Beginning this week, twenty American dollars will obtain admittance to the refurbished, expanded temple of non-traditional art forms in midtown known as the Museum of Modern Art. And to me, the times couldn’t be more perfectly tuned to the relaunch of a brand as culturally loaded as “Modern.”
Already dated by the time MOMA first opened its doors on 53rd Street in 1939, “Modern” then meant the brilliant experiments of the dying generation of artists that preceded the building – in my mind, Picasso et al – as well as a scattering of “current” artists admired and supported by the founder patrons. Then again, “Modern” is almost always dated the moment it is used to modify almost anything. It is an incredibly imprecise, annoying, and useless term to describe an aesthetic movement – only surpassed in futility by the super-fleeting “post-Modern.” Only egos that don’t admit to mortality cast movements as modern.
Sixty-five years on, “Modern” hasn’t changed very much. It’s still a collection of post-traditional, mainly Western art – now more than a century’s worth – seeded by some occasional current pieces. MOMA has grown up, of course, and this week celebrates the revival of its rightful place as a blue state cathedral, a place of worship for true believers.
And I do believe in much of it. Or certainly in Cézanne, van Gogh, and Picasso, Giacametti, Rodin, Seurat, and Matisse. The collection of paintings is amazing and it will be cool to revisit some old friends. But modern? In what sense? In what world? In what century?
The Times took notice on this jarring disconnect in its review of the new building design today. Nicolai Ouroussoff’s lead had this:
“The city has grown up since the Modern shut its doors to build its new home two and a half years ago. The hole left by the twin towers. A war in Iraq. A polarized electorate. Our culture is in a crisis as critical as any since the cold war period when Modernism reached its final, exuberant bloom.”
Architecture aside, that’s well said. Ouroussoff says it’s comfort that will bring us back with our twenty-dollar bills waving. Nostalgia too. Those comforting days when liberalism was the norm, when society seemed to be expanding, and when modern art was emblematic of change, of pushing the cultural limits, of inclusion. An illusion of course – like a clever splatter of paint across the canvas – but a comforting one, nonetheless.
The conventional wisdom has us fighting for modernism in its lower case form on the streets of Falluja. Whatever your feelings on the U.S. entrance into Iraq – and mine are all bad – there is some truth to that. Now that we’ve opened combat in what promises to be a decade-long war at least, we are battling a corps of believers in fundamentalism, an extremist view that enforces the doctrinaire with bullets and the beheading blade.
As the death toll among our military rises dramatically, the questions seem more open, much wider. It’s no longer about the laughable weapons of mass destruction and their lead bugler at the U.N. who resigned today, or about Saddam, or even the clashing sects in the former Iraq. It feels like a longer, deeper struggle has been joined, almost accidentally. And our sacrifice is not yet apparent; we’ve been asked to give nothing – told that we can have tax breaks and military intervention at no cost. And we vote on family values, on Karl Rove’s sculpture of conservatism that’s as illusory and weather-beaten as “Modernism” is in 2004 in a half-billion dollar building in midtown Manhattan. In reality, the country moves ever leftward, ever more liberal in culture and outlook – although we take dangerous steps backward.
Chervokas and I argued this point on Saturday night as we wished our friend Pamela Parker and her husband Michael bon voyage for their appropriate place of destination, San Francisco. Debating red state values in a Tribeca bar might seem out of place (and I’m damned sure it confirms everything they say about us), but I didn’t think so. Jason argued, quite convincingly, that America is nearly in the thrall of our own fundamentalists - "Christianists," as he calls them - that we’re in danger of embracing a step backward toward a strict code at the cost of freedom.
Throughout his first term the President has used the language of evangelical triumphalism to invest his policy choices with the weight of divine perfection. And the Christianists have already begun funneling Federal money into Christian institutions through the White House Office of Faith-based Initiatives (an Orwellian mouthful) and will continue over the next two years with policies that will offer tax benefits to parents who send their children to Christian madrasas. James Madison must be rolling over in his grave.
Yes, this is true. Nonetheless, I think the culture continues to move "blue" despite the dangers. Frank Rich on Sunday took my side:
Everything about the election results - and about American culture itself - confirms an inescapable reality: John Kerry's defeat notwithstanding, it's blue America, not red, that is inexorably winning the culture war, and by a landslide. Kerry voters who have been flagellating themselves since Election Day with a vengeance worthy of "The Passion of the Christ" should wake up and smell the Chardonnay.
I do believe that the United States of 2004 is – despite so-called conservative political gains – more tolerant and more liberal than it was at the beginning of the faux revolution, when Ronnie Reagan took the oath. It’s just a gut feeling, based on how things were and how they are now. And of course, the government spends more of our money now than before. So that’s 0-for-2 in the Big Conservative Agenda. Culture? Bzzzt. Reducing the state? Bzzzt, I’m sorry, we have some lovely parting gifts for you. So whilst they’ve held power, they haven’t held sway – and maybe power was what it was all about anyway.
That said, we do have to give battle to fundamentalism, and not just in Falluja. In the same issue as Rich’s call to victory through cultural pluralism, was the story of a new settlement of followers of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Eldorado, Texas – a group that practices polygamy. I’ve never given much thought, admittedly, to extreme Mormonism and polygamy until my friend Elizabeth lent me Jon Krakauer’s disturbing Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. “Polygamy” has always seemed vaguely liberal, like some swinging Southern California hippie scene, but Krakauer’s story is violent to the core. It is the story of forced marriages, rape, child sexual abuse, religious blackmail, and torture in the name of God. Its victims are famous – Elizabeth Smart, for example, the Utah teen who was kidnapped and abused by a fundamentalist couple – and not so famous, and they number in the thousands.
Ironically, these polygamous sects survive – and indeed are tolerated – out of inherent liberalism, a respect for free speech and religious freedom. Law enforcement is loathe to act quickly for fear of appearing to violate these basic American rights. And yet it is the challenge of law enforcement, as an extension of the will of the people, to protect young girls and women from losing all of their civil rights and suffering sexual humiliation and violence in the process. And so in Eldorado, Texas and Colorado City there is a test of wills between the modern and the ancient, the liberal and the fundamentalist. Just as there is in Falluja and in the smoldering segments of the world where people are held in bondage by the powerful in the guise of religious piety.
Yes, modern seems so very vital – even as “Modern” seems quaint, like ye olde New England fishing village in the land of arts. And yet, to look at Guernica, Picasso’s masterwork of the Modern, so easily recalled from student trips to MOMA as a child, is to look at the confluence of the modern and the fundamental, now 80 years old and no longer in midtown. In this week’s New Yorker, John Updike gets to the heart of the old Modernist world, and why we appreciate it:
Though the Post-Impressionists still represent the visible world, the reproduction of natural appearances is no longer the heart of the game. We like them because, after centuries of shadowy, complicated illusionism, they used bold colors and simplified shapes. We value them for the resistance they met, and they earn our love with their suffering—van Gogh in the insane asylum, Gauguin adrift in the high seas, Seurat dying young, Cézanne plodding to the easel day after day in eremitic isolation. All of them died before their immortality was widely acknowledged.
And so, twenty dollars in hand, we’ll probably file back into the Modernist world, making the new MOMA seem a tremendous investment. We'll swell with nostalgia, righteous in our cultural appreciation, ready for the gift shop, happy for the respite from the horrific current. Secure in the safety of the dead artists of Modernism.
UPDATE: The de novo blog has an excellent item on polygamy that cites this post, which looks at the phenomenon in the context of the same sex marriage battle. Interesting points and discussion in comments. Here's a highlight:
The men of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints avoid prosecution by registering only one of their marriages with the state. This strategy leaves without legal resources the other "wives" who, even more in this patriarchal society than in mainstream America, are dependant on their husbands. If they want to leave, they cannot demand alimony or a division of marital resources.
However, if there are any states that do not explicitly ban multiple marriages -- no state provides for them -- theoretically members of this sect could move there en masse and do what the people of Eldorado, Texas fear that they will: democratically change the system to suit themselves. Although initiatives such as Issue One in Ohio have thrown local recognition of same-sex partnerships into legal question, in the absence of similar hostile legislation, polygamists might be able to get their own city ordinances.