fun house, n. A building or an attraction in an amusement park that features various devices intended to surprise, frighten, or amuse.
—The American Heritage Dictionary
I threw the bottle rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge, and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty.
—Marcel Duchamp, 1946
Everyone knows that American culture has undergone drastic changes over the last several decades. Perhaps no cultural institution has changed more drastically in that time than the art museum. Forty years ago, the typical art museum was a staid and stately place. Its architecture, often neo-classical, tended to suggest grandeur and to elicit contemplation. Soaring columns and marble halls bespoke an opulence of purpose as well as material wealth. Even museums that departed from the neo-classical model, such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, strove to embody a dignified seriousness about the vocation of art.
At that time, the museum was widely regarded as a “temple of art,” a special place set apart from the vicissitudes of the quotidian. The decibel level was low, decorum high, and crowds, generally, were sparse. In the culture at large, there was broad agreement that the art museum had a twofold curatorial purpose: to preserve and exhibit objects of historical interest and commanding aesthetic achievement, and to nurture the public’s direct experience of those objects. “Art,” not “amenity,” came first on the museum’s menu.
The seriousness of the art museum was a reflection of the seriousness of the art world. If some works of art were deliberately playful or even frivolous, art itself was entrusted with the important task of educating the imagination and helping to humanize and refine the emotions. Accordingly, art museums were democratic but not demotic institutions. They were open, but not necessarily accessible, to all. The bounty they offered exacted the homage of informed interest as the price of participation. Accessibility was a privilege anyone could earn, not a right that everyone enjoyed.
The 1960s put paid to all that. There are still a handful of holdouts: odd institutions here and there that cling stubbornly to the old ways. But the “blockbuster” mentality that began developing in the 1960s helped to transform many art museums into all-purpose cultural emporia. Increasingly, success was measured by quantity, not quality, by the take at the box office rather than at the bar of aesthetic discrimination.
Indeed, as the egalitarian imperatives of the Sixties insinuated themselves more and more thoroughly into mainstream culture, the very ideal of aesthetic excellence came under fire. Adulation, not connoisseurship, was the order of the day. Many commentators—even many artists—rejected outright the pursuit of aesthetic excellence; they saw it as an elitist holdover from the discredited hierarchies of the past. Others subordinated the aesthetic dimension of art to one or another political program or intellectual obsession. Notoriety, not artistic accomplishment, became the chief goal of art, even as terms like “challenging” and “transgressive” took precedence over “beautiful” and other traditional commendations in the lexicon of critical praise. Art was still a talismanic necessity, the presence of which underwrote an institution’s social pretensions as well as its tax-exempt status. But increasingly art functioned more as a catalyst than an end in itself—one attraction among many and not necessarily the most important. The coffee bar or restaurant, the movie theater or gift store or interactive computer center vied for attention. Art merely added the desired patina of cultural sophistication.
The triumph of quantity over quality showed itself in other ways as well. It used to be that art museums were like oases: relatively few and far between. But in the 1960s it became an article of faith in some quarters that anyone could be an artist; it is our misfortune that so many people seem to have believed that dogma. Suddenly there was a Niagara of new art clamoring for attention. Established art museums undertook ambitious building programs to house the stuff; museumless towns and college campuses scurried to remedy their lack. When it came to anything that could be congregated under the banner of “the arts,” the watchword was “more is better.” Everywhere one looked there was a new or greatly expanded museum or arts center. No self-respecting population dared be without some visible “commitment to the arts.” But the curious logic that subordinated aesthetic to political considerations also meant that while possessing a museum became a badge of social respectability, “respectability” itself had become a deeply suspect idea. Art museums are still monuments to civic pride—and, sometimes, assets to civic coffers. The irony is that today many museums extol values utterly at odds with the civilization that produced and that continues to sustain them.
I had occasion to ponder all this recently on a brief trip to the Berkshires with my wife and two-and-a-half-year-old son. We stopped off to see MASS MoCA, the sprawling, thirteen-acre complex of reclaimed factory buildings in downtown North Adams that only a few years ago was called the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art but is now formally known by its shorter, more chic acronym. The last time I had visited MASS MoCA was in the fall of 1997, some eighteen months before the $31 point-something million project opened to the public. It is an extraordinary site. Twenty-seven buildings, mostly dating from the latter part of the nineteenth-century, huddle next to the south branch of the Hoosic River. A network of courtyards, elevated bridges, and narrow passageways impart an intimate, village-like feeling to the fenced-in complex, or “campus,” as the museum’s literature likes to put it. Like many disused industrial sites, those old brick buildings have a peculiar poetry about them, a certain eldritch charm that has partly to do with the site, partly with the broken handsomeness of the ramshackle utilitarian structures, partly with the spectacle of so much human purpose set forth and then abandoned. It has often been suggested that the architecture of such institutions, instinct as it is with the romance of a bygone era, is its most appealing work of art. That is certainly the case at MASS MoCA.
When the electronics company that had last occupied the site decamped in the mid-1980s, it left some four-thousand people—nearly a quarter of North Adams’s population—out of work. What to do with the site? Michael Dukakis’s “Massachusetts Miracle” was turning out to be about as successful as the famous photograph of him posing in an army tank. Credit for the idea of MASS MoCA must go to Thomas Krens. Mr. Krens has been the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and its ever-expanding empire since 1988. But before that he was director of the Williams College Museum of Art a few miles up the road from North Adams. Looking for suitable space to exhibit large-scale minimalist art, he was shown the disused factory buildings. It was love at first sight. It was he who first suggested that the site be converted into a mixed-use cultural center. But if Mr. Krens had the original idea for what became MASS MoCA, credit for bringing it into being belongs to Joseph C. Thompson, the institution’s director. Mr. Thompson is clearly a patient man, for he guided the project through innumerable delays, setbacks, changes of plans, defections, and funding crises.
In many ways, then, the very existence of MASS MoCA is an example of triumph over adversity. Mr. Thompson and his colleagues must be given high marks for persistence. And it should also be noted that the working-class town of North Adams has rather a lot riding on MASS MoCA. After all, the site occupies about a third of the town’s business district. The hope is that by combining the mantra of art with some tony commercial tenants, MASS MoCA might become a profitable tourist attraction, just like Tanglewood down in Stockbridge. Will it work? There has been some encouraging news. MASS MoCA logged just over one-hundred-thousand visitors in its first year, commercial rents in the complex have more than doubled, and, as Mr. Thompson observed in an interview, in downtown North Adams there are two cappuccino machines where before there were none. Nevertheless, I remain skeptical. It is understandable that people should flock to a beautiful spot in the Berkshires to listen to performances of the music of Mozart and Beethoven. Will they also rally round in sufficient numbers to visit what is still a pretty grim mill town to look at installations of work by Joseph Beuys and Robert Rauschenberg?
Time will tell. Much will depend upon the economy, and especially on the fate of the high-tech, dot-commie enterprises that MASS MoCA has, in part, hitched its fortunes to. In any event, it is important to distinguish between MASS MoCA’s economic prospects and its artistic promise. Virtually every slip of paper emanating from the museum announces that it is “the largest center for contemporary visual and performing arts in the United States.” The museum is also fond of describing itself as a “permanent work in progress,” “a cultural factory for the twenty-first century,” “an open laboratory for the development and presentation of contemporary art,” even as “a testing ground to expand and redefine the nature of contemporary art.”
The rhetoric is telling. It is not only because it occupies former factory buildings that MASS MoCA describes itself as “a cultural factory.” The history of the buildings it occupies happily reinforces a distinctive attitude toward art and culture. It is an attitude that has its roots in a view of art as “cultural production,” that is to say, in a Marxist view of art. Something similar must be said about talk of the museum as a “laboratory” and “testing ground” to “expand” and “redefine the nature of” contemporary art: these are fashionable terms, but not merely fashionable terms. Rather, what they bespeak is an ideological fashion deeply at odds with the traditional view of art and the place of art museums in society. For lack of a more precise term, we might call it a postmodern attitude.
What makes it postmodern? For one thing, there is the pose of daringness that is merely a pose: of risk-taking that is fully indemnified, of avant-garde gestures generously underwritten by grants from the XYZ Foundation, the State of Massachusetts, and concerned citizens in favor of art, a smoke-free environment, and safe sex. You know the sort of thing I mean: certified avant-garde attitudes that also happen to be shared by everyone else in the “arts community.”
Something else that makes MASS MoCA an emblematic postmodern institution is its attitude toward the public, which manages to be minatory and welcoming at the same time. It is a delicate balancing act, and it must be said that MASS MoCA does it well. The institution depends for its life blood on community approval and a steady flow of visitors who, though predominantly not at all “cutting-edge” in their artistic or moral views, don’t mind thinking of themselves as pretty hip and with it, especially in relation to their neighbors. So the task of institutions like MASS MoCA (like, say, the Whitney Museum or MOMA or the Guggenheim in New York) is to flatter its patrons, make them believe that they are participating in something pretty daring but not too daring. It is a textbook case of what Gertrude Stein called the art of knowing exactly how far to go in going too far.
Consider some of the items MASS MoCA has on offer this season. Most of these exhibit MASS MoCA in its welcoming, affirmative mode. On April 28, fans of the rock group Talking Heads “can celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Heads’ seminal album Remain in Light” by attending an event at which “a host of celebrated musicians will reexamine this Talking Heads masterwork.” Mark your calendars! Then there is “Rich Flavors of the Republic of Georgia” at which one can “dine family-style on delicacies from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia” and then watch the movie A Chef in Love. (Those who prefer Indian food can attend “Passage to India” and “dine on sumptuous Indian food” and watch the Merchant Ivory film Cotton Mary with Madhur Jaffrey, the cook turned actress.) There is a Brazilian Carnival Dance Party and, on February 2 and 3, Mabou Mines with a “work in progress” called Red Beads, “an operatic brew of music, movement, and modern puppetry” whose story “centers on the myth of the ‘feminine mystique’ passing from mother to daughter.” In January, “Everton Sylvester and Searching for Banjo” returned to MASS MoCA “for an encore evening of cool grooves and hip talk” while in February there opens “Bubbles ’n Boxes ’n Beyond: Swiss and American Comic Art.”
What about the—how to put it?—the art art? You know, stuff in galleries that you can look at? That is an unforgivably retrograde question to ask about a “permanent work in progress” dedicated to “redefining the nature of contemporary art,” but rest assured that MASS MoCA has plenty of that on offer, too. Probably “Bubbles ’n Boxes” will qualify. But that’s only incidentally what MASS MoCA is about. Much more typical is something coming in March: the British artist Mona Hatoum, in “her first major exhibition on the East coast for five years,” will show some recent work that “represents familiar kitchen implements. Hatoum,” we read, “unsettles our relationship with the comfortable domestic sphere by turning traditional kitchen implements into threatening objects with electrification and dramatic shifts in scale.” Frankly, I am glad to learn that Hatoum is moving into the kitchen and out of herself. As far as I know, the Lebanon-born “body-sculptor” is the only artist to be featured on the web site of the British Society of Gastroenterology. She is best known for Corps Etranger, a video in which (according to one description) “Hatoum, with the assistance of a surgeon, passed a fiber optic video camera through her body orifices to create a video self-portrait.” It’s reassuring to know that she has graduated from the speculum to the spatula.
You will have to wait until March for Mona Hatoum’s latest. But right now you can see dozens of small, cartoon-like paintings by Laylah Ali, a young black artist just hired by the Williams College art department. The paintings depict stylized round-headed figures of one color doing vague but unspeakable things to stylized round-headed figures of another color. These doodles are supposed to “tell stories about violence and its aftermath.” In fact, they are a monotonous exercise in racial stereotyping. MASS MoCA describes Ali as “one of the most enigmatic young artists working today,” but what is really enigmatic is why the Williams College art department should wish to hire someone who produces such odious, ideologically predictable objects. (Actually, it’s not really so enigmatic, as anyone who can pronounce the phrase “affirmative action” knows.)
Artists like Hatoum and Ali are a dime-a-dozen today. What they have to offer is essentially an attitude, not works—or, more precisely, they offer works whose meaning is exhausted by the attitudes they embody. Such artists are a regular feature of the programs at MASS MoCA, as they are at most other museums of contemporary art today. But by now such work is so predictable that it functions more or less like interior decorating at a place like MASS MoCA. The real action is in more spectacular—well, larger, anyway—installations such as are featured in “Unnatural Science,” an exhibition of fifteen works that “use the discoveries, inventions, and methods of science as a springboard for fantastic aesthetic and intellectual investigations.”  Science is all the rage in the art world today, as it is in certain precincts of the academy. Or, to put it more precisely, what is fashionable is “science” not science. I do not mean the sort of thing that goes on in physics classes or chemistry classes, but the palaver that drifts up from English departments and seminars in “science studies.” In other words, the subject is never the truth about the natural world—which after all is what science is all about—but rather the rhetoric, apparatus, and sociology of science.
A good example was “Useless Science,” an exhibition that was part of “Making Choices,” the second installment of the Museum of Modern Art’s series “MOMA 2000” last summer. The great paterfamilias of this sort of art was Marcel Duchamp, who in the 1920s devoted a lot of time to making objects with titles like Rotary Hemisphere (Precision Optics) (1925) and The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–23). Like everything Duchamp did, these objects were spoofs: anti-art, anti-science, indeed anti-intellect as only a clever, nihilistic intellectual could be. Duchamp did not have any recognizable politics, apart from a species of impish anarchism. But his gestures have been eagerly adopted by generations of left-wing artists and critics who seem to believe that his efforts to bring art and intellectual inquiry to an end were somehow deep critical explorations. The curators of “Useless Science” tell us that the exhibition “explores the theme of pure scientific inquiry from the first experiments in optics by Marcel Duchamp to recent tests of endurance by Matthew Barney.” But that’s just meaningless artspeak. Duchamp did not make any “experiments” in optics, he played at making experiments. And as for Matthew Barney, the only thing he “tests” is one’s credulity.
In a revealing passage, the curators of “Useless Science” speak admiringly of those artists who carry on in “the tradition of pseudoscience” and
adopt the rigorous discipline of the objective recorder, the patience of the specimen collector, or the logic of the master engineer, not for the sake of finding an answer to a particular biological or technical question, but, certain in the notion that there are an infinite number of solutions to every problem, to test the very methods of scientific inquiry itself.
It is worth pausing to reflect on this remarkable statement. Is it true that there are “an infinite number of solutions to every problem”? Do artists like Duchamp or Man Ray or Max Ernst or Matthew Barney “test the very methods of scientific inquiry itself”? No and no again. Plenty of problems have only one solution—start with the perfectly respectable problem 2 + 2 = ? And as for artists testing “the very methods of scientific inquiry itself,” simple kindness requires that we pass by in silence.
Among other things, statements like the above—and examples are legion—illustrate the baneful influence of Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Since its publication in 1962, this slim book has done an enormous amount to foster happy irrationalism about science, especially among the scientifically illiterate. The damage it has done in the intellectual slums—in sociology, literary theory, etc.—has been incalculable. Kuhn’s doctrine that science does not progress toward truth but merely “solves problems” within a dominant “paradigm” has been like manna from heaven for people keen to undercut the authority of science. Conflating the history of science with the logic of science, Kuhn’s theory underwrites what we might call a nonjudgmental view of truth. Different scientific paradigms, he tells us, are “incommensurable.” We cannot say that one is true and the other false, merely that they are different.
Laura Steward Heon, the curator of “Unnatural Science,” is a grateful Kuhnian. In her catalogue essay, she correctly observes that “before Kuhn, science had been seen as the orderly progression of one theory to another until the truth about some phenomenon was established.” But now, post-Kuhn, we can rejoice that “different people at different times and places find conflicting but correct answers about the same topic.” “Unnatural Science” is in large part an homage to the spirit of Kuhn’s theory. Kuhn was fond of asking questions like “what mistake was made, what rule broken, when and by whom, in arriving at, say, the Ptolemaic system?” His idea was that there was no mistake, that the Ptolemaic “paradigm” simply had different assumptions about the geography of the solar system from the Copernican.
This will not do. As the Australian philosopher David Stove pointed out, most people—most non-intellectuals, anyway—find Kuhn’s question almost embarrassingly easy to answer. For starters, there was the mistake of believing that the sun goes around the earth each day. Kuhn’s theory holds that in the evolution of science ignorance is not replaced by knowledge, rather yesterday’s knowledge is replaced by “knowledge of another and incompatible sort.” But what sort of beast is “incompatible knowledge”? As Stove points out, “knowledge implies truth, and truths cannot be incompatible with one another.” 
The Kuhnian revolution has enjoyed such wild success partly because it challenges the intellectual authority of science; even more important, perhaps, is its challenge to the political or moral authority of the society that honors the claims of scientific truth. As Ms. Heon observes, “Kuhn unintentionally opened the floodgates for politically driven challenges to scientific findings and methods from the general public.” The intellectual merits of those challenges are essentially nil. But they make for an atmosphere of political theater that speaks deeply to the postmodern sensibility. It is that atmosphere—knowing, darkly frivolous, latitudinarian about everything except its own pretensions—that institutions like MASS MoCA exist to nurture and that exhibitions like “Unnatural Science” instantiate.
Consider: in Room of the Host we see two-hundred “imaginary zoological specimens” suspended in illuminated glass jars filled with oil and hanging from the ceiling of a darkened room. “Each specimen,” we read in some accompanying literature, “whirls in its liquid, emitting chirps and snippets of song that stop the moment a visitor approaches.” It is invariably the case that whenever anyone in the arts or humanities starts talking about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, something has gone terribly wrong. No sooner had I stepped into the room with those creepy chattering jars than it was explained to me that the fact that the blobs in the jars stopped whirling and chirping when one approached was in part an illustration of Heisenberg’s overused and misunderstood principle about the subatomic world. Or consider, Food Chain, a work consisting of a series of large, meticulously printed color photographs. The photographs begin by depicting a caterpillar eating a tomato and move on to show the caterpillar being eaten by a praying mantis, which in turn mates with and is devoured by a female praying mantis, which in turn is eaten by a frog. The gruesomeness of the carnage is accentuated by the over-lifesize of the photographs.
In Slumber we are presented with the set for a performance piece by Janine Antoni. It consists of a loom, some yarn, a bed and blanket, a nightgown, and an EEG machine. “During the performance,” we read,
Antoni weaves the blanket at the loom during the day and sleeps in the bed, covered by the blanket, at night. While she sleeps, the EEG machine records her rapid eye movements (REM), plotting out the patterns of her dreams. When she wakes up, she transfers the record of her REM to a graph and weaves the pattern with strips of her nightgown. The woven pattern is an analogue for her dreams, and weaving is analogous to dreaming. Each nightgown has been symbolically connected to the place of performance. Most recently she performed Slumber in New York, a fashion capital, and had an elegant Christian Dior nightgown, whose tag you can see at the loom end of the blanket.
We are told that “like many feminist artists,” Antoni “emphasizes performance and process.” But since we are in the p’s, what about “unbearable pretentiousness”? Antoni certainly emphasizes that, as well.
The most elaborate installation on view in “Unnatural Science” is the poetically titled Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions by Eve Andrée Laramée. This is a roomful of what appear to be beakers, condensers, and the like erected on laboratory tables. Some of the glass—much of which is hand blown, all of which is described as “dysfunctional”—is engraved with “text referring to subjectivity, intuition, guesswork, and desire.” Measurements are in “handfuls” and “mouthfuls,” the imaginary distillate is a “blunder,” “misconception,” “boo boo,” etc. “Laramée,” we are told, “uses science to explore the subjective realms of poetry, absurdity, contradiction, and metaphor, realms normally considered the province of art.”
Really? How exactly does that impressive construction of glass tubing “explore” the realm of anything, subjective or otherwise? Like several of the items in “Unnatural Science,” Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions was fun to look at. It had the sort of fetching whimsy one associates with a child’s playing with a chemistry set. Is that a good thing? Ms. Heon was right to stress the playful nature of the installations in “Unnatural Science,” even if some of the play has a distinctly malevolent cast to it.
Our two-and-and-half-year-old son got it immediately. He liked Vague Intuitions, was skeptical about Room of the Host, and refused to set foot in the gigantic gallery that housed Überorgan, a piece that incorporates inflated bladders “as big as buses” and “reminiscent of body organs” that play “layered musical sounds on a 12-tone scale.” It was pretty awful. Überorgan, though not technically part of “Unnatural Science,” exudes the same spirit. How should we understand that spirit? A recent innovation at MASS MoCA is “Kidspace,” “both a gallery for exhibiting the artwork of contemporary artists and a studio where children will create innovative artwork of their own.” When we visited, an installation of “interactive sculptures” called “Open and Shut: Artists’ Doors” was just going up. Among the attractions was a little house in which, when one closed a door, a light might go on and a window would open. Close the window and something else would happen. It was lots of fun and our son loved it. It was just like going to a fun house. The question is: how do the objects on view in “Kidspace” differ from the objects in the art galleries proper—apart, I mean, from the level of pretension with which the latter are presented? It would take a sharp man to tell the difference. Like my son, I believe it’s all pretty much the same.
- “Unnatural Science: An Exhibition” opened at MASS MoCA on June 3, 2000 and remains on view through March 15, 2001. A catalogue of the exhibition, by Laura Steward Heon with John Ackerman, has been published by MASS MoCA Publications (126 pages, $27.50 paper). Go back to the text.
- See “Cole Porter and Karl Popper: The Jazz Age in the Philosophy of Science” in Against the Idols of the Age (Transaction, 1999). Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 6, on page 5
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