Jerry Saltz tore up and burned his MoMA press pass over the recent Björk retrospective there.
There’s been a lot of criticism of the Björk retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, but I bet the museum right now is really believing that all news is good news. I’m sure everyone wants to see for themselves how bad this show is. MoMA probably has people lined up around the block to scoff, in a similar but different way that crowds flocked to many of their recent exhibitions, such as the Marina Abramovic exhibit several years ago.
Jerry Saltz is known for being cranky. He scatters vitriol like buckshot across the scene. He absolutely makes me laugh sometimes, but I cannot always take him seriously. Beyond Saltz it seems that critics are not questioning Björk’s right to be featured as an artist. The lines between high and low art blurred long ago, particularly if one recounts the scandalous High and Low exhibit at MoMA in 1990. The concern here seems mostly to be terrible curation of the Björk exhibit or perhaps even the show’s aim. As for the curation of the show, if all the bad press is to be believed this one seems like a dud. I haven’t been to the exhibit but it sounds boring. I have the impression that it is a display of Björk music video memorabilia. It doesn’t sound like the sort of interactive, interdisciplinary work that Björk herself would develop.
As for the aim of the show, ostensibly it’s a retrospective or “mid-career survey” or something, and unfortunately it sounds like the most boring sort of retrospective focused on a subject that could be so dynamic. Beyond this, let’s be honest - the show is a potential cash cow for MoMA. A lot of MoMA’s recent exhibitions have been money makers, perhaps purposefully. Saltz writes that, “By now all of these shows feel like the museum trying to boost its numbers, pandering, and at sea,” and says that what he’s really worried about is “MoMA’s further damaging its credibility (with the permission of its trustees), riding on the backs of generations of artists and curators as it makes a suicidal slide into becoming a box-office-driven carnival. Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass vitrine; Queen Marina staring at smitten viewers in the atrium; the trashy Tim Burton show; last season's gee-whiz Rain Room; and of course, the wrecking ball Diller Scofidio + Renfro is about to swing: All are signs of a deep institutional rot.” I would say yeah, Jerry Saltz, these exhibits are about making money, but this prerogative issues not from MoMA specifically but extends out from a larger institutional and economic framework.
MoMA’s main problem may be that it exists at a nexus of ley lines in the art world and the institution is attempting to balance them all. It is first and foremost an institution of preservation for “Modern” works of art being created by artists working internationally roughly between 1880 and 1960. Founded by the “adamantine ladies” (including John D. Rockefeller’s wife,) the museum at its inception looked to collect relevant contemporary works. Following in this tradition the museum still attempts to follow and foster the development of contemporary art and artist, including acquiring such art. Finally, public relevance is MoMA’s third function, which can be especially difficult to balance at a time when, for generations, art and art consumption has become increasingly academic and less popularized. So yes, MoMA must turn to summer parties and Tim Burton and Tilda Swinton and the popular stars that all of America might recognize to draw patrons to a museum and thereby retain its popularity and populist relevance. And it has to do this to make money in order to conserve the Modern art of its past and to acquire the contemporary art of our present.
If we want a preservationist institution unaffected by the conditions of capitalism we have to nationalize our past, prepare to pay for its conservation with tax dollars. But an institution like this would not be able to simultaneously preserve the past and identify and support present art and artists. In part, we may have to accept these strategies employed by MoMA to get large crowds in the door, but we can also hope that institutions like this engage the public in different ways. In this way, Jerry Saltz may be overreacting. There’s a larger economic problem here that needs to be addressed. And while we can criticize the curator and curation of this Björk retrospective at MoMA, it may be unfair to call out all the shows at MoMA just because it is attempting to resolve itself into an institution of wider appeal to both maintain its economic position as well as its relevance in an era during which visual art revolves in a sphere largely separated academically from popular culture and interest.