In her Real Clear Arts blog today, Judith Dobrzynski cites an interview in which MoMA director Glenn Lowry says that museums must evolve to survive and that contemporary art can be crucial to that evolution.
“I believe that contemporary art is central to the way any major art museum thinks about itself because ultimately the past is meaningful only to the present when we understand it. And contemporary artists are among the most important interlocutors between the past and the present anywhere in the world. So contemporary art in a way vitalizes not only how we understand today, but it’s a window into looking at the past. And I think when you can create a dialogue, a conversation, an engagement between the most interesting art of today and the art of the past, that’s when you create the very rich environments that the Städel is and will be. [He was interviewed at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany.]”
Dobrzynski thinks that Lowry’s wrong: “Lots of contemporary art, even that judged to be the best by the best museums, has little, if any, relationship to ‘the past,'” she says. “If it does, it’s not apparent, and critics that I’ve read have rarely commented on it. So,” she wonders, “is Lowry campaigning, so to speak, for contemporary art — making promises it doesn’t deliver on? Are critics at fault for not writing about how contemporary art is ‘a window into looking at the past’? Or is the content of contemporary art…itself remiss, failing to do what it is supposed to do? Just asking.”
As I see it, there is an enormous amount of contemporary art that engages with the distant and especially the more recent past. Critics often allude to these relationships, as when they cite influences and affinities, or chide artists for their lack of originality. I was in Chelsea yesterday and saw and artist who made what is essentially a big Brice Marden colored-meandering-line canvas and dubbed it something like Endless Walks through Endless Fields. It was about as good as a Marden, which is to say decorative and uninteresting. But that’s not the kind of conversation with the past that Lowry has in mind. He means artists whose work builds on or responds to the art of the past. The number of contemporary artists who reference Old Master works is legion. Think of Jasper Johns and the Isenheim Altarpiece, Rauschenberg and, say, the Mona Lisa, the series of self-portraits by Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura based on Old Masters…. The list would be endless. Indeed, it would be more challenging to name artists whose work has no relationship to the art of the past. Even if such a relationship were not deliberate, as could be said of some allegedly self-taught “outsider” artists, to consider their work in relation to the past can be instructive.
I think Lowry is picking up on MoMA’s former chief curator Kirk Varnedoe’s notion that art moves forward when artists take what their predecessors have done and tweak it. His analogy was to the invention of rugby, when a soccer player decided to pick up the ball and run with it – no use of hands allowed in soccer, but he did it anyway and a new game was born. (I don’t know about the historical accuracy of this, but it’s something along those lines.) Contemporary artists build on the work of their predecessors, aspects of which they may emphasize or reinterpret, thereby adding to our understanding of the older work. I think that is what Lowry means when he says that contemporary artists are “important interlocutors” with past art.
Sure, Lowry is stumping for the relevance of contemporary art. He’d like to see the Met and every other museum affirming the significance of what MoMA does, lending the imprimatur of the ages to the art of our time. The directors of many of our encyclopedic museums seem to agree and have been expanding their contemporary programs accordingly. I do not believe every museum risks irrelevance by excluding contemporary art. Frankly, I enjoy a respite from the new when visiting places like the Frick or, until recently, Versailles. But what Lowry says about the dialogue between contemporary artists and the past is true, even though not all artists engage directly with past masters, nor need they do so to create valuable work.
What concerns me is that MoMA has a habit of navel-gazing, believing the artists it has canonized constitute the whole past. If contemporary art is valued in proportion to the degree that it responds to MoMA’s version of the past (i.e., with MoMA’s own collection), the museum’s purview could be diminished. MoMA’s superb collection does not exhaust the potentials of artistic expression, and it would be useful to look beyond their own Euro-American domain to see what else is out there.