Monday, January 27, 2014

You Must Be This Tall to Enter This Exhibition

Over the weekend I read the New York Times letters to the editor responding to Michael Kimmelman's critique of the Museum of Modern Art's expansion plans (by renown architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro). Kimmelman's piece is a blistering op-ed that takes on New York's architectural legacy at large, which is perhaps best summarized in my opinion by Kimmelman's phrase "the increasing monotony of glass towers." 

In general, however, the letters convinced me that razing the American Folk Art Museum building is only one of the issues that deserve thorough consideration here. (Indeed, as one letter writer noted, "Where was the outcry when the Folk Art Museum decided to tear down its lovely old townhouses and put up a building that was cold and uninviting and never had the charm or gallery space of the lovely old building?")

First among the other issues, for me, is the contemporary conception of architecture's purpose in general. In defending their plans to the Los Angeles Times, Elizabeth Diller noted, "We don’t monumentalize our projects. We don’t imagine that we are building for history. We imagine that we’re building for the occupants" [emphasis mine]. 

Now, you can count me among the New Yorkers who thoroughly loathe most of the buildings that have been designed and built during the past 20 years that I've lived here. And while hating New York buildings is perhaps second only to hating New York basketball teams in terms of hyperbolic (if justified) passions, it's a constant source of embarrassment to me when friends visiting from other cities see the phalanx of truly butt-ugly monstrosities being erected on nearly every square inch of Manhattan. To paraphrase the maxim about a boat owner's two happiest moments, the day they tear down most of those buildings will bring as much, if not more, civic celebration as the day they opened them.

But Diller's statement made me wonder: if not museums, what on earth would be built for history by today's architects? Have we culturally been so entirely absorbed by consumerism that even "the mother of all art" is now viewed as entirely disposable?

Second among the other issues, though, is the vision that MoMA explains is behind the expansion. Kimmelman dismissed it as "
all the same flimflam: flexible spaces to accommodate to-be-named programming, the logic of real estate developers hiding behind the magical thinking of those who claim cultural foresight. It almost never works."

MoMA Director,
Glenn D. Lowry's vision statement does indeed seem somewhat ambiguous and all-things-for-all-people, which I'm sure is partly necessary to be flexible enough to respond to art that even artists don't yet know they're going to make, but it includes the following, somewhat disheartening statement:
Enlivening and participatory, the new MoMA will be a place for people of all ages and experiences to share their thoughts and questions with each other. It is a place for conversation, and a place for many stories.

[To be fair, they've also phrased this goal as designed to "
provide an even more enlivening and participatory experience, a space for both contemplation and conversation." [emphasis mine]
The notion of the museum as a "place for conversation," though, raises memories of two of my most recent visits to MoMA. The first was, admittedly, a party, but the painful joke of the experience was that MoMA had invited so many people to an opening reception for Barbara London's last exhibition at the museum, "Soundings: A Contemporary Score," that you could barely hear any of the works in the show. Word had it that Barbara was forced to plead with the museum to limit the number of visitors trying to enter the galleries. Even outside the actual exhibition, the roar from the over-packed lobby and spaces leading up to the show was insane.

The other experience, though, remains the one that defines what MoMA has become in my mind. The friend I went to see the Isa Genzken show with also wanted to pop into the Magritte exhibition. Not since I last went to Six Flags have I enjoyed the type of "enlivening and participatory" conversation that the half hour of trudging back and forth through those retractable stanchions afforded me. Indeed, the lines at MoMA in general are so intense, even should you temporarily find your view of an actual artwork uninterrupted, you'll hardly be in a contemplative mood. (God help you if you're foolish enough to check your coat.)

Now I can imagine that expanding the gallery spaces and redesigning how visitors move through the space could help MoMA live up to their goal of becoming "
a place where you can enjoy art at your own pace," but I honestly cannot remember the last time I had a quiet, unjostled moment with any work of art in MoMA, and with their plans to open up more of the museum to lively and participatory conversation, I'm not sure I ever will again.

"So what would you propose instead?" you ask. "Raising the entrance fee even more?"

Nah, I doubt that would work. The families who flock into the museum can do the math and realize even if you doubled the entrance fee, it's still cheaper than taking the kids to a Broadway show, and it eats up nearly as much time, so I doubt raising the fee would do much more than keep out even more struggling artists who need to visit there.

"Discourage the general public from engaging with contemporary art?"

Well, to some degree, yes.  In defense of that seemingly snobbish position, I enter the following photo by gallerist Stephanie Theodore as evidence:

But I'm not actually interested in discouraging anyone who's truly interested in art, as much as I am in having museums send crystal clear signals that if you're in the galleries you simply must behave in a manner that permits other visitors to get their money's worth from their visit. The more they encourage undefined "participation" in other parts of the museum, though, the more they need to expect visitors will behave as they would in any other theme park. 

What that means is the museums must signal that visitors are expected to shut up or talk very quietly, watch out for others around them, actually look at the art or get the hell of out of the way of those who wish to, and seriously consider how intensely lame it is that anyone would take their photo in front of a work of art. Shooting the artwork itself is one thing, but using it as a backdrop for your selfie makes you an asshat. 

In short, it's not enough for MoMA to dream up new ways to engage an increasingly low-attention-spanned audience. If any part of their new vision takes seriously their responsibility to the artists whose work they acquire and/or exhibit and those sincerely interested in that work, they need to define more clearly how they intend to ensure it becomes a place where "you can enjoy art at your own pace." So far, the vision is lacking such definition, in my opinion.


Blogger Charles Kessler said...

I agree with you 100% Ed re MoMA. I would just like to make the point that Manhattan, in spite of all the "butt-ugly monstrosities," is a very successful place. Cities are hurt much more by bad city planning than by bad architecture. The Disney Concert Hall in Downtown LA is a great building but it's a street-life killer.

1/27/2014 11:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Dana Gordon said...

I am shocked, shocked (aren't you?) that a child would find that space in the Judd sculpture to be a cool place to be. And even more beside myself that his parents wouldn't scold him. Tsk. ...Judd and other like-minded conceptual artists put into question what art looks like and means (and made these the main raisons d'être of their art). Gee, that kid and his parents didn't know that!? They must be worthless ignoramuses. Just think, art museums swallow conceptual art hook, line, and sinker ("anything can be art"); most dealers, collectors, critics, curators and academics cravenly go along with this. And then when the public, in the form of this little boy and his cohort, clearly point out that the emperor (the faux anti-elite, museum-become-playground-and-public-park and it's faux socialist enablers) is naked, the artsy crowd sneers at it. The hoi polloi don't take museums and art seriously anymore. I can't imagine why.

1/27/2014 01:48:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

[with a similarly sincere tone]

Yes, children should be able to interact with art in anyway they so choose, whether that be
limbing over surfaces polished to a very specific degree by an artist with exacting standards or taking out their crayons and contributing their own additiona to a painting. After all, it's not like any other visitors' interest in Judd's vision is as important as Billy's unbroken sense of entitlement in any and every context.

1/27/2014 02:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Dana Gordon said...

My point is that the museums and the artworld have set themselves up for this disrespect by the dominant values (the dumbing down) espoused in recent decades.

1/27/2014 02:26:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Ahhh...well, why didn't you say so? :-)

1/27/2014 02:54:00 PM  
Blogger tskross said...

As many of the original commenters on twitter have pointed out, the issue isn't one's opinion of the art being "interacted" with. Or that a child would have the urge to play on/with it.
The institution and our culture (critics, writers, artists and a significant number of other people) have placed a very high value upon the given work by including it in their collection, and the canon of art history (not to mention in the market). Maybe one day the work will be seen as nothing more than a speed bump in the history of art, or even forgotten completely.
The issue is that a couple of parents who don't think that the will of their child (not the child itself, but its will, or its unadulterated love of play)should be staunched for anything, not for the monetary value of the artwork, the enjoyment of the other patrons, the intentions of the artist, or for any other reason apparently. I generally shy away from using the word entitlement (I feel it is over used in our society), but I think it is appropriate here in describing these parents' attitudes in giving their child everything they think it deserves, no matter what, totally disregarding the feelings, views and perspectives of anyone else. Poor kid.

1/27/2014 03:00:00 PM  
Blogger tskross said...

Also posted before your second comment came up Diana! Forgive my inability to read the subtext!

1/27/2014 03:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All us old fucks are going to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future , you cant stop what's coming. Only Mother Nature can do that . And then the Meek will inherit the Earth.

New Architecture and design is one of the few interesting things being done in the art world , yes its art in my book. Its all computer driven and conjured up from dark matter.

I imagine Donald Judd would get a kick out of that picture.
Judds work isn't some one off painting.

Before I discovered Judd I was into what he did , super clean stripped down . I thought I was wierd as a kid seeing the visible and invisible lines. Judd wasn't into Metaphors but I am.

I will put my work up against anything ever made.


1/29/2014 11:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Kate LL said...

I like the idea that a museum would have any responsibility to the artists' whose work is acquired & shown there, never mind the viewing visitors, and maybe at one time MoMA did, but I didn't get that feeling last time I was there a few years ago, foolishly expecting to enjoy the permanent Abstract Expressionist Collection show. It felt like the arts & crafts tent at a county fair, with equivalent lines to get in. I've taken to relishing gorgeous smaller places: the Design museum in Columbus Circle and the fabulous regional museum in Augusta, GA., to name two. Also, the blockbuster shows on tour often have well-controlled ticketing in outlying venues (NC Museum of Art in Raleigh, NC comes to mind) that makes it possible to enjoy the work even with a pretty dense crowd. I miss wanting to go to MoMA, but I don't miss the usual ensuing disappointment.

1/30/2014 02:04:00 PM  

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