Tuesday, 26 May 2015

GLENN LOWRY DEFENDS MoMA

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Strong criticism in recent months of MoMA’s high-profile shows has only built upon the public disquiet over the museum’s plans for massive expansion, unveiled in 2014 and the views on art driving them. While there has been a number of discreet efforts (often from academics) to soften or deflect the all too evident failings with these shows, dissent would seem to have attained an uncomfortable momentum. This time Glenn Lowry, director of MoMA steps up to the plate, the occasion: an extended interview with Joachim Pissarro, David Carrier and Gaby Collins-Fernandez published this month on Brooklyn Rail, the agenda: defending MoMA’s aims and exhibition record. Running at around eleven and a half thousand words this is almost twice the length of BR’s regular interviews with artists, usually conducted by editor, Phong Bui. Whether or not this interview repays so much reading, the length unquestionably signals BR’s endorsement of its substance.

The interview is part of series by the authors dedicated to museum directors but this one conveniently falls hard on the heels of an exceptional string of censure for MoMA, not just for The Forever Now and the Björk retrospective that followed, but even for the massive Polke retrospective – Alibis from 2014. While most public exhibitions are expected to generate a healthy amount of controversy, the depth and vehemence of rejection over this run exceeds any comfortable tolerance of dissenting views. There is a real problem with MoMA’s programme and as much as Pissarro (a former curator at the museum) sides with Lowry and pleads for curatorial adventure over ‘playing it safe; along with an expansive ambit that accommodates high and low culture (while begging definition of ‘culture’) Lowry’s remarks merely confirm how untenable this position has become, how confused and inconsistent the museum’s whole rationale has become. Not surprisingly, Lowry’s position is rumoured to be under review. His divisive management of curators has allegedly created fierce rifts between departments, and especially in the case of Klaus Biesenbach. Significantly, no mention is made of Biesenbach, his special recruit and his disastrous Björk retrospective. From the outset this is to be a timely and elaborate exercise in flattery and reassurance.

Discussion remains on general policies and commences from the tricky concept of a museum of modern art, understood as no more than a collection of artworks from the present. Lowry insists the project is ‘ahistorical’ – that it does not draw upon nor project an historical perspective in evaluating and acquiring works. “I think the big difference between a place like the Museum of Modern Art and a more historical or universal institution is that those institutions start with the premise that they are about history and we start with the premise that we’re ahistorical, that history is a by-product of what we do. If we do it well, we help write a history. But we’re actually trying to be engaged in the present.” This seems surprisingly naïve, for an art historian. The collection specialises in a segment of art history, but the concepts of style, of distinguishing features according to source as person, school, trend, place and time, as well as categories of content are all inherited from earlier collections and historical practice. There is no art without history. There is no discerning new or later developments without acknowledging and refining this history. MoMA is a museum in the historical sense even when it defers precedent to other museums and Lowry’s attempt to somehow skip ahead of historical debt is disingenuous.

Similarly, attempts to excuse an ill-conceived show like The Forever Now cannot be redeemed as ‘an experiment’ in zeitgeist. Even experiments have rules. To pursue the scientific analogy, rigorous test design is crucial to meaningful outcomes. The experimenter must know what it is they look for and only look for, ensure it is a visible and valued property, measure this against established practice and maintain accuracy of sample. When a curator cannot even frame a coherent selection criterion, much less comply with it, then we do not have an ‘interesting’ or ‘challenging’ or ‘thoughtful’ outcome – we actually have no meaningful outcome at all. We have a failed experiment. We have an incompetent or self-indulgent curator that institutional entrenchment cannot even acknowledge. The Forever Now and its chief curator, Laura Hoptman are not the only example of this failing at MoMA. It is a growing problem. And it is a problem that ultimately rests with the director, not his board, as some have argued.

The problem stems directly from the denial of MoMA’s art historical roots. It then juggles conflicting demands of seeking firstly to explain new or unfamiliar art to the lay public – inevitably invoking tradition or history – and seeking secondly to ‘disrupt’ or experiment with this explanation. Is it any wonder the public are frequently dissatisfied? No sooner is some troubling or obscure work explained than they are told there are many other equally good or better explanations. This explains no more than the need for further explanation. While such games might amuse bored curators they hardly serve the collection or the public. For the director, the problem is trying to do too much with too little, too soon. Lowry confronts a familiar dilemma in seeking to accommodate the bewildering variety of present art within the stricter or singular development evident in past art. With greater hindsight we collapse variety in the interest of salience and obtain a more linear history, while for present purposes we can usually trace any small or recent branch to an older or larger one, but obviously cannot say how important it is until we see what follows from it. And this usually only occurs in small, slow increments. So the impatient historian is caught between not enough perspective for the profusion of material or too much material for a compelling perspective.

In the literature, this conflict is sometimes dealt with in terms of diachronic and synchronic axes (or 'when versus where' for short). We measure sequence or we measure co-ordination of events, according to the scope of a history. Alfred J. Barr’s famous diagram for the development of Cubism and Abstract Art remains a prime example. But at some point the art historian needs a longer view, narrows down the options, if only to anchor new ones. Some certainty and simplicity is needed against which to entertain further speculative departures – a present and presently. As MoMA ages, more of its collection assumes this more settled, historical anchor and the opportunities for experiment diminish there, necessarily. At the same time, there is no clear line to be drawn between present and past. MoMA can hardly confine itself to just the latest or most unusual specimens, while still wishing to deal in art. Lowry flags the graded aspect to his model of diversity and disruption for the present but seems uncomfortable with the situation, seeing pluralism as healthy without properly appreciating the equal dependence upon monism. It is unfair to criticise him as a philosopher perhaps, but as an art historian he seems strangely indifferent to what ought to be a formidable resource.

Indeed, constraint to excessive pluralism is never adequately addressed. The model of steadily broadening interests is certainly declared but what is missing is an awareness of the loss of focus in a bid for greater scope. He recognises that they cannot collect everything and that even with a plurality of interests there must be consensus at some point, but how is this arranged? When do irreconcilable differences between diverse interests somehow get funnelled into a compromise? “We can’t be and won’t be an encyclopaedic institution in that respect: it’s a fool’s errand. It’s not about collecting a little bit of everything, it’s being aware of critical traditions and trying to make judicious acquisitions.” But which critical traditions? How many? The smooth rhetoric conceals a deeply suspect method. Judgement is really steered behind a wall of red tape or committee speak. In any case, the priorities of the museum must lie with its core disciplines in the fine arts rather than a recondite flirtation to intramural or marginal novelties. ‘Critical traditions’ are firstly to be confined by this much; lest the museum decline into a ‘jack-of-all-arts, master of none’, home of the generalist or dabbler.

On a related point, Lowry endorses a reckless notion of progress in a bid to perpetuate the museum’s sense of discovery and revision. “So it became very clear... that contemporary art and contemporary practices had to be fully embraced. They’d been episodically engaged over the last 30 or 40 years, but they really needed to be fully embraced. In order to do this, we needed to find a way of embracing a notion that disruption should be constantly at play.” Laying aside the hugs all round and what exactly counts as ‘contemporary practice’ – another tidy bureaucratic phrase concealing dubious judgements - the notion of constant disruption gives cause for pause. A disruption has to disrupt something established or underway – a constant disruption cannot be a disruption, because it obviously leaves nothing to disrupt. Here too, Lowry is just a little too anxious to decide what is contemporary and when it belongs to the future and the result is again folly.

The reason these dangers go unexamined is partly because Lowry does not really want to know and partly because he is trapped in a management model that effectively sidelines scrutiny. Both recommend prompt replacement. On the first count, Lowry pointedly announces that he has no say in curatorial decisions (against Pissarro’s insistence upon just that) – “My interest is not in having a curatorial voice. My interest is in participating in the conversation and enabling a discussion to occur, and trying to bring up issues and questions to consider.” In other words, he is content to police policy but stands well back from outcomes. While shrewd as a measure of managerial self-preservation, the emphasis upon more general issues sets a regrettable example. Too often MoMA shows also appeal to general points on social history and political correctness in their explanations of a work that bear no direct relation to the way it was made, to how and what it refers. Too often such explanations become bogged down in terminology borrowed from purely theoretical discourses. There is a pattern here. Essentially it is a symptom of evasion or buck-passing and it needs to be remedied from the top down.

On the second count Lowry simply chooses to ignore results or criticism confident that his administration has done enough in merely provoking or ‘enabling’ them. “ I think our responsibility is to set the table—it’s to make a set of choices about what to show and how to show it, how to foster a relationship between how we’ve set the table and our public. But then to stand back and not try to control that as much as we often try to do... it’s more like: look, this is what we think and we really want to share with you and learn from you. It’s not simply a one-way relationship.” Yet when pressed by Collins-Fernandez for instances of this dialogue, Lowry confesses it has yet to happen. To be clear: In his twenty years as director there has not once been any response to an experiment or so-called disruption that the museum felt it could learn from or apply to future efforts. This is an extraordinary admission, given the professed aim to share and learn from, given the forthright feedback from the press and public. It is hard not to see this as a one-way relationship. It strongly suggests someone is not paying attention or that some things are just not working, at the very least. It confirms that change is overdue. Even where criticism is acknowledged, the impulse, again, is to generalise, to accept with a shrug that there will be a spread of opinion and that these divide between pro and con and to skip more substantive engagement. This too is dishonest. It is not enough simply to pretend that responses come down to hostile or friendly and that some of each equates with broad participation. No wonder the museum has not learned anything. It cannot bear to learn that its judgement has been in some way less than illuminating.

These are reasons enough to condemn Lowry. But there is one further issue to the interview that in itself ought to be grounds for dismissal. It concerns a planned move away from the individual, private contemplation of the visitor to more collective and communicative experiences, consequently to a busier, noisier and more crowded museum. Lowry claims this paces developments in the digital revolution, to online discussion and recording and that this “transforms the way we think and look at art”. But in as much as these developments apply to most aspects of our lives, and that our ideas about art are steadily changing anyway, the claim is trivial. Whether these changes are for the better, concerning art; is by no means certain. The proposal looks too much like justification for streamlining and dumbing-down presentation in the interests of a higher turnover and increased attendances, charges levelled at his plans for expansion throughout 2014. But taking it on face value hardly makes it any more persuasive. Sharing and assessing art by reproductions has been with us for some time, just as postcards and merchandising has and while the internet might increase the volume of this, correspondingly, it is likely to be accompanied by briefer visits, more scattered interests. These have less to do with art appreciation than socialising and peer positioning. The same activities will occur at the sports arena, shopping mall, workplace or street event.

The reason art requires some individual attention is because many vital qualities are not immediately or easily discerned, much less communicated by guides. Some things need to be seen in one’s own time, for oneself. That is what makes art more demanding and rewarding than mere amusement or information. It is what separates art from advertising, instruction, sports, business and news. And Lowry will obviously know this; no scholar can fail to. It is not something that needs quick and frequent communication – often it defies just such articulation. So the urge to ‘selfie’ or Twitter cannot be taken as reliable indication of serious engagement with art, quite the contrary. By the same token, the solitary visitor in reverie is not necessarily reflecting on the work, may as easily be recalling private issues which are often part and parcel of the process. But that is why “the way we think and look at art” – whether in reproduction or directly – is properly a matter of contemplation, not circulation, calculation or regimentation. It needs the time and it needs the space. A visitor does not accord this of every work encountered, obviously. It is often a matter of gauging options or coincidences or moods and no two visits are apt to be the same. But this sustained engagement is so fundamental to our notion of art that anyone entertaining the prospect of diminishing it in any way, even under the pretext of augmenting or extending it, must be firmly rejected.

This article also appears on Worldwidereview.com