Was 20th century really that great?

This is the question that occurred to me as I was reading the New York Times article about the latest MOMA expansion. I understand the Glenn Lowry, the MOMA’s director, wants to make the museum into more of an all-around cultural center, and this expansion is meant in part to serve that. And perhaps this strategy is a way of future-proofing the MOMA as an institution, should the public become suddenly less interested in paying the MOMA’s quite hefty entrance fees, in order to see its collection of 20th century art. But the MOMA, however it diversifies, is fundamentally about that art, and to the extent it can attract visitors to its various other events, many if not most are coming not just for the events themselves, but because they perceive that the venue, as the premiere museum for that art, is, if not necessarily cool, certainly august, in some vaguely still cool fashion, and thus worth being associated with.

What if that changes? Think of the history paintings of Europe in the mid-19th century. They were all the rage, and their painters vaunted above all others, until… They weren’t. The fall, if not a fast one, was in the end quite resolute, and neither the paintings nor their painters have recovered in reputation. And even if the same doesn’t befall the reputations of Picasso, Miro, and Pollock, will those artists be enough to pull in the big crowds, once those folks decide that seeing one or two work by each, every few years, is enough, and all the Marsden Hartleys and Clyfford Stills just aren’t a draw at all. Then what will happen to the MOMA? Big institutions, the bigger they get, and the more grandiose their expansions, become ever more dependent on ever-greater revenue streams, and often in their sensible attempts to do this by moving into new businesses, they fail. To take a possible analogue from a different business, think of AT&T and its building a monumental headquarters in the midtown, and very quickly having to move and rent the place out, because It couldn’t make enough money to afford to stay, as it faced ever-more-vigorous competition from low-cost upstarts. Is MOMA really going to compete, in its various happenings, with other younger, more nimble institutions? Perhaps yes, while it can still draw crowds from the increasingly older market segment, for which, say, the first sight of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles was both an aesthetic revelation and a bearer of new insight into the multiplicity and ultimate subjectivity of perspectives on the world. For anyone my age and younger – I’m in my late 40s – Picasso and his paintings, and this insight, are interesting and aesthetically appealing, but more historical artifacts than anything else. We may well all say the same about a half-empty MOMA, not so long down the road.

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