Friday, 21 November 2008

Trippingly On The Tongue

I finally went to the Museum of Modern Art this morning. When I say 'finally', I mean that I have intended to visit it since, ten years ago, I dated a girl who had just returned from an internship at MoMA. For an aw-shucks Tauranga boy like me, that represented an absolutely otherworldly quality. It didn't work out with the girl, but the museum's significance stuck with me.

Most modern art is absolute arse. Piles of drier lint with mirrors in it, carefully-arranged concrete slabs, one-colour canvases; all leaning heavily on the Emperor's New Clothes school of high culture where the only sin is to request evidence of talent. But all art worthy of the name is part of a tradition. Part of a subculture which reflects, challenges, and bends the broader culture by showing it things and making it think. Because recent art traditions develop so quickly and fragment so easily, a lot of modern art is an offshoot of themes most people never got the chance to understand, which undermines its purpose of bending existing culture. It falls victim instead to elitism, jargon, and cliquishness.

That describes the entire fourth floor of MoMA. The fifth floor had a generous collection of Matisse (who I've always liked), as well as Klee, Picasso, Rousseau, and Miro (who I don't). What was interesting was when I looked out the window at the city -- framed and silent -- and saw it as art in a new way. When you put something in a museum, on a pedastal with a plaque, it takes on new qualities in isolation. Looking at the city out the window it was very pleasant to see urban life from the outside.

I've spent much of my travelling time in museums and galleries and have seen many, many classical sculptures and paintings. The movements in art progressed at such a glacial pace, and with such longing backward glances, that it is now easy for me to see how artists grew tired of rote expression. After the advent of photography, painting as a commercial, representative form lost its chief purpose. It got squeezed from its regular role and developed in ways that had no obvious value. The difference between a Monet and a Rothko is one of degree. Looking through the myriad levels of abstraction at MoMA this twisted tradition became much clearer to me.

The place was full. It was full of women with slightly too much makeup, with men wearing woollen topcoats, all eyebrows lofted to half-mast. It was full of people just like me. It was scary to see myself, again and again, in the SLR-wielding studentry, in the second-date twentysomethings, in the flawlessly-groomed midlife cultural elites. It was embarrassing to see the half-concealed pretension, the slightness of expression, the casual self-consciousness. I didn't like being like everyone else, because I didn't fully realise how un-unique I was. These people had read the same books and watched the same films as I had; they had dreamed the same dreams, thought the same thoughts. The homogeneity of my aspirations was laid bare and the gross ease of my achievement was revealed. This cultural mountaintop was a crowded plateau.

I left and ate a hotdog. It cost a dollar.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

hah that was well written, good to be honest. london sucks for most people. did you get redundancy pay?