Bill Moggridge, Founder of the design firm IDEO, designer of the first laptop computer, and Director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, passed away on Saturday at the age of 69.
Moggridge is undeniably one of the great design luminaries of our time. I didn’t know that he was ill but given the prompt appearance of a comprehensive and well produced memorial on the Cooper-Hewitt’s site– http://www.cooperhewitt.org/ — it can’t have been a surprise.
I only met him once, after a lecture he gave at the Design Criticism program in November of 2010. It was a canned talk about the Cooper-Hewitt, little more than a PowerPoint museum brochure, really. Afterwards, at the reception, I was simultaneously irked by his lecture and awed by his stardom. I’m ashamed to admit that I totally bungled our brief interaction. I rather bluntly asked him if the Cooper-Hewitt had guns in its collection (I’d only just begun my research into that topic which eventually turned into my thesis). Moggridge, standing near the bar and holding his little plastic cup of red wine, was clearly uninterested, replied that he didn’t know if the Cooper-Hewitt had guns and turned away dismissively.
And that was that.
Can’t blame the guy. I knew that they didn’t have guns but I wanted him to tell me that they didn’t and why. I know now, after having gotten a little practice in the fine art of getting important people to divulge their secrets, that my opener should have been more of a tease than a confrontation. I blew it. And now I’ll never have the chance to get inside his head.
In my mind, it’s like there were two Bill Moggridges: the charismatic, genius designer and design thinker who created iconic products and got Michelle Obama to back the National Design Awards and then the mildly bored old man who didn’t feel like indulging the provocations of an uninformed wanna-be design critic.
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.
Apologies for the hiatus. I’ve been hard at work on my master’s thesis, “Missing the Modern Gun: Object Ethics in Collections of Design.” It’s an exploration of museums and the way we assign a moral status to objects. I plan on posting some selections and additional research in the next fews weeks in addition to our regularly scheduled progrmming. So be on the lookout!
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…
Dear Guggenheim Museum RSS,
What is your deal? Seriously. Days and days without anything and then suddenly BLAM! Four posts in an hour.
And this isn’t the first time. You’re like one of those guys who maintain radio silence for weeks only to send a text at the moment I’ve reconciled myself to never hearing from
you him again.
Also, please stop being boring.
In times of revolt, museum collections are sometimes looted or irreparably damaged. Thankfully, artifacts at the Jamahiriya Museum in Libya have remained unscathed…. almost. In late August, rebels searching for a secret tunnel to Quaddafi’s residence broke into the museum which is the home of an ancient art collection. oh yeah. AND a few of Quaddafi’s cars.
From the New York Observer:
The rebels proceeded to smash the automobiles, which included a Volkswagen Beetle and a Jeep that the leader used in the 1960s as he was coming to power.
“It was a revolution – you can’t resist. It was better to let the rebels in than have them enter by force,” Mustafa Turjman, the head of research for Libya’s department of archaeology, told the paper. “When they saw the objects belonging to Gaddafi they couldn’t resist.”
One might think that if any works called for deaccessioning, they would be a former dictator’s modern cars in a museum devoted to ancient archaeology. But…
Museum officials said that they will eventually restore the cars. Said Mohamed Shakshuki, the acting president of the department of archaeology, “Staff never wanted to display the cars but we could not refuse… We don’t consider them part of the classical collection. In the future, however, we will expose them to the public because they are part of our history.”
Over the past few days, we’ve examined the cases of two writers in The Guardian who support charging admission at national UK museums (they are currently free).
Tristram Hunt thinks its better to charge admission than lose outreach programs. Jonathan Jones think its better to charge admission than sell off work or risk it getting defaced because of inadequate security.
So what’s the message here? Would I go to more museums in NYC if they were free? HELL YES. But I go even when they aren’t. I don’t feel bad supporting an arts institution when it would cost the same amount to see some terrible movie in theaters. I’m swayed by Hunt’s point– I’d rather pay admission knowing that my money helped to fund education and outreach. And I suspect that many citizens of the United Kingdom would agree with me.
However, given that these national museums are already free, I also think it would be a step back to charge $25 for access. Blerg. In the Post-materialist, Socialist Utopia of my dreams, we would all live in museums. For free.
But until then, I suppose that the answer is some combination of increased government support supplemented by appropriate deaccessioning and a controlled use of suggested admission fees. Perhaps event fees? We’re looking for a “best of all possible worlds” scenario here.
Let me know if you have any ideas and I’ll pass them along to David Cameron the next time we’re out for tea.