Mar 26, 2013

More MA

I'm at the MoMA with my friend Cat. We've been talking about what it means to be 'modern' art. Does modern mean 'new' or does it denote a certain period of art?  Honestly, this debate has already been addressed and largely resolved by the houses of criticism (ie literary circles and university circuits).  The name alone of the institution ("the Modern Museum of Art") quite succinctly summarizes the conclusion I'm reaching for.  (ie. It's a period/movement designation.)  But what does it mean exactly to be of the "modern" movement of art?

Walking around I realize that the art in this building is about story telling. The works here reflect back at their audience not much, typically, in the way of an aesthetic ideal.  Rather than delight the sense of wonder vicerally, the artists here use, well honestly, anything as a basis for creating a  perspective on societal values, lifestyles, desires, obsessions.  In some cases succeeding so well at this that their own perspective in turn becomes yet another salient point upon which new perspectives can be formed. An example that comes to mind is the popularity of Warhol's soup cans and pop art.  So catching, his work later becomes itself the focus of other works, embedding itself into the way we view culture and consumerism until it too, is a offered up as a product of consumerism.  (Warhol print grocery bags anyone?).  Perhaps even going so far as to influence how consumerism (this would be the people who make Campbell's soup, and are personally responsible or share some general responsibility for the continued creation and propagation of Campbell's labels and commercials) sees itself.  Though this is admittedly a bit of a reach.

(Strange.  In the middle of typing, imaging the Campbell board of directors surrounding a large table, while a small group of ad men presents the latest and greatest soup can label, I suddenly understand why group dynamics tend to lend themselves to worse product outcomes -- because in a group setting, the main focus, although ostensibly on the work product that the collective is tasked with creating, often times switches to other aspects of group dynamics.  I'm thinking especially of group political influences such as ego and the need for acceptance and approval by your peers.  At the point where the group dynamic is focused around social acceptability and personal influence (perhaps indirectly), then the actual work product suffers.  This is why committee decisions are often inferior to individual decisions -- an individual acting alone has less social pressure, less need to exert energy persuading others or dealing with the egos and opinions of others.  Instead he/she can focus on the creative goal.  Not that groups can't also accomplish this mindset -- there just has to be a strong, focused leader that is able to assert enough of a lack of an ego that the cultural norm for the group becomes refocused around creation and pursuit of good work product.)

But back to MoMA.  I liked the stories that the pieces of art told.  There's a piece on the 4th or 5th floor, in the first open foyer, an antechamber of sorts to the permanent collection, that holds a large steel work.  I can't remember the title, but it's composed of a set of steel crossbeams, with 4 chairs set in various poses on the beams.  Each chair is painted a different color - red, yellow, white and black.  The title of the piece denotes an emotion for each chair - anger, fear, sadness and death.  The positioning and form of each chair plays further upon the symbolic meaning given each one -- the 'angry chair' has no back, and is all feet; there's no where to sit down on it.  The black chair is impaled through the back by one of the steel cross beams; the yellow chair is about to fall.  Without the placard however, it would have been quite hard for me to discern what the intended message of the piece was. It's like a riddle or puzzle with a clue to interpretation.  The MoMA is filled with such pieces that rely on a clue or a hint to give a deeper meaning to the piece.  In fact, some pieces consist only of the title -- there was one work of art, a few words written on the wall, that the artist had merely spoken from one person to another.  This conveyance of idea via spoken word (who knew?) counted, to him, as the work having been created -- the museum then implemented the work per their own discretion.

In contrast, the old masters from the renaissance period's titles are often less than enthralling.  Amy, my roommate,'s favorite piece from the Frick Collection (visited the day after the MoMA) was entitled "Cologne, the Arrival of a Packet Boat, Evening".  It was a gorgeous rendering of a boat on a river in France at sunset.  The sky was a brilliant yellow and the artist had filled the entire canvas with this sunlight.  It was the brightest painting in the entire south wing of the house.  There was no hidden meaning behind it; literally.  It's a a painting of a packet ship arriving at the dock.

So to be modern means to hint suggestively at things that are not.  To create from things symbols that may otherwise not exist; to serve as a critique or a shout out on some facet of how we used to/do art.  It's a redefining of what "art" means, questioning even our understanding of appreciation.

But even though it's been questioned, art still exists .  People still make drawings of ships arriving at harbors (don't they?).

What do you call the pieces that come after modern?

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