Saturday, June 5th, 2021

The People’s MoMA

Nancy Spero protesting outside of MoMA, 1976. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York,
Nancy Spero protesting outside of MoMA, 1976. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York,

For me, MoMA is the art museum. The Frick may have the near perfect historical collection. Certainly, the Met has everything, which is why I love getting lost there. And the Guggenheim and Whitney are always worth visiting, as, sometimes, is the New Museum. But MoMA is our place, it’s the museum that formed and forms the canon in modernism and whatever comes next. That’s why I trace my own Bildungsroman by remembering the changing arrangements of the permanent collection, and recalling conversations I had about them: I once met up with the late Linda Nochlin there, who told a funny story about Willem de Kooning’s female nudes. And I met T.J. Clark in the exhibition comparing the paintings Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne.  I suspect that I’m not the only person who responds to the museum like this, with ample happy personal memories.

Just as only someone you care deeply about inspires the most passionate complaints, so this museum inspires deeply personal critical responses. I am aware, then, that its relationship to Abstract Expressionism, now well represented in the permanent collection, was for a long time problematic. And I am old enough to remember when it looked like there would be endless Frank Stella retrospectives. But when I recall such great shows as “Inventing Abstraction, 1920-1925” (2013) or “Adrian Piper A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016” (2018), that turned my head around. Simularly, when I recollect the amazingly ambitious rehang just before the closing last year, the first draft of a revolutionary contemporary world art history, all my complaints fade away. The museum is often uncomfortably overcrowded. I can recall when you could be nearly alone with Guernica. But those present crowds are a measure of the success of we educators.

The problem right now facing MoMA is what Hegelian Marxists call a contradiction. Our leftist art world depends upon a support system provided by the super rich, many of them Republicans, who name galleries and donate masterpieces. In practice sometimes the art world closes its eyes, and takes the money but not the politics. So far as I know, no one is picketing the Frick, though how Henry Clay Frick earned his money is dismaying to the moralist. And we may regret some actions of the Rockefellers. It would be worthwhile, I think, to chart the sources of the wealth of all the MoMA trustees. But institutions often accept old money whilst having problems with the new money of a Leon Black or a Steve Cohen. The grandfather made the money, and so the children could become philanthropists: Henry James and Louis Auchincloss have told that story. If you care about posthumous opinion, a magnificent art collection looks better than a yacht or country estate. Nowadays, however, no doubt the grand collectors also have yachts and estates.

Like the duc de Saint Simon, who, as Marcel Proust explains, had a snobbish preference for the old nobility rather than those ennobled only under Louis XII, many think that old money is better than new wealth. And yet, people who call for reparations for slavery or for Native Americans, are not satisfied to be told that those moral miscarriages took place long ago. And a realist might argue that since we’re stuck with the rich, let’s at least get some benefit from their money by asking up their offers to support our museums. At any rate, in the present division of labor, the function of the trustees is to raise the money while scholars do the theorizing. (And the staff does the work.) This is  why neither Meyer Schapiro nor Clement Greenberg were trustees of MoMA.

How would this museum finance itself if it had to do without the uber rich? It would be admirable to display more female, Black , and Asian-American artists. But that’s already starting to happen, at least in part. Could MoMA be seriously downscaled, perhaps, like the New Museum when it was on Broadway before it constructed its expensive building on the Bowery? Once I asked a MidWestern museum director if he wanted to have free admissions.. A good idea he said, but here’s what I need, and he quoted the exact grant required. Change is requires a serious chunk of change.

Twenty years ago as a Getty Scholar, I started to write my book on the art museum, Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public Galleries (2006). Thanks to J. Paul Getty’s oil dealings in Saudi Arabia, whose fierce theology prohibits graven images, the last new grand museum devoted to the European figurative tradition can now sit high on a hill above Los Angeles. We could view the automobile traffic stretching out far beyond the airport as we worked. But even literally aloof scholars are unavoidably inside the system, which isn’t to say that we have to approve of its dealings, or that we should fail to protest. It’s easy to be critical about other people, but harder to be self-critical about your own role. That’s why I am genuinely unsure about how to judge the actions of my colleagues and friends who protest at MoMA. Spectacular injustices and inequalities make our art world possible. But I am deeply uncertain about what change is likely. In 1974 I read one of the great publications of that era, Clark’s Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution. His conclusion coveys a feeling for the leftist world of that era, to which I am still attached:

“Long live the Revolution!”
“Yes! In spite of everything!”

These are Courbet’s instructions to the connoisseur, and Baudelaire’s to himself in 1865. They don’t seem to me to have dated.