America Comment

The trouble with modern art: it’s just so dated

A person walks past Bruce Nauman work in New York (Getty)

A recent visit to New York’s Museum of Modern Art left me not only bored but positively enraged

After a few years’ absence (while living in London), I stopped by New York’s Museum of Modern Art recently, and the thing that struck me most was how tired, how retro, how decidedly dated and un-modern, much of the art seemed.

I don’t just mean the retrospective of works by the American sculptor and installation-maker Bruce Nauman that was the ostensible purpose of my visit (though about that, more shortly). I mean the whole enterprise of modernism to which MoMA was dedicated when Abby Rockefeller (wife of John) and her society friends founded the institution in 1929, while nearby stockjobbers were plunging to their deaths in tandem with the prices of their assets.

Modern art — think cubism and surrealism and futurism and minimalism and the various other movements of the kind that form the backbone of MoMA’s permanent collection — claimed to open new ways of seeing the world, visions as brutal and disorienting as the wars and rapid industrialization of the era. Its practitioners violently rebelled against millennia of accumulated aesthetic standards. The results were shocking, novel and, well, modern.

But 50 or 100 years later, these “modern” artworks appear like artifacts from a lost age: the age of the rotary phone and the telegraph line and the steam engine — an aspect they now share with the Greek and Roman statuary gathered 30 blocks north at the Met. The main difference, besides relative proximity to us in time, is that their Greco-Roman predecessors prized beauty above all, while the modernists often sought after ugliness.

Don’t get me wrong, I have my modernist favorites: the early Picasso, everything by Egon Schiele, Fallingwater, plenty of auteur cinema and so on. But I couldn’t help but notice how clunky and unwinsome the collection as a whole felt, from Lichtenstein’s ironic appropriations of American pulp to Mondrian’s soporific color games to the endless parade of industrial objects mislabeled as art.

The trouble, I think, has to do with the central modernist conceit that it’s the artist’s job always to mirror the modern world’s disorders — its degradations, its coldness and deracination, its ugliness — in his art. By denying art’s power to impose order and ennoble and elevate, the modernist project ended up vastly increasing the world’s disorder and degradation quotient.

Which brings me to the Nauman retrospective. The Indiana-born modernist bad boy, per a MoMA curator’s note written in perfect Curatorese, “has spent half a century inventing forms to convey both the moral hazards and the thrill of being alive. Employing a tremendous range of materials and working methods, he reveals how mutable experiences of time, space, movement, and language provide an unstable foundation for understanding our place in the world.”

I’m not sure that’s true or if I even know what it means. What I do know is that Nauman’s art almost certainly provides “an unstable foundation for understanding our place in the world” —and not only unstable but also thoroughly boring.

Rusty scaffolding swings from the ceiling, and colorful chairs hang from the scaffolds in random fashion. Neon lights stuck to the wall flash grim, nihilistic injunctions: “Suck and die.” “Come and die.” “Know and die.” “Smell and die.” A 1970s-style tape recorder plays a hair-raising, nails-on-a-chalkboard noise on continuous loop. The centerpiece: a massive, grated steel cage that sits . . . inside another massive, grated steel cage.

More so than with my usual encounters with the dregs of modernism, I found myself not only bored but positively enraged. I wanted to grab the bemused-looking patrons by their collars and yell at the top of my lungs like a character out of some Paddy Chayefsky novel: “Don’t you see that you and I deserve better than this! Don’t you see how impoverished all this is! Don’t any of you long for some meaning, for real beauty!”

But of course Nauman and his defenders would say that that’s the whole point of such art. To interrogate the very possibility of meaning, to subvert the classical link between beauty and truth. Our categories of “time, space, movement, and language” are unstable, they’ll say, either inherently so or as a result of the conditions of modernity. Art should reflect that.

To which I say: Oh, hang it! To see just how capable men and women are of grasping the link between beauty and mystery and truth, just stroll two blocks south to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, with its gorgeous creche against a starry blue background, with the manger eagerly awaiting the arrival of Truth-made-flesh. See how the tourists look, not bemused and haughty, but delighted and reverential. It takes supreme arrogance to deny the universal hunger and capacity for meaning, while “there is headroom in the cave of Bethlehem for everybody who knows how to stoop,” as Monsignor Knox once said.

Merry Christmas.

Sohrab Ahmari is op-ed editor of the New York Post, a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald and author of the forthcoming memoir, From Fire, by Water (Ignatius Press)