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Modern art live

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, April 8, 2005

On the first terrace of Purgatory, Dante, the Divine Comedy’s author and protagonist, and his guide, the Latin poet Virgil, encounter works of art so breathtaking that the reader is told “Nature’s very self would there be put to shame.”

Despite the incredible beauty and vivid, life-like representation of the images before their eyes, Virgil scolds Dante for lingering too long before a single marble carving. As Robert Hollander notes in his edition of the Purgatorio, Virgil appears to lack the attention span and appreciation of his companion. Hollander describes the poets as akin to a couple touring an art museum together. One wants to hurry through their tour of the exhibit but is delayed by the other who lingers, seemingly unaware of the passage of time and totally absorbed in the piece of art before him.

Many of us have had such experiences, perhaps more often as one or the other of these archetypal museum-goers. This past December I visited the recently reopened Museum of Modern Art in New York. MoMA offers perhaps the finest collection of 20th century art in the world. But such offerings do not come cheap. Admission costs $20 for an adult, a price that did not keep thousands of visitors from filling the galleries.

For many New York area residents a visit to one of the city’s art museums is an obligatory component of the annual family Christmas trip into the city. One passes by the store windows on 5th Avenue, takes a peek at the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, enjoys the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, and then brings the children to peruse a few Rothkos in the Museum of Modern Art. Nothing says Christmas like a canvas covered only by solid blocks of red and green paint.

I am actually rather fond of much modern art, particularly grandiose public works like “The Gates” that recently adorned New York’s Central Park. I am also quite happy to see so many individuals enjoying the city’s museums and the incredible holdings within them, even though they might need a second mortgage to do so. Yet my trips to these museums, especially during periods so busy it is difficult to catch even a glimpse of the art through the crowds of people surrounding you, often cause me to wonder how much of this art is really being enjoyed rather than simply consumed.

This question becomes particularly compelling when one strolls through the more abstract sections of MoMA. To understand what many modern artists are doing often requires far more information than most museums offer or most visitors could acquire in the span of an afternoon. The details shared on the tiny white cards next to individual pieces are often scant. Titles such as “Untitled #34” do not offer much help in understanding the motivations or intentions of the artist. When museums do attempt to share the latent gravitas of a work they often offer phrases whose obscurity only thickens the cloud of unknowing. The work of one artist exhibited at MoMA was praised for offering an “experience in which past and present are intertwined elements of an enduring proposition.” If that sentence actually says anything I would be interested in having it translated into English.

I consider the responses elicited by such works as indicative of an intriguing cultural dynamic: the desire to appreciate certain forms of art simply because others have told us they are worthy of appreciation. It is worth considering how many people would spend twenty dollars to view seemingly identical pieces of non-representational art were they displayed in a New York City parking garage. Actually such an exhibit might be considered hip. It could prove particularly so if wine and cheese were offered and a man in dark clothing plucked an acoustic bass.

While touring MoMA I overheard one man say to his children: “I don’t know why this is distinguished, but that’s art.” Perhaps he missed something. Or perhaps he realized something the rest of us missed. Is it possible that many cultural artifacts lauded as bold, inventive, and groundbreaking are really nothing more than modern incarnations of the emperor who walked around without any clothes on? Perhaps the only difference is that the little girl who felt compelled to announce that the emperor was naked could now simply paint her own version of some of the works of art hanging in MoMA.

John Infranca is a theology graduate student. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at jinfran1@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.