Come to Eventually Everything: The 2012 D-Crit Conference on Wednesday, May 2nd and watch me talk about guns, design museums, and morality.
The other day, pop-philosopher Alain de Botton wrote a piece for the Huffington Post with the rather unwieldy title “Why Our Museums Of Art Have Failed Us And What They Might Learn From Religions.” In it, de Botton argues that museums alienate the public from modern art by insisting on phenomenological aesthetic experiences and ambiguous interpretations. But according to de Botton, religion uses art differently and more effectively. He writes:
“Christianity … never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to teach us how to live, what to love and what to be afraid of. Such art is extremely simple at the level of its purpose, however complex and subtle it is at the level of its execution (i.e. Titian). Christian art amounts to a range of geniuses saying such incredibly basic but extremely vital things as: “Look at that picture of Mary if you want to remember what tenderness is like.” “Look at that painting of the cross if you want a lesson in courage.” “Look at that Last Supper to train yourself not to be a coward and a liar.” The crucial point is that the simplicity of the message implies nothing whatsoever about the quality of the work itself as a piece of art. Instead of refuting instrumentalism by citing the case of Soviet art, we could more convincingly defend it with reference to Mantegna and Bellini.”
Um. ok. So Mr. de Botton wants museums to act more like churches and because some have a pedagogical tradition that leaves room for multiple interpretations, he says that they’ve “failed” us. I disagree. I would guess that most museums strive to accommodate a range of educational and aesthetic experiences for a range of audiences. Some are more effective than others.
But de Botton gives museum audiences little credit for finding their own in-roads to art. I do not believe that museums should teach an over-simplified and one-dimensional interpretation of its collection, the approach of “this specific work of art expresses this specific human emotion” lauded by de Botton.
Rather, museums should provide visitors with the tools to craft their own opinions and associations. In his article, de Botton cites the lack of purposeful interpretation of Rothko paintings, asking, “Would it ruin a Rothko to highlight for an audience the function that Rothko himself declared that he hoped his art would have: that of allowing the viewer a moment of communion around an echo of the suffering of our species?”
No, Mr. de Botton, it would not. But when I see a Rothko, (especially this one at MoMA) I more often feel uplifted and enraptured by the vibrations of color than I contemplate human suffering. Does that mean my experience is wrong? Does that mean the MoMA should or should not tell us what Rothko intended?
Modern artists intentionally left room for subjective interpretation of their art. Rothko could just as easily have painted a scene of torture and crucifixion to evoke human empathy. But he did not. He created space for mental contemplation that extends beyond the what and into the why.
Art is just as much about trusting and accessing one’s inner life and intuitive response as it is learning about histories and styles. There is no right answer to art. There are only different modes of interpretation. I think that rather than acting more like churches, museums should aspire to become more like philosophical schools, outfitting visitors with the knowledge and curiosity to question as well as trust in their own reasoning and subjective experience. Finding artistic meaning outside of dogma and accepted tradition is just as valid as learning the intended story.
No big surprises in the Village Voice’s Our 10 Best Museum Restaurants:
10. Untitled at The Whitney Museum
9. Robert at the Museum of Arts and Design
8. Fraunces Tavern at the Fraunces Tavern Museum
7. El Café at El Museo del Barrio
6. The Morgan Dining Room at the Morgan Library & Museum
5. Birdbath at the New Museum
4. Garden Court Café at the Asia Society
3. The Bar Room of the Modern at the Museum of Modern Art
2. The Café at the Rubin Museum of Art
1. Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie
But I’m thinking I should probably do a little research myself…
This week’s focus in “Room for Debate,” an excellent segment of the NYT online, is MoMA’s 25% ticket price increase. (I know that the price hike and MoMA’s purchase of the Folk Art Museum are likely unrelated but the $31 million spent on the AFAM building has to come from somewhere, right? What’s the deal!?)
Anyway, the NYT has assembled five museuminati to argue for their differing perspectives on the new admission fee. Most were balanced– admitting that the raised fee would put some visitors off but acknowledging MoMA’s need to pay for operating expenses.
Kym Rice, director of the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University:
Who can really blame the Museum of Modern Art for raising its admission price to $25 from $20? Even with budget cutting, running a world-class art museum is an expensive proposition.
Bruce Altshuler, director of the Museum Studies at NYU:
When I heard about the price increase, I was appalled, as were the people around me. It is admittedly an emotional and perhaps unrealistic reaction. But our unanimous response is driven in part by the feeling that financial calculations and market opportunities should not trump social responsibilities.
Eileen Kinsella, editor of ARTnewsletter and contributor to ARTnews:
There is no question that MoMA’s new ticket price will give museum-goers pause, no matter how extraordinary the Picassos, Pollocks and van Goghs inside. On the other hand, with a little extra effort, visitors can cut or avoid the cost altogether. Online ticket buyers receive a discount, and there is no processing fee. CUNY and SUNY students are entitled to free admission with valid identification. And at least once a week, visitors can take advantage of Target-sponsored Free Fridays, when admission is waived during evening hours.
Vera Zolberg, professor of sociology at the New School:
Many people have expressed outrage at the Museum of Modern Art’s new admission price. But in a city where cinemas charge around $12 and Broadway theaters charge anywhere from $50 to $200, MoMa’s $25 admission ticket doesn’t seem so bad. For one thing, with just one ticket you can spend an entire day in a spectacular exhibition space, and even see a film or two.
Stephanie Cotela Tanner, the editor of ArtSmacked.com:
Raising the admission price is likely to put people off and be a step backward in this transformation — regressing toward the time when a museum seemed to be a sacred space, set apart from the greater community.
Be sure to check back in to Room for Debate to look at reader’s comments throughout the week. They’ll probably be more passionate than the selected contributors.
Like this one! from “sc”:
“Running a world-class art museum is an expensive proposition.” Goodness – enough with the world-class fluff already. It’s such an over-used term. Like “luxury living.” Ridiculous constructs of our empty consumer age. We (the little people) should be able to view art at a reasonable cost. But a 25% increase in the admission fee is, well, highway robbery. And this on top of a base fee that is already astoundingly high. In NYC at least there is an alternative: hundreds of small galleries throughout many neighborhoods. Spend a little time to plan (with the help of the Web) and you can view great (and not so great) works of art, esp. of unknown artists. It’s more fun, free, and you’ll avoid the chattering crowds.
Monger <3′s museum discourse!!!
Sorry for the radio silence this week but Museummonger had a bike mishap just north of The Intrepid Air, Sea, and Space Museum and had take some time to heal.
What did we miss? Well…
The Met announced that it is raising its suggested admission price from $20 to $25 spurring discussion of whether cultural museums should be free or not.
NYT Architecture Critic and hater of the MAD Museum building, Nicolai Ouroussoff, will be leaving his post at the end of the month. Who will replace him!? And what will they think of the new Whitney!?
The MoMA announced its acquisition of the Daled Collection, “one of the key collections of American and European Conceptual art from the 1960s and 1970s.”
A Las Vegas developer announced plans for a Star Wars Museum.
Volunteers for the floundering South Street Seaport Museum petitioned for city support.
The New York Transit Museum installed an entrance ramp.
And Museummonger got a shout out in New York Magazine’s Comments: Week of June 13, 2011!
I’m still a skosh upset by the American Folk Art Museum‘s decision to sell their gorgeous building on 53rd street to the greedy behemoth that is the Museum of Modern Art. But let’s hear from a few folks who have a little more clout, shall we?
Wall Street Journal contributor and Culturegrrrl author Lee Rosenbaum says:
My guess is that MoMA will eventually knock down the failed museum’s building and add the land (and air rights) to the Nouvel construction project, if the developer, Hines, should eventually decide to proceed. A MoMA spokesperson informed me: “The details for how the building will be used have not been determined, though we expect to use it for exhibition space.”
Rosenbaum agree’s with the New York Magazine writer Jerry Saltz that AFAM’s failing was its design:
Despite the many rave reviews the 30,000-square-foot building received when it opened in December 2001, it was immediately clear to many that the building was not only ugly and confining, it was also all but useless for showing art — especially art as visionary as this museum’s.
UGH! PEOPLE! I DISAGREE WITH YOU SO MUCH THAT I AM USING ALL CAPS!
At least my one-time instructor Justin Davidson charged in like a white knight to right Saltz’s wrong:
Let’s start with the obvious: In order to construct the building that opened in 2001, the museum crippled itself with $32 million in debt and has defaulted on the loan. That’s not an architectural misdeed; it’s terrible fiscal stewardship. Blaming the designers is like faulting Mercedes-Benz for making such lovely cars that minimum-wage workers go bankrupt buying them.
I have always found the Folk Art Museum’s facade an alluring exception to the tough sleekness of midtown (and of the Museum of Modern Art down the block). The folded metallic panels have a textured, tactile, handmade feel, just like much of the art inside.
I agree! My February review of the AFAM building was actually written for Davidson’s class.
Another Instructor or mine and revered design writer, Alexandra Lange, wrote:
Herbert Muschamp’s New York Times review heralded the building as the beginning of New York’s post-9/11 rebirth. But in a spatial sense, the writing was on the wall for the building the minute MoMA’s expansion opened in 2004.
Of course the OTHER move on everybody’s mind right now is the Met’s lease of the current Whitney Museum while the Whitney continues construction of its new building on The High Line.
Its like everyone’s switching dates on prom night!
The beautiful Tod Williams and Billie Tsien-designed building of the American Folk Art Museum turned 10 this year but will apparently fall into the clutches of the ever-expanding Museum of Modern Art.
From a MoMA memo sent to their staff this week (thanks, Will!):
The American Folk Art Museum recently approached The Museum of Modern Art regarding its decision to sell its building at 45 West 53 Street, as MoMA has the right of first refusal on the building and property. Much thought was given to this opportunity, and after careful consideration we have agreed to purchase the building and property. The decision was approved unanimously by our Board of Trustees at today’s meeting. This mutually beneficial arrangement will provide critical funding for the American Folk Art Museum, which we understand will concentrate its exhibitions and programs at its Lincoln Square location. It also will provide additional space for The Museum of Modern Art. More details will be available in the coming months.
The AFAM has been struggling to pay back the $32 million debt they took on in order to build their metal-clad home. But even after the wild, unequivocal success of their Armory Quilt Show, they’ve decided to pack-up and out, retreating to their relatively miniscule 5,000 square foot space near Lincoln Center.
Besides break my heart, what will the MoMA do with this extraordinary acquisition? They might tear it down.
Having just celebrated its tenth birthday, the bronze-clad home of the American Folk Art Museum remains provocative, itself a work of art. Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s unconventional building not only enlivens 53rd street but also provides a counterpoint to the clean-lined anonymity of the Yoshio Taniguchi-designed Museum of Modern Art next door. Like no other Manhattan architecture, the AFAM building is a combination of daring and human-scaled approachability.
Designed by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the seemingly windowless geometric façade of the American Folk Art Museum adds character to the block with its dash of edginess. It features a fortress-like exterior composed of bronze panels hung on three planes to create a concave “Y-shaped” crease, evoking origami . The bronze panels appear to change color with the light yet have a solid stone-like texture missing from the slick glass and metal curtain wall of the Museum of Modern Art next door. The dark cladding would be foreboding if it stretched uninterrupted for half a block like MoMA’s, or rose to the height of the CBS building across the street. But as it is, the structure induces curiosity from passersby.
The edifice replaced three townhouses probably built in the 19th century which were fair representatives of their species but not otherwise remarkable. If they hadn’t been torn down to make way for the AFAM, the three story buildings would have been dwarfed by the modern structures surrounding them or eventually gobbled up in another MoMA expansion. The AFAM building echoes the solidity of other structures on the block, including its Eero Saarinen-designed neighbor across the street, The CBS building, but on a human scale. For all of its solidity, the building is strangely gnomish. Standing only five stories tall and 40 feet wide, it functions as a jewel box, concealing treasures within.
As architecture, the building is risky without being ugly, and folksy without being cute. As a museum, the Williams/Tsien-designed building is superior to the institution’s original home on the parlor floor of one of the townhouses. The relationship of its galleries to its external architecture is a strong one; when walking through the museum, rough concrete walls and flecked concrete banding around the wooden floors are a constant reminder of the structure and external shell. An open core spanning the height of the building provides glimpses into galleries on other floors while angled walls break exhibit space out of the conventional orthogonal box. Galleries at the Museum of Modern Art are designed not to be noticed, engage with, or take attention from the art. These chicly bland boxes bear little relationship to the glassy exterior except that both are as unobtrusive as possible. The architecture of the American Folk Art Museum engages the art within it while MoMA is an anonymous container.
On a block dominated by glass curtain walls and looming towers, the American Folk Art Museum is as quirky as it is strong. The Folk Art Museum’s uniqueness is both engaging and challenging. Not just a cry against convention, the building illustrates that a museum need not be an objective, anonymous container but can itself be sculpture.