Most people don’t give much thought to how our cultural institutions shape our world view, and the impact this has on politics, but I’m one of those who do. This can make it problematic to attend a modern art museum with me, a task my wife, a genuine and sophisticated art lover, approaches with a mixture of caution and bravado. While I’ve learned to stifle my public outbursts and gesticulations, her uncanny ability to read my mind invariably generates a burst of frisson best resolved by leaving the museum to take her to an expensive lunch.
It’s not the fraud that I mind—more power to any artist who can con a patron into paying outrageous sums of money for something as banal as a black stripe on a blank white canvas or a rusty bicycle hanging from a rope. There is no harm in separating a fool from his money as long as it’s not mine.
I can even accommodate myself to the widespread and concerted effort to destroy the very idea of artistic talent evident in most contemporary art, giving talentless frauds the opportunity to pursue lucrative careers and teaching positions. The world will still be filled with beauty and genius even if the public is snookered into believing a milliondead and rotting flies glued to a canvas merits display in the Boston Museum of Fine Art. (I kid you not. Since being drawn to that stinking canvas by the odor some years ago I have never again set foot in the MFA.)
But I draw the line when an artist mounts a direct and nihilistic attack on Western Civilization that seeks to subvert the values that allow us all to survive and thrive. Consider—flouting of Godwin’s Law notwithstanding—that in the 1930s sophisticated Germans who read Mein Kampf simply shrugged their shoulders, not believing that its author meant what he said, and quietly went about their business. But Hitler understood what many of his readers didn’t—that ideas have consequences.
I write these words hours after attending an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City titled “9+1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design.” Of all the arts, architecture is the one most subject to the judgment of reality in that buildings must not fall over and should at least be expected to shelter occupants from the elements (although failure to adequately do so never seemed to hurt Frank Gehry’s career).
Most of the exhibit is quite dreary and unremarkable. I was a little jarred by a lithograph, “Utope Dynamit” by Gunter Rambow done in 1976 that depicts a modern glass and steel skyscraper being blown apart from the midsection. I wonder what went through Rambow’s head when Islamist nihilists brought his artistic vision to life on 9/11?
But the exhibit that forced my wife to drag me out of the museum before the fumes coming out of my ears threatened to make my head explode was a video called “Burn” by Reynold Reynolds and Patrick Jolley. This 10-minute film loop features an ordinary house filled with ordinary people slowly burning, the occupants not even noticing their own destruction as they go through the motions of living draped in thick ennui. Lest we mistakenly believe that the fire is the work of an impartial universe, one scene shows a demented arsonist pouring gasoline on the bed of a sleeping woman before setting it on fire. The woman is burnt to a cinder without even crying out.
Get it? The arsonist is the artist. The house is society. The slowly burning pantry and refrigerator, filled with ordinary food items we take for granted and without which we would starve, is our economy. The burning books and newspapers turning to ash in the hands of the characters is our literate rationality, eaten away by the rot of a cultural assault that has been going on for decades. The woman who doesn’t even cry out is you.
I suppose I understand why the artist made this work. It is surely preferable for him to express his angst this way as opposed to, say, gunning down innocent people in a theater. But the Museum of Modern Art honoring such abominations with public display is despicable beyond words.
It will be some time before I set foot in the MOMA again. My favorite works will still be there, plus I can always view them online. Artistic talent, past and present, will still exist in the world and I can honor it in my own way. But if more people don’t speak up when civilization comes under existential attack by envious losers who prefer to destroy what they cannot build, our prospects may be bleak indeed.