“Les Demoiselles d'Avignon” by Pablo Picasso (left) and “American People Series #20: Die” by Faith Ringgold hang in a room at the newly overhauled Museum of Modern Art.CHRISTINA HORSTEN/PICTURE-ALLIANCE/DPA/AP IMAGES/PICTURE-ALLIANCE/DPA/AP IMAGES

‘MoMA gets a wake-up call’, by Luiz Camillo Osorio

‘MoMA gets a wake-up call’

While here in Brazil, we’re threatening to close museums and, moreover, censor exhibitions, our North American neighbors, regardless of who is in government, continue to invest in culture. MoMA has just undergone another revamp. Its reopening last month raises some interesting questions. In addition to the expansion, increasing the exhibition space by 30%, we note that there has been a historical repositioning of the museum. A whole new narrative of modern art has been presented.

First the facts. The museum spent $450 million on the revamp. New architectural installations were conceived – designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro – and more spaces of social interaction have been inaugurated for the visitor. The museum has long since ceased to be just a place for seeing exhibitions, preserving a collection and aesthetically educating the citizen. Art is, simultaneously, a place for affirmation and criticism of the contemporary world (and capitalism). Spectacle and friction go hand in hand. There is a politics intrinsic to this conflict. 

The creation of MoMa in 1929 was an event. The terms ‘modern art’ and ‘museum’, hitherto antithetical, began to coexist. It wasn’t always a peaceful coexistence, fortunately. Dealing with these frictions has been a challenge. As the critic Hilton Kramer highlighted in an article dedicated to its first curator, Alfred Barr, the museum (with the opening of MoMA) ceased to be a refuge from the conflicts and controversies of contemporary life”. These are the words of a critic whose political agenda is, above all, conservative. Not every conservative needs to be reactionary. Art, especially modern art, cannot exists at the service of conformity.

Bringing modern art to the museum not only implied its institutional capture, but also an internal turnaround in the functioning of the museum; redefining new exhibition forms, other parameters of public participation, and multiple ways of being for works of art. Institutionalization incorporated the critical dimension, continuously problematizing  the question of what it means to be a museum and the meanings of art. The exhibitions mounted by Barr in the 1930s and 1940s introduced much of his experience at the Bauhaus and the wholly original perception of the museum as an experimental laboratory for modern life. At the same time, a historical narrative of the modern was instituted there, with Alfred Barr’s famous diagrams, which paved the way for modernism as an evolutionary and one-way street. Assembling its collection from the 1930s, MoMA equated criticism and art history within the museological experience. It is precisely this point – the incorporation of criticism by the museum – which I would like to address here in the context of this reopening two weeks ago. It is important to emphasize that I have not yet visited the new MoMA. I write based on what I have read, seen on the website and on my enormous admiration for its history and collection.

I would like to begin with an abrupt statement: with this reopening of MoMA, any distinction between museums of modern and contemporary art has effectively disappeared. I say this because this was a museum which provided a strong, historicist reading of modernism, which began with the work of Cézanne and the post-impressionists, developing with Cubism, expressionism and constructivisms, flowing into post-war American art (headed by Pollock) and culminating with Pop – regarded as a critical moment in this narrative. Modern art would run from 1880 to 1960, until the opening of the contemporary or postmodern rupture.  What is proposed here is something different: there are many modernisms and they must take into account multiple perspectives of historical understanding. Which is to say, the museum is going to rearticulate its collection without chronological shackling, opening up dialogues between periods, languages and different geographies. All seen always from perspectives located in the present and marked by contingency and conflict. 

This is not a question of simply relativizing everything, but rather of putting things in relation to each other and realizing that forces are produced by the works as a result of this, of the dialogues that are established between modernisms. For example: seeing Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon alongside an expressionist film, a Pollock, or a painting by the African-American artist Faith Ringgold, changes our way of seeing and interpreting the effects of this work, necessitating new readings, enabling it to acquire new resonances and different aesthetic vibrations.  Changing the dialogues and stagings, from time to time, is another welcome possibility, combined with the close coordination between the curational and educational departments, which has always been an experimental feature of MoMA. An open education, linked to the creative and transformative power of art.

Multiplying readings and references of the modern and breaking the evolutionary historical line that it created in the past, MoMA is challenging the reproduction of a narrative model that worked at a certain moment, but which has become outdated over time. It worked wonderfully to confer historical legitimacy on what we could term the intransitive form, which, above all, confronted the canon of the fine arts. However, form must be connected to the world, and not just to the history of art (or forms). For this reason, it must unfold in the formation of the visitor’s gaze and sensitivity, repositioning itself in the present, making this an open process which incorporates past experiences and future expectations. The challenge for a museum like MoMA is its ability to confront the narcissism and affectation that surrounds art in today’s world. It is the museum’s responsibility not to yield, at least not completely, to the seduction of glamour and to make room for interrogation, for what does not fit with the present and which, thus, makes us see the heterogeneous and different.

The exquisite collection initially assembled by Barr and multiplied since then, with its indisputable masterpieces, will not be destroyed by this shift by MoMA towards the real. This is not a matter of diminishing the power of art, but of making it happen in conflict with the world and with the many poetic voices that inhabit history. Multiplying the ways of understanding modern art, assuming that its previous hegemonic and constitutive narrative, of a historical insertion of modernism, was just one of many possible alternatives. In addition to this, seeking to build other narratives, to produce new and original (often even forced) relationships between periods and contexts, is not intended to muffle the unique power of works that made history – Matisse’s Dance will not be domesticated, it will gain other rhythms and have to “move” in other ways beyond the familiar ones; after all, the same contra-dance with its historical partners was already becoming tired. One should not fear the reshuffling of the canon; it should be assumed that we always see the works in the context of the relationships we produce. The expository logic of museums should be based – and I would say this is their raison d´être – on this constant shifting of our gaze. Only in this way is our gaze able to be surprised by the infinite play between the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen, taste and shock.

As the educator Paul Sachs said in 1939: “there is a great danger when MoMA gets old: the danger of timidity. The museum must continue to take risks. It has taken them, with open eyes, since the start of its history. This should not stop.” Eighty years after this utterance, the museum continues to take risks. Tinkering with a winning but tired and exclusive exhibitory model, cannot simply be driven by a desire for the new. It must represent the renewal of its commitment to think of the contemporaneity of art as a constant challenge of the canons. A challenge that renders them current and in continuous transformation.

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