media, it makes no sense to claim that visual art can be self-renewed by architecture. That word "self" is the whole giveaway. A thing can be renewed only by forms of itself. It cannot be self-renewed by other things. It is like saying that earth can be self-renewed by water, or red paint be self-renewed by green paint. Green paint and red paint are related (even more closely than art and architecture) but one cannot self-renew the other.

The rest of Mr. Lowry's letter is equally absurd, as is the rest of the site's PR. This is the second sentence of the letter.

With this building project, the Museum undertakes the most extensive redefinition of itself since its founding over seventy years ago.

How, exactly, does moving into a new ugly building become a "redefinition"? They have the same art that they did 10 years ago, and (within a few percentage points) the same art they had 30 years ago. A new MoMA building is like Cheerios in a new box. It is "new and improved" only because they redesigned the box-top and the side panels. But the taste and the ingredients are the same. Just as with the Cheerios ad campaigns, the money is all being spent on packaging. Actually, Cheerios is a bad example, since we now have Honey Nut Cheerios and Apple Cinnamon Cheerios. MoMA hasn't even given us that much new product for our money. MoMA has basically put 12 ounces of old Cheerios in a 24 ounce box and asked us to pay double for the extra air (and some cool stairs).

Once you clear away all the promo and adspeak, the expansion at MoMA was about job creation for administrators and other middle-people. The last decade has been a decade of contraction in the museum market, especially in New York City. Except for the highly promoted mega-shows, attendance is down. The Metropolitan has seen a decline of over 20% in that time. This renovation at MoMA was a Keynesian remedy to that contraction. It was a beg to the private sector to continue to support the wage and number expansion in Modernism. Not a beg to support artists, few of whom will benefit from this renovation project, but a beg to support administrators of art. Almost none of that 858 million will go to buying or exhibiting contemporary art, since that is not MoMA's priority. This project was about architecture and "scholarship & outreach."

This is again from Mr. Lowry's letter:

Taniguchi's. . . design for the new Museum will allow MoMA to display its collections in fundamentally new ways and to offer greatly enhanced educational programming. In the new Museum, every space is either new or redesigned and equipped with the latest technology to provide the public with a richer and deeper experience.

And this is from MoMA's promo page:

The Museum's first stand-alone Education and Research Center on the eastern portion of the site will provide over five times more space for classrooms, auditoriums, teacher training workshops, and the Museum's expanded Library and Archives.

Notice the concentration on architecture, technology and education. Nowhere in the promotion materials, including the letter from the director, do we hear anything about art. By reading these materials, I could not discover that the museum had spent one penny on new art or new exhibitions of living artists. Nor could I possibly take any solace in all this "education", since I know that none of it will benefit any living or future artist. The avant garde curriculum is pro-artist to about the same degree that the Farm Bureau is pro-farmer or that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is pro-Indian. That is, it uses the title art only to generate business. Like Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, these teachers and administrators of art destroy a thing in the name of that thing and call it progress. Art education is used to destroy the artistic impulse in the name of equality or equal-access. Art is subsumed and consumed by politics and literature and economics. For instance, look at these course descriptions for K-12 level classes at MoMA:

Language and Art: These lessons can include a literal examination of the language, symbols, and signs of art, or can focus on the interaction between literature, text, and art. Suggested lesson topics include "Telling Stories," "Narrative into Abstraction," and "Word Play: Text in Art."

Society and Politics in Art: These interdisciplinary lessons examine specific works of art in relation to the social and political contexts in which they were created. Suggested lesson topics include "Art and War," "Rise of the Modern World," "Art in the Machine Age," "Art and Politics," and "Art and Propaganda."

So much for "l'art pour l'art" [art for the sake of art]. It is clear that MoMA is not training artists or connoisseurs of art. It is training art critics. It is training writers and politicians and administrators who can continue to coopt art into their own career aspirations.

MoMA's alliance with PS1 is its only real connection to the exhibition of living artists. PS1 is an avant garde gallery and community outreach center with locations in Long Island City and Tribeca. PS1 does some good work with the homeless and the elderly, but its work would be even better if it weren't weighed down with false avant garde boosterism. Nor is it clear why an art center should be involved in social programs. Obviously it is filling a void left by the city of New York, but it would be better if art were about art and charity work were about charity work. As it is it is too easy for PS1 to use community service to prop up its other agendas, most of which are not so deserving of support. As far as its artistic agenda goes, PS1 is right on the cutting edge-- which means it is basically nowhere. It has its finger to the wind blowing from MoMA and the Guggenheim and the Whitney and ARTnews. It has its head so far up the institutions' shorts that it is unclear which appendages are arms and which are legs. Even given the exhibits at PS1, the benefits to artists are few. We are told, "since its inception [in 1976] PS1 has exhibited the work of more than 2,000 artists." Do the math and you find that is about 65/year or 5/month. Not so good, really. MoMA works with way over 65 critic-wannabe interns every year. A large commercial gallery works with more artists than that. And, it almost goes without saying, very few of the works at PS1 ever sell. The artists at PS1 get paid the equivalent of the interns at MoMA--nothing. But the interns have a fair shot at getting a job in the field eventually. The artists' odds are much longer.

Neither MoMA nor PS1 is really about benefitting art or artists. PS1 is a sort of artistic vanity press, where people who know the right people get to show their work before they go on to jobs in the "real world". There isn't much to differentiate the artists at PS1 from the homeless. Artists are basically one more category of the dispossessed, and they are thrown a crumb by the charitable people of New York City. But a much larger crumb goes to the administrators at institutions all over the metropolitan area. You don't have to buy very many works before you have a museum, and then you can hit up rich people or bored tourists to pay your salaries ad infinitum. Who gets endowed these days? Not artists. Museums and other institutions. Rich people used to be patrons—that is, they actually endowed individual artists. Not anymore. That was too time-consuming. It required that one actually meet artists and look at work and make decisions. It is a more efficient charity now to just give the money to a committee somewhere. They will disburse it for you while you choose the color of your Rolls Royce.

Once you crunch the numbers (I am almost an accountant here!) you find that artists are a miniscule part of the total art market. The architects are the major players now—why do you think Frank Gehry went into buildings instead of art? He doesn't do cardboard chaise lounges anymore; he does tinfoil buildings. He knows where the rich like to see their money go. They want BIG. Museum directors and curators are major players too—they make the big decisions. They get to lecture to the little artists. They help determine the market. They get big guaranteed salaries. A few "artists" are big names too, but they are just eye-candy. They don't make any decisions. They almost never open their mouths, except to say something paradoxical or spit into the fire or something.

But the big difference in total money spent and earned is determined by the size of the bureaucracy. Artists have no bureaucracy. For the most part, they either make it big or they don't make it. But art administration is a huge field, with subfields everywhere. Art history, education, museums, universities, publishing, magazines, endowments, and on and on. There are lots of jobs being an avant garde "arts professional." MoMA is the perfect example of this. Its budget is fat when it comes to renovation, administration and education (read indoctrination), but surprisingly skinny when it comes to being of use to living artists. MoMA spends more on utilities per month than it does on buying or exhibiting work by living artists.

This will become even more uneven as the oldsters—the Johns and Twomblies and so on--continue to die off. Why do you think the avant garde suddenly embraced John Currin in 2003, an artist they hated in 2002? They finally noticed that their last PC standards were creating a vacuum. They weren't creating enough stars to keep the game going. They needed to get someone's, anyone's, prices up to where he could be used as taboid fodder. Currin had positioned himself perfectly as taboid fodder. The only way he could have played it better is if he had been photographed shirtless or gotten arrested for public drinking or urination or married Angelina Jolie or Winona Ryder.

Avant garde institutions have become like charities, with the artists analogous to the wide-eyed starving children in Africa. These giant charities use artists as poster people; they use art as the excuse for the phone-banks; but art and artists do not actually benefit. The cargo plane flies over the sub-Saharan region and dumps a bag of back-issues of ARTnews and Whitney Biennial catalogs tied to a parachute. They may also include a few empty tomato soup cans and Swatch watches as ballast. The wide-eyed artist is supposed to wave to his benefactors, who don't even bother to land.

Back home one or two plastic people who have artistic hair are made fabulously wealthy with, say, 1% of the total proceeds, and the rest goes to administration. In this way, art is not only like a false charity, it is once again like the lottery. What the public is shown in the lottery PR is the lucky winner who can now buy that lifetime pass to Graceland and a rhinestone jumpsuit for the dog. That millions of dopes are spending food money for gambling is not so visible. Likewise, the contributors at MoMA are shown all the glitz—the million-watt parties and the stories in the New Yorker and Vanity Fair and so on. What is not visible to them are the children being scolded for drawing from life (by teachers weaned at places like MoMA); also invisible are the university art departments where students collect the cast-off hair of gerbils and claim to have mastered an artform; and equally invisible, apparently, are their own homes, places rarely visited by the jet-setters and the office-dwellers. The only thing that could possibly cure such people of their chronic vulgarity, I believe, is if van Gogh or Gauguin or Cezanne or someone they claimed to admire could spend a day with them, giving them a guided tour of their own homes and offices and public buildings, informing them how catastrophically wrong they are about every last thing to do with art. Of course they could just read van Gogh's Letters, but that would require a level of auto-didacticism beyond imagining.

If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.