MoMA’s Quest for Relevance

MoMA's new installation of its post-1960 collection seeks relevance in current affairs, but for the institition to advance it must look beyond the United States and Europe and extend its intellectual purview to Asia, India, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. To neglect to do so is a form of cultural trade protectionism that will leave the museum behind the great globalist trend of the 21st century.

As if responding to the general lack of relevance in the contemporary art world, MoMA, in its new installation of its post-1960 collection, decided to gather art about current affairs. A lot of it is about gender issues, identity politics, consumerism, and so on —  areas in our society that have undergone epochal transformation in recent decades. What is most striking about the show, however, is how mediocre most of the objects are as artworks. So few hold their own within the long history of art.

Robert Rauschenberg, Currents, 1970, screenprint, 72 x 648″.

One exception is the 1970 mural of newspaper headlines by Rauschenberg — one imagines future generations of museumgoers poring over it, fascinated with the old delivery system and content of news in a bygone era. Another is David Hammons’s Africanized U.S. flag, a succinct emblem of political yearning tinged with irony. (Gerhard Richter’s Baader-Meinhof series would have taken up an entire room and is absent.)

David Hammons, African-American Flag, 1990, dyed cotton, 56″ x 7′ 4″.

PS1 trustee Paul Chan’s staging of Waiting for Godot in Katrina-ruined New Orleans was reportedly resonant, and MoMA acquired a video of the performance and two altered shopping carts that served as props for Pozzo and Lucky. Festooned with grimy plastic plastic sacs, these carts contain bare essentials like blankets, ropes, and batteries to power a  headlamp that brings to mind Diogenes. They could belong to homeless persons, but in the museum they become existential metaphors that stand on their own apart from the performance — which unfortunately is presented on a wall-mounted video monitor that no one watches for more than a minute. There are other noteworthy pieces, but not many.

Culture Outside the U.S. and Europe

In my opinion, the museum would do well to venture from the European-American axis. MoMA could never abandon its Modernist identity, but the concerns of its audience are shifting faster than the museum’s intellectual wheelhouse. It can be argued that MoMA has not yet effectively exhibited the art of postwar Europe. Rarely have we seen works by Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Miguel Barceló, and dozens of other major figures; there still has been no substantial survey of postwar European art. But what about Asia, Latin America, Africa, India and the Middle East?

I remember when Glenn Lowry became director in 1995 I interviewed him for The Art Newspaper and asked if the museum would consider extending its purview into these regions. He replied that MoMA’s core concern is the Modernist tradition it helped consolidate, and that any extension beyond Europe and the U.S. would be only in direct relation to those Modernist values (as was the case with the museum’s past engagement with Latin American Modernism and  Japanese design). This increasingly seems shortsighted to me.

We need more work from China and Southeast Asia, more news from the Indian subcontinent, more insight into Africa, more exhibitions representative of Islam and Arabic countries, in general.  The museum is increasingly attentive to South and Central America (spurred in part by patron Patricia Cisneros), having mounted in the last three years major shows of Armando Reverón, León Ferrari and Mira Schendel, and Gabriel Orozco, and an installation by Ernesto Neto. Africa was represented by the white South African genius William Kentridge. The rest of the world has intermittently flitted across MoMA’s calendar in the form of one-room Project and photography shows.

Sigalit Landau, still from one of three videos comprising Cycle Spun, 2007. The artist, naked, wounds herself by dancing with a barbed-wire hula hoop on the shore of the sea.

One of the most powerful was Israeli artist Sigalit Landau‘s 2008 Project room, an eloquent expression of isolation and pain that subtly commented on the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There were photographs by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami shown at PS1 in 2007, and more recently single-work presentations of Chinese artist Song Dong and his wife  Yin Xiuzhen. That’s about it. One would expect that the museum would wish to illuminate its public about current thinking by artists in Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, North and South Korea, and so on. These places fill the headlines of our newspapers, but one would never know it from MoMA’s program, which hides its head in a Euro-American sandbox, perpetuating the image of the U.S. as aloof and insensitive to other cultures.

Whole years have gone by without a single exhibition of an artist outside the MoMA comfort zone, and group shows beyond the U.S. and Europe are unheard of. A solitary feint in this direction was the embarrassingly weak “Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking,” a 2006 miscellany that included one work each by Shirin Neshat, Mona Hatoum, Marjane Satrapi, Kutlug Ataman, the Atlas Group/Walid Raad, Emily Jacir, Shahzia Sikander, Ghada Amer,  Shirazeh Houshiary, and eight other artists. Many are highly talented and make compelling work, but for this token foray into the art of Islam, MoMA opted only for artists born in Islamic countries who had emigrated to Europe or the U.S. where they have been safely co-opted by the Western market. And still, the museum was so worried about appearing engaged with politics or religion that it decided to dissimulate by not including the world “Islamic” in the title.

The Choice: Trade Protectionism or Intellectual Expansiveness?

I am not saying that MoMA should squander its traditional strength, nor that the museum should indiscriminately put its imprimatur on mediocre work for the sake of diversity. But the near exclusion of art from around the world constitutes the museological equivalent of trade protectionism. I would say that MoMA currently has become overly interested in its own DNA to the degree that it appears afflicted with nothing less than intellectual xenophobia.

Mona Hatoum, + and -, 1994-2004, sand , steel, aluminum, and electric motor, 10 5/8" high x 13' 1 1/2" diameter.
Mona Hatoum, + and -, 1994-2004, sand , steel, aluminum, and electric motor, 10 5/8″ high x 13′ 1 1/2″ diameter.

It makes business sense for MoMA to reinforce its brand (which is to modern-art repositories what Kleenex is to facial tissues). But with its presumed leadership position in setting the bar for modern and contemporary art comes a responsibility to reach towards the future – a future in which the interests of its audience are global.

I am referring not solely to tourists, who in any case do not come to MoMA to see art from their homelands (though it would honor them were they to find some). The local audience itself hails from the four corners of the globe. MoMA’s home, New York City, is perhaps the world’s most internationally diverse metropolis, with 40 percent of its citizens having been born abroad, many of them from regions outside of Europe. To reach a larger local audience the museum would do well to look at art from those citizens’ far-flung homelands.

MoMA had record attendance this past year, and a robust program that during the Spring offered superb exhibitions of William Kentridge, Marina Abramovic, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. But the museum is interested in new audiences – witness the Tim Burton show which pandered to the young who answered the call by turning out in droves. If the museum is willing to show such puerile and repetetive illustration and animation to lure the younger generation, why not identify and exhibit superior art from Pakistan, Vietnam, Colombia and Korea? To do so would not require stripping the Picassos and Warhols from the walls.

Pablo Picasso. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. 1907, oil on canvas, 8' x 7' 8".
Pablo Picasso. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. 1907, oil on canvas, 8′ x 7′ 8″.

A New Era of Cultural Diplomacy

It’s worth noting that the much maligned Guggenheim, in concert with its Abu Dhabi partners, plans a museum whose collection and program will represent contemporary art from the entire world. It seems to me that they are leading the way in this respect. Just as the rest of the museum (and university) world gradually came around to the once-ridiculed franchise model, so it eventually will come around to the necessity of geographic and cultural expansiveness.

Of course, MoMA knows this. If anyone in the U.S. contemporary art world understands that artistic riches lie outside the Western tradition it is Lowry, who spent his years as a young scholar immersed in Islamic art from the era of Suleiman the Magnificent. But there is a steep learning curve for most contemporary art curators to comprehend the larger world, and it is not easy to find English-speaking collaborators abroad who can perform to MoMA’s exacting standards. New channels of communication need to be opened with the authorities that can facilitate exchange. And funding may be less available for projects that do not coincide with the established interests of trustees and other patrons.

The museum may well be tempted to beat its Modernist drum and from time to time fill its coffers by cosseting television-headed youth with more dumbed down popular entertainment. But, prestige and new audiences can be won also by reaching outside the expected Euro-American sphere. To challenge its curators and audience with group shows that illuminate the creative character and concerns of a greater portion of the increasingly interdependent world would truly carry on the institutional legacy of MoMA’s great curators Alfred Barr, Jr., William Rubin, and Kurt Varnedoe.

Within the next decade MoMA will expand its permanent-collection galleries into a tower that will rise on land immediately to the West. The museum will be able to deepen and complicate its outline of the trajectory of Modernism and the plethora of contemporary expression. (I will not here delve into the disappointments of the current iteration of the permanent-collection galleries. The museum had promised a sequence of masterpieces tracing a timeline of modern styles and masters, with adjoining rooms of monographic, thematic or medium-specific displays augmenting the core chronology. That is not what the museum delivered when its new building opened in 2004. But the shortcomings of the present display are another story.)

There have been calls for the inclusion of more women artists — a valid concern, though it must be acknowledged that parity is an insurmountable challenge for the pre-war period during which female artists only gradually entered an art world historically dominated by men. But equally valid should be the drive to engage a greater portion of the shrinking globe. Artists, critics and the general public would urgently care to know more about artistic developments in the territories that occupy our headlines and our diplomats’ portfolios. MoMA’s staff has the tools to separate the wheat fromt the chaff, and the audience would benefit. After all, familiarity with more than our own neighborhood is essential if we are to  expand our socio-economic ties and shared concerns with the community that MoMA itself once labeled “The Family of Man.”


2 Responses

  1. can you suggest some important artists from india, africa and asia that moma has not included?
    i personally think that at least the moma’s film department has an incredibly diverse international representation of filmmakers.

  2. @Susan, MoMA’s film department is way ahead of the rest of the museum in its international purview. It’s been a matter of policy. But why is film different from painting and sculpture? Are the film curators more worldly than the curators in other departments? I’d like the curators in other departments to tell us more about the creative expression in their fields outside of Europe and the U.S.. Which artists? (I can think of many that have been included in international exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale, Lyon, Athens, et. al.) The selection could be the subject of a wonderful conversation, one that would be useful for MoMA and its curators to organize, and that would include curatorial representatives from India, Africa, Asia, the Middle East. A slide show of recent developments in those regions could open the field at MoMA. The problem is that most of the curators are not expert in those regions, and that gallery space is limited. They want to fill them with what they know. It makes sense, but I think the museum could do more outside of its high-provincial box.

    / . many names, but it is up to the curators to tell us!

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.


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