If a museum could morph into an airport, it might look something like the newly expanded, refurbished and reimagined Museum of Modern Art. The admission desks look like check-in counters, a resemblance bolstered by the addition of automated kiosks that appear ready to issue boarding passes. Digital signs are all over the place, blinking directions that don’t actually lead you anywhere, and the galleries seem to go on and on like the corridors between departure gates. In short, the place is something of a corporatized mess, but one that reflects museum-going’s final transformation from contemplative activity into immersive user experience. This isn’t criticism so much as it is an acknowledgment that MoMA understands how things work nowadays, if only a bit too well.
Then, of course, there is the art (of which there’s a ton) beginning with the high-concept installations that greet you as you make your way from the door to the galleries upstairs. More spectacle than substance, these too, look like something you might see at JFK or LaGuardia, but they are apiece with the sense that MoMA is throwing everything it’s got at the walls as it figures out where it goes from here.
Indeed, the Modern, that quintessential 20th-century institution, is trying to remake itself for the 21st century, not only physically, but also philosophically—basically by admitting, Gee, we got everything wrong. Gone is the idea of MoMA as the Vatican for modernist orthodoxy, enforcing a catechism that privileges white male western artists. That same zeal is now being applied to promoting an art-historical agenda based on differences of race, gender and national origin. Gone, too, is the hard separation between disciplines such as photography, painting, design and architecture, divisions that used to be jealously guarded by their respective departments. Objects in different mediums—snippets of film, architectural renderings, paintings—are now being installed together in the service of a narrative that, as Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator, recently put it, no longer tells one long story, but rather a series of short ones.
That sounds good in theory, but in practice, the results are more mixed. With contemporary art, the inclusivity bell is easier to ring because the current art world is so globalized and diverse. For example, MoMA is presenting fine solo surveys of Pope.L and Betye Saar, two veteran African-American artists who are finally gaining the wide institutional exposure they deserve. Saar is an artist of memory, and, perhaps as a consequence, her exhibition is the quieter of the two, centering on a recollection of childhood wonderment in the form of a 1969 assemblage titled, Black Girl’s Window. Pope.L, meanwhile, has spent 40 years dealing with the tenuous position of black men in American society through a series of performances, the best known of which feature him crawling along the ground dressed as Superman. This show of objects and documentary videos reveals him to be a shamanistic trickster in the vein of German artist Jospeh Beuys.
But MoMA’s attempts to enlarge the canon can seem strained the further back into history they go. It seems perfectly fine to reintroduce previously neglected figures into their time periods: Hanging the work of female Abstract Expressionists Lee Krasner and Hedda Sterne next to their sacred-cow contemporaries Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning is long overdue. Less clear is the reason for including “responses” by Faith Ringgold and Louise Bourgeois to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon along with that painting. It seems like a stunt to deflect attention from Picasso’s reputation as a sexual predator by contextualizing his work with those by women—a gesture which only diminishes them. MoMA, moreover, was instrumental in promoting Les Demoiselles as the singular achievement of 20th century art; now, they’re not going to own it? In contrast, the museum has been careful not to fuck with less controversial fan favorites like Matisse and Brancusi, who are given fairly sustainable amounts of space without a hint of revisionism.
As necessary as it is, though, all the talk of inclusivity and diversity ultimately obscures the staggering lack of originality that governs too much of contemporary art. No matter where it’s made or by whom, art these days looks pretty much the same, following certain formulas ad nauseam. Largely, this is due to the global dissemination of modernism’s lessons over the last century—thanks, in no small measure, to MoMA. Once a vice, familiarity in art has become a virtue. So sure, what’s the point of fostering an overarching narrative of artistic progress? It certainly won’t matter to most visitors to the new MoMA, who are just as likely to feel exhausted as enlightened when they leave the place.