Wednesday, March 04, 2009

MoMA Atlantic/Pacific - Art through a glass darkly

MoMA Atlantic/Pacific's run is just about halfway over, and bloggers' reviews thus far have been mostly positive. The exhibit features almost all of MoMA's greatest hits on every billboard and wall, and it includes interactive pieces: a communal photoset on flickr (some great shots here), phones that can be used to call in for information on the art, and downloadable podcasts to take you through the display. It's certainly brightened up my commute, and yet I can't help but feel a little bit let down by the whole thing. It doesn't utilize the cavernous, labyrinthine station in any new way, and there's such potential in that space, with its split levels and strange angles and that soaring entrance-turned-skylight. Also, the "art" is all replicated, some pieces as plastered-on prints that show brickwork through the images, and often not in their original size. As the lady and I were discussing, these posters of familiar paintings--Starry Night, Warhol's cans, Pollock--feel more "dorm room" than "gallery."

That's not to say it isn't interesting, or effective: the stunt has people buzzing, and has opened the door for all manner of commentary. The folks at Spoon & Tango compared it to the Washington Post experiment from a few years back, when concert violinist Joshua Bell took up a busker's place in a DC Metro station and played his best stuff for 45 minutes. Asking "do you have time for beauty," S&T gestured at the way both Bell's tunes and the MoMA takeover highlight the lens of context, and I think the comparison is apt, though perhaps not quite accurate. After all, Bell was really there playing his stuff, while the art is only there in replica--the equivalent, perhaps, of a recording being played or of a street musician playing a legendarily moving piece.

The bloggers at Public Ad Campaign noted that the show doesn't challenge the way public space is used, but at least "can make you think of the possibilities for a newly imagined public culture." Absolut Vodka's "In an Absolut World" campaign suggested a similar re-imagining for Times Square, and both visions gesture at the transformative potential of "high art" replacing mass culture (though one does this in the pursuit of mass consumption without a trace of irony). I suppose the counterpoint would be something from the Adorno files, arguing that the media of mass culture subvert "great art" to their purposes, mangling it in the process, and that the legions of straphangers marching past the masterworks every morning are evidence to the lack of any new communal purpose.

But this is all getting a bit thick and overzealous--as Brownstoner noted when it opened, the free show is ultimately an ad campaign, a "reminder that MoMA is only a short ride away." Giant neon pink stickers in the station advertise MoMA's membership and one-day fees, and the prints occupy the exact same spaces that advertisers use. Sure, I might have preferred a fascinating, brilliant use of the space by up-and-coming Brooklyn artists in an actual display of original work, but that would have been an entirely different project. All things being equal, I prefer MoMA's ads to those ubiquitous "United States of Tara" posters, and that's just it--all things, in this case, are equal. It's a show, a comment on beauty, an infusion of high culture into the mainstream (or a destruction of high culture by the mainstream), but at its core, MoMA Atlantic/Pacific is advertising.

As a final aside, I found this acerbic, deliberately parochial review of the show in the Brooklyn Paper absolutely hysterical and fantastic. While it makes a few serious points (museums are competitors in a shrinking philanthropic market, etc), the bulk of the article is devoted to an all-out "get off our turf" defense of the Brooklyn Museum (whose staff, when interviewed in the piece, seemed baffled by the "declaration of war" angle) that should make anyone with snooty Manhattanite friends smile.

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