In Praise of MoMA –

Image by Georg Eiermann.

“I think the big difference between a place like the Museum of Modern Art and a more historical or universal institution is that those institutions start with the premise that they are about history and we start with the premise that we’re ahistorical, that history is a byproduct of what we do. If we do it well, we help write a history.”

Glenn Lowry

It is hard, if not impossible, for anyone with a well developed political awareness not to feel a certain ambivalence about our Museum of Modern Art. The strengths of the collection are obviously a product of the American empire. And it’s hard to wholeheartedly admire its present, overcrowded and very expensive setting. Those of us who can recall when the museum was much more modest, before 1981 when Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was sent to Madrid, are likely to regret these changes. In the good old days, you could with luck have a leisurely conversation before Henri Matisse’s masterpieces. Nowadays, you might as well attempt to discuss the nuances of art history on the number 6 uptown subway train.

But nostalgia is a terribly unreliable basis for understanding public institutions in a visual culture which has changed so rapidly recently. If admission to MoMA is pricey, that’s because New York has radically gentrified. The art market is dominated by the superrich, so contemporary art is very expensive. And if the galleries are always crowded, that is an obvious reflection of the success of art education. American students want to see the art discussed by the faculty, and international visitors are understandably curious about our amazing collection. Any critical perspective on MoMA must take account of these economic realities.

New York City is fortunate to have many great museums. The two most important institutions, for the purposes of my present discussion, are MoMA, for its contemporary art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, thanks to its historical perspective. And they have responded to the present political crises in somewhat different ways. In a recent essay published in the Brooklyn Rail I surveyed the recent rehanging of the European collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was interested in how the Met responds to contemporary intellectual and political developments. Here, supplementing that analysis, considering how and why MoMA is revising its modernist canon, I write with the freedom and obvious limitations of an outsider. Never a museum curator, I am sure to get some things wrong.

There are two ways that a history of visual art can be presented. You can write a narrative. This was done by Clement Greenberg, the writers at October, and their many successors. Or you can create a museum display, whose organization of the objects offers an implicit narrative, which then can be spelled out explicitly. The Met and MoMA curators take the second approach. Elsewhere I have contrasted in detail the contrast of these ways of presenting art’s history. Now I am interested in the museums’ responses to the immediately present political situation.

After reading the recent literature on colonialism, you can start to see what’s happening at the Met display of European art. And after study of the political commentaries on contemporary art, you begin to understand what has been going on at MoMA. Ernst Gombrich somewhere expressed his pleasure in museums that are unchanging. I understand (and sometimes share) the desire for such a fixed point in an otherwise restless world of flux, but of course nothing could be more unlikely to succeed in our contemporary world than static art museums. Today there is both real uncertainty about how to define the canons of contemporary art, and legitimate need to attract the public with changing displays. And so dramatic, frequent change is the norm in successful museums.

Two or three generations ago, when I started writing art criticism, the most familiar accounts of modernism looked to a narrowly focused development of Western European and North American visual art. After Impressionism and Cubism in France came American Abstract Expressionism. And then of course there were very extensive debates about what should come next. Clement Greenberg admired color field painting, Other critics championed Pop Art. And more recently, other writers, Paul Rodgers is a very good one, have offered well developed reinterpretations of modernism. As Lowry nicely indicates in the statement which is my epigraph, this interpretation of modernism is an important concern at MoMA.

We often expect changes that are additive, filling in gaps in our museums. There is, as yet!, no Piero at the Met, and as yet neither Sean Scully nor Wu Guangzhong have had a retrospective at MoMA. What has, however, happened is something more radical, a drastic change in the very nature of museum collecting. Now the goal of MoMA is to display modernist and contemporary art from everywhere, in ways which were presciently theorized by Hegel in his account of art as cultural expression. In place of the white male Western European and North American view of modernism, we have permanent exhibitions and temporary shows of art by female and male artists from everywhere. (Needless to say, what was limiting in Hegel was his belief that significant cultural expression is a purely European development. But we can go beyond that limitation of his theorizing.) You need only now walk through MoMA’s permanent collections with the galleries that contain late Impressionism, cubism and Abstract Expressionism supplemented by many varied works to see this massive revolutionary development. And thanks to the on-line archives, which include installation photos, you can trace this dramatic development in full detail.

In one important way, revisionist analysis is necessarily different in MoMA and the Met. The old master European collection at the Met, which is the core of the collection, is still mostly a white male preserve. But because MoMA’s collection runs up to the present, it allows for more radical change. To what extent is this present display at MoMA a response to the aesthetic dissatisfactions with the previous arrangements, or, alternatively, due to present political demands, to which these art museums are highly responsive? I suspect that this is a difference without a distinction. At any rate, right now, when the presentation of art has changed so drastically and swiftly, what is surely predictable is that these changes will continue. In a deeply unsettled culture, an authentic museum should reflect that state.

In an interview conducted by Joachim Pissarro, Gaby Collins-Fernandez, and myself, published in the Brooklyn Rail nine years ago, Lowry talked about his background:

I fell in love with Islamic art in part because I had a charismatic teacher when I was an undergrad student at Williams who turned me onto it. But also I was stunned to see such beautiful things from a part of the world that I knew nothing about, so I asked myself, “How is it possible that I was so unaware of these rich historical traditions?” And then, the more I looked, the more it became fascinating—particularly with what was going on in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries in Iran, Central Asia, and India. That led to a phenomenally interesting career as a curator, and a very satisfying one.

What made me so interested in India in the 16th and 17th centuries under the Mughals is that it was a culture that had willingly and intentionally tried to bring disparate voices, disparate traditions, and put them under one umbrella: from Hindu, Jain, Muslim and, particularly Christian theological, political, and ultimately artistic traditions. So you look at Mughal architecture and painting under the Mughals during the reign of Akbar and Jahangir in particular, and you realize that the “global” was around long before it was embraced by us.

He (and we) are very lucky, for this training prepared him for his present task.

This present brief account draws in part upon my many memories of MoMA, which are incomplete and perhaps even unreliable. I hope that some committee of scholars, will go over the archival materials and publish a reliable overview. And I dream, is this possible?, of a time-lapse photographic record of the development of the permanent collection.

I am in awe of Lowry and his staff. At this difficult time, they are doing what a world class museum should do, responding energetically to the present ongoing political debates. No wonder that the results often inspire productive disagreements. Every time I visit their museum, I am proud to be an American, which isn’t my experience when I read the news. If our culture survives, it will be thanks to people like them. And if I have amounted to anything as a scholar, it will be in large part thanks to them and a very few other gifted curators.


On museum narratives see my Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries (2006), in Chinese translation with a new Preface, 2009; A World Art History and its Objects (2008); and with Liu Haiping, “Wu Guangzhong, National Art Museum of China,” Burlington Magazine, CLI (May 2009): 348-9.

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