In this issue, as has been our practice for the past three Decembers, we offer our readers a Special Section on art. This is over and above our usual coverage of the visual arts, which, though a regular feature, may still be described as “special” in its breadth and quality. Readers will find illuminating reviews of Aristide Maillol’s sculpture (by Karen Wilkin), the painting of Romare Bearden (Eric Gibson), the objets of the Aztecs (by Peter Pettus), and the near-collaborations of Joan Miró and Alexander Calder (by James Panero). In addition, there is a conversation about art between the figurative painter Philip Pearlstein and the poet David Yezzi, an essay about taste by the conservator Marco Grassi, a brief review of a new book about Winslow Homer’s Gulf Stream (by Roger Kimball), and excerpts from the memoirs of the art dealer André Emmerich about the critic Clement Greenberg and the painter Helen Frankenthaler. James Panero writes about his experience lecturing at Benton, a fictional college made famous by Randall Jarrell but which, in Mr. Panero’s hands, bears a marked resemblance to an institution in Providence, Rhode Island, that Mr. Panero happened to attend as a graduate student.

The biggest event of the season for the art world is the long-awaited reopening of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Gutted, enlarged, and transformed by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi at a cost of $425 million, MOMA—which had been closed since 2002—is a much bigger, much brighter, and altogether more imposing institution than anything Alfred H. Barr could have imagined when he founded the museum in 1929. The art historian Michael J. Lewis offers a thoughtful look at the architectural aspects of the new MOMA later in this issue. Here we would like to offer a few thoughts about what MOMA in its current incarnation says about the aesthetic and curatorial vision of the museum as it enters the twenty-first century.

It is one of the ironies of art history that although Alfred Barr was a prodigious (and astute) collector of the contemporary art of his time, the museum that he created was never a museum of contemporary art (a locution that teeters on self-contradiction) but a museum devoted to the representative art of a particular historical period, the period of high modernism: roughly from 1880–1950. This is a fact that has never sat easily with the trustees of MOMA, and it is a fact that, since the death of Barr in 1967, has been regarded with increasing neglect or disdain by MOMA’s curators. More and more, MOMA has wanted to be all things to all interests in the art world, which meant that more and more it had to bracket its role as a museum of modern art in order to become a museum of contemporary art. The huge expansion of the museum by Cesar Pelli in 1984 was, in part, an effort to accommodate the museum to this new role. The current expansion has sealed that ambition, so to speak, in stone.

What we have been given by Mr. Taniguchi and the museum’s curators is a kind of replica of the Museum of Modern Art. The itinerary—or, to use a word much favored by MOMA’s current administration, the “narrative”—envisioned by Barr has been relegated to the status of a sample storyline in a large, unwieldy, and inconclusive plot—a plot, moreover, whose connection with distinctively aesthetic values is often tenuous at best. In our view, Mr. Taniguchi’s design—a mixture of gigantism and chilliness masquerading as elegance—reinforces this tenuousness. Many observers have already told us that Mr. Taniguchi’s building does not “compete” with the art it houses. This is true enough: it doesn’t compete because it doesn’t relate to the art at all. In this sense, Mr. Taniguchi has admirably fulfilled the desire of his clients to provide a building that puts the original spirit of MOMA in its place by impressing the viewer as a kind of contemporary, white-walled Piranesian no-place.

It is too early to offer a definitive judgment about the new MOMA. But walking through Mr. Taniguchi’s mammoth atrium and trying to get our bearings among the acres of blindingly white walls, we recalled something that André Malraux said about museums in his book The Voices of Silence. During the course of the nineteenth century, Malraux wrote, museums became so much a part of our experience that “we forget they have imposed on the spectator a wholly new attitude towards the work of art. For they have tended to estrange the works they bring together from their original functions and to transform even portraits into ‘pictures.’” What Malraux had in mind was a process of aestheticizing: objects that might have had their home in ritual or religion, say, were now appreciated in quite a different way, as instruments of aesthetic delectation. What we see happening in institutions like MOMA is a later, perhaps a parodic, stage of this process. There is, as it were, a second estrangement, whereby objects that had their home in the realm of art are regarded as ironic, if valuable, tokens of cultural exchange. The aim is no longer artistic, even if the project is undertaken in the name of art. On the contrary, it is fundamentally an anti-artistic project that cannibalizes art for the sake of generically cultural entertainments.

Perhaps an anecdote can clarify the sort of change that has taken place at MOMA over the past few decades. We remember asking a beautiful and urbane friend where she met her husband. “Oh, he picked me up in the Museum of Modern Art,” she said. Yes, of course. MOMA was a famously romantic venue. It is possible, of course, that it will continue to be a place of assignation. But the romance, alas, is quite gone.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 4, on page 1
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