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November 23, 2004

Alan Weighs In

How lite he is...

Out here in the Second City we are thankfully shielded from the MoMA echo-chamber. I've yet to read most, let alone all, of the reviews Tyler and others have linked to, and, whether the topic is Jacksongate, tripping up the stairs with Matisse or an apparently egregious lack of benches, I've extended myself the luxury of not really having to care all that much.

But, lest we grow too satisfied in our ignorance, we can rely on the inestimable Alan "G-Funk" Artner to bring it on home, and to crank it up. Joy.

He treats us to something of a discourse on that oh-so solid distinction between "modern" and "contemporary" in art, holding that contemporary art as such ought to be incommensurable with the mission of the Modern. If only we did things here like they do in gay old Paris:

In a state-supported museum system, MoMA might have become for the 20th Century what the Musee d'Orsay in Paris is for the 19th—a museum consecrated to only that segment of art history it has treated through the finest works held in the greatest depth. But, clearly, that was not thought to be enough in the United States.

Try and believe that the Tribune's top contemporary art critic is spitting out crap like this:

Here the most money and prospective gifts are now in the area of contemporary art, and the same has been presumed of audience interest. The supposed relevance of contemporary art is an especially significant consideration if you charge the highest admission fee of any major art museum in the world ($20 at MoMA). So you must not only emphasize the intent to acquire contemporary art but also the ability to show it in an edifice big enough to accommodate more of it so many more people will come see it—even if it's not what you are.

(I suppose someone's determined that Cindy Sherman and Joseph Beuys, even if they lack relevance, are more reliable crowd draws than Monet and Cezanne.)

I don't doubt that there are important issues at stake regarding any such turn toward the contemporary for an institution as historically situated as MoMA, but I frankly can't get past the personal prejudices Artner leans on here. The opposition he sets up is clear but flatly ridiculous as an over-arching rubric: modern = private intimacy + rigorous difficulty; contemporary = out-sized spectacle + vulgar entertainment. His sympathies clearly run with the former. But in which camp does he place, for sake of an example, Barnett Newman's continually rising star? Would he really describe Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as an intimate easel painting?

Let's wash this all down with a modicum of faint praise:

MoMA has some of the best of a number of contemporary artists, from Giovanni Anselmo to Elizabeth Murray and Martin Puryear to Kiki Smith, as well as several in a generally admirable installation of drawings. However, when you have vast spaces to fill—including a permanent video gallery—there's a priority to fill them, even with pieces as empty as those on view by Damien Hirst, Elizabeth Peyton and Matthew Barney. Like Nature, a museum abhors a vacuum; paradoxically, the vacuous are helping fill it.
For four generations MoMA revealed profundity in all kinds of modern art. Will its still-to-open education center do the same with the contemporary? It had better. Else, the three restaurants, two bookstores, two theaters and enormous special exhibition space in this plain-showy building will readily become what the Modern now seems bent on embracing—entertainment.

What a crank.

Alan, you're enough to make me want to turn to Hilton Kramer for a dose of sanity.

"Alan Weighs In"
Posted by Dan at 01:14 AM


Out here in the Second City we are thankfully shielded from the MoMA echo-chamber.

Well: you have the jaw-dropping collection of modern art at the Art Institute. I know that MoMA is MoMA and all, but I'm surprised that I haven't seen as much acknowledgement of the AI in the recent press. The MoMA people seem to have gotten away with insinuating that aside from them, everyone else was collecting Thomas Hart Benson or whatever.

Here in New England, of course, we are lucky if the rare public-minded soul moved further that American impressionism or Homer. Not that I'm knocking either, but still...thanks for the post on the Pixies, by the way. Kim Deal: more to love.

Posted by: Miguel Sánchez on November 23, 2004 at 09:09 PM

> you have the jaw-dropping collection of modern art at the Art Institute

It really is such a treat. Their Dada/Surrealist collection is quite decent. Their pair of Clifford Stills never fails to knock me off my feet. It is sometimes easy to take it all for granted. (To wit, I was impressed at how absolutely non-existent modern works were on my first visit to Boston's MFA this past summer.)

The Art Institute, too, is expanding its contemporary horizons through their collection as well as through projects and exhibits (though their lack of attention to local contemporary work is a bone of contention). The planned expansion will be primarily devoted to 20th century painting and sculpture. So check back in 2007.

Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, the more exciting prospect presented by the expansion (and the gallery space it opens up) is the possible reuniting and display of the institute's Medieval holdings, which were scattered amongst several departments decades ago. I don't know how deep it is, but it will be nice for it to see the light of day.

Oh, and Kim Deal... that girl's alright.

Posted by: Dan on November 24, 2004 at 01:55 AM

I think it's high time we start applying the term rockism to art criticism. I wonder if it's a coincidence that Artner and Jim DeRogatis both write for Chicago papers.

This nails it:
The opposition he sets up is clear but flatly ridiculous as an over-arching rubric: modern = private intimacy + rigorous difficulty; contemporary = out-sized spectacle + vulgar entertainment.

Posted by: mark on November 24, 2004 at 05:35 AM

uh, this might be a cleaner link for the rockism article.

Posted by: mark on November 24, 2004 at 05:40 AM

I, of course, meant "Benton". Gotta lay off the Schlitz while blogging.

I really like the MFA's Rosso Fiorentino as well - and I'm glad to know that someone else didn't care for the Noble/Webster show. Big whatevs to that one.

Posted by: Miguel Sánchez on November 24, 2004 at 08:16 AM

Benson's not bad either.

Fiorentino's Christ was definitely one to check off my list.

Re: Rockism... Not that we are in desperate need of a new -ism, but what might we call this tendency toward crankiness in art criticism?

Balkism? Squackism? (Hmmm, perhaps I'm a bit shackled by a need to make a pun.)

Or should we treat it like the affliction it clearly is: Supercilitis?

Posted by: Dan on November 24, 2004 at 10:22 AM

Jim DeRogatis.

Posted by: Dan on December 15, 2004 at 11:20 AM

Referenced in this post:

Chicago Tribune: Reimagining MoMA: Now, not then, is the new focus—Alan G. Artner
Chicago Tribune: Reimagining MoMA: Perfect harmony of drama, understatement—Blair Kamin
Greg.org: Free MoMA?? Try F(*#%-ing Expensive MoMA
James Wagner: new MoMA, a clean well-lighted space, and maybe no more
Modern Art Notes: MoMA opens
Modern Art Notes: MoMA: Reviewed
Modern Kicks: Barney in the big-time
Modern Kicks: now dance!
New York Observer: Oedipus on 53rd St.—Hilton Kramer