With every passing day it becomes more and more apparent that the appointment two years ago of Kirk Varnedoe to the directorship of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art has placed this great institution in serious jeopardy. The evidence accumulates—and at an alarming speed—that Mr. Varnedoe has launched MOMA’s most important department upon a course so disastrous that, if not promptly reversed, the very reason for the museum's existence might soon be in doubt. In every area of responsibility that has now come within his province—in his handling of the permanent collection, in his program of exhibitions, in his choice of appointments, and in his cockeyed revisionist reading of modernism itself—Mr. Varnedoe has quickly established an agenda that radically alters both the museum's function and its basic outlook on art. As a result, his brief but already ruinous tenure has brought MOMA to the brink of one of the gravest crises in its history.

Consider the record so far. No sooner had Mr. Varnedoe taken up his post than he eagerly presided over the sale of seven paintings—among them, works by Renoir, de Chirico, Kandinsky, and Mondrian—from MOMA's so-called permanent collection in order to acquire a wildly overpriced Van Gogh that the museum was in no urgent need of. So we were put on notice straightaway that here was another curator—why is that they always seem to come from Williams College?—who looked upon the collection entrusted to his care as a portfolio of “assets” to be liquidated as the gyrations of current taste and the dynamics of the art market dictate. The principal beneficiary of this ill-fated transaction wasn’t MOMA’s public but the Swiss dealer in whose office, I am told, the deaccessioned Renoir now hangs with a price tag close to that which Mr. Varnedoe had to meet in order to acquire the Van Gogh. According to Mr. Varnedoe, the Renoir was no longer deemed necessary to the “story” that MOMA, or at least Mr. Varnedoe, now wished to tell.

And what is the nature of this “story” to be? We were given a ghastly preview in the decision to allow the late Scott Burton, a furniture artist who was one of the many over-inflated reputations produced by the art boom of the Eighties, to dismantle the museum’s Brancusis in an “Artist's Choice” exhibition designed to elevate the sculptor’s pedestals to a place of aesthetic parity with the sculpture itself. This constituted a betrayal of Brancusi’s art that turned out to be a perfect paradigm of the way the objects remaining in the permanent collection would be dealt with henceforth.

Then came the publication of A Fine Disregard, the book in which Mr. Varnedoe made it plain that it was more than Brancusi’s sculpture or even MOMA’s collection that he was intent on dismantling. It was all of modernism, which was reduced—and traduced—in this book to resemble a species of Darwinian sport. One important aspect of A Fine Disregard is its categorical assault on the ideas of the late Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Mr. Varnedoe’s great predecessor at MOMA who, not incidentally, had accorded the now deaccessioned Renoir a significant role in the “story” of modernist art. Mr. Barr is nowhere named in A Fine Disregard, but he is unmistakably one of the principal figures Mr. Varnedoe has set out to discredit in order to establish his own revisionist interpretation—and indeed, deconstruction—of modernism. And in the pursuit of this ambition, in which the intellectual fashions of the academy and the commercial imperatives of the art market are so cynically joined, Mr. Varnedoe has appointed a curator for contemporary art—the writer Robert Storr—who can be counted upon to keep all questions of quality, and no doubt a good many of the other fundamental questions that have shaped MOMA’s past, from entering into the museum’s future deliberations. A point of view that aims at discrediting Alfred Barr at the same time that it elevates a mind like Robert Storr’s to a position of power and influence is not one that promises much in the way of disinterested aesthetic enlightenment in the decade ahead.

Not since the hapless John Hightower served his fifteen minutes as MOMA’s director during the Vietnam War has a major appointment at the museum inspired as much apprehension as Mr. Varnedoe’s has among those who follow—and follow closely—the vicissitudes of this great museum and its influence on contemporary cultural life. And since Mr. Varnedoe is a lot smarter than Mr. Hightower—and much less a figurehead—the reason to be apprehensive is all the greater.

Now with the debacle of the exhibition called “High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture,” which Mr. Varnedoe has organized in collaboration with Adam Gopnik,[1] his former student at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York and currentiy the art critic for The New Yorker, this roster of disasters that have already been visited upon the museum in a very short time begins to look like a mere skirmish in the war against modernism that is now in progress at MOMA. Both in its conception and in its realization as well as in its reigning ethos, the “High & Low” exhibition is the kind of full-scale event that signals a new era at MOMA—an era in which, among other things to be deplored, the achievements of modern art are subordinated to a sociological analysis of them. Taking his cue from the ideological initiatives that have lately reshaped the study of all the humanities in our colleges and universities, Mr. Varnedoe has clearly set the museum on a course that conforms to the practice of supplanting aesthetic categories of thought with those drawn from the social sciences. By this approach, art becomes a mere coefficient of material culture, and is thus denied precisely that element of aesthetic autonomy and transcendence that has been one of the hallmarks of the modernist spirit.

What this means for museological practice is perfectly clear. The epoch of the anaesthetic curator is upon us. In the “High & Low” show we are given a vivid demonstration of what results from a view of art that is completely removed from aesthetic considerations. There is a great deal of intellectual passion at work in the exhibition and in the massive—and massively foolish—catalogue that accompanies it, but very little of this passion is guided by aesthetic intelligence.[2] At every turn in the history of their subject, the curators are so utterly agog over the minutiae of popular culture—so infatuated with what might be called the archaeology of it—that its role in shaping modern art ceases to make a primary claim on their attention and becomes a merely incidental aspect of a headlong compulsion to explore the archaeology itself. Not only modern art but art itself is accorded an indifferent and precarious status in this inquiry. All the energy is elsewhere engaged.

In standard academic fashion, moreover, the accumulation of detail acquires a life of its own and bears at times only a remote and tangential relation to the ostensible subject under review. As huge miscellanies of undifferentiated information pile up and indeed topple over, it is more and more borne in upon us that the minds in charge of this project are not really much concerned with the aesthetic aspects of their inquiry. What we are offered in “High & Low” is less an explanation of modern art than a preposterously distended taxonomy of certain cultural materials that have been used in some parts of it. Never has so much miscellaneous detail been marshaled with such paltry results—paltry, that is, if it is modern art and not the varieties and vicissitudes of popular culture that is our primary focus of interest.

Some of the artists represented in “High & Low” are among the greatest in this century—Picasso, Braque, Miró, and Léger, among others—yet in not a single case is our knowledge of these artists and their achievement in any way enlarged or altered by the kind of attention they are given on this occasion. The primary beneficiaries of “High & Low” aren’t these classic masters of modern art, whose work is held hostage here in a project that is alien to their spirit, but the artists who came to prominence with the advent of Pop Art in the 1960s, and the even more dubious talents who have more recently won an unearned renown on the contemporary art scene—unearned, that is, if aesthetic merit is our principal concern. An exhibition that concludes in a celebration of the work of Jeff Koons and Jenny Holzer—as “High & Low” does—may have something to tell us about the decadence and the politics that have overtaken cultural life in the last decade of the twentieth century, but it is an exhibition that has vacated the study of modern art in favor of a very different enterprise.

It is an enterprise that nowadays goes by the name of postmodernism, which defines the juncture at which the academicization, the politicization, and the commercialization of what was once an avant-garde meet and prosper at the expense of art itself. The key word in this enterprise is context, which can mean anything from a class analysis of the people who buy art to a race or gender analysis of the artists who create it and the institutions that support it. For obvious reasons—above all, because of its commodity function and its usefulness as a barometer of shifting tastes and values—popular culture is a subject dear to the hearts of the postmodernists, who can sooner or later be expected to "contextualize," as they say, every other aspect of cultural life until it comes somehow to resemble the objects of popular culture. As far as fine art is concerned, it is the purpose of this postmodernist mode of analysis to deconstruct every “text”—which is to say, every art object—into an inventory of its context, and thus remove the art object from the realm of aesthetic experience and make it instead a coefficient of its sources and its social environment.

There are also other, less theoretical reasons that popular culture is so dear to the hearts of the postmodernists: they like it so much more than they like real art, they are so much more at home with it, so much more at ease with its simplistic emotions and one-dimensional ideas. It may be that an immersion in the world of popular culture induces an illusion of eternal youth in these postmodernist curators, scholars, and critics who have lately disfigured the study of modern art with the materials that are given priority in the “High & Low” show—graffiti, advertising, comic strips, et al. It was, after all, in the counterculture of the Sixties, with its idealization of youth and its disparagement of high culture, that this momentous shift in attitude has its origins. When we turn to the authors’ acknowledgments in the catalogue and find the junior partner in this collaboration—Mr. Gopnik—praising Mr. Varnedoe, the senior partner, as “an incomparable learner,” we know all we need to know about where the ideas governing this exhibition are coming from.

Context is, in any case, the idea that dominates “High & Low,” and this, in turn, is a melancholy reminder of the degree to which context has so rapidly supplanted connoisseurship in the study of art. We now have an entire generation of academics and their students in the field of art history who, while they purport to know a great deal about the production and consumption of art, actually know almost nothing about how to look at a work of art. Quality is not a concept—or an experience—that has any meaning for the contextualists. It is as if, from this academic postmodernist perspective, the work of art isn’t really there as a free-standing, autonomous object. Certainly there is no evidence of a connoisseur's eye at work in the selection of the objects in the “High & Low” exhibition. I had hoped never again to have to see James Rosenquist’s meretricious Pop mural F-lll (1964-65) on display in a major museum, but there it is in the “High & Low” show commanding an immense space, just as if it were on the same level with Léger and Stuart Davis and some of the other masters of modern art. From Rosenquist to the scribblings of Cy Twombly to that idiotic display of Jeff Koons's vacuum cleaners—that is the downward course that is traced for us in “High & Low” with a grin and a wink that can scarcely conceal the satisfaction that is taken at this triumphant victory for schlock.

What we are finally left with in the “High & Low” exhibition isn't so much a study of modern art as an assault on it—and an assault on the way our understanding of modern art has been painstakingly built up over a period of six decades at MOMA in its collection, its exhibition, its publications, and the standards of connoisseurship that shaped them. What we are left with, in other words, is the spectacle of the debacle that is taking place at MOMA under Kirk Varnedoe’s leadership. No doubt there will still be some good shows coming up at the Modern in the decade ahead—I know of several important ones, the shows to be devoted to Matisse, to Popova, and to Ad Reinhardt, among others— but the agenda that Mr. Varnedoe has established is already heading in a very different direction, and we can no longer have any confidence that the integrity of the museum will survive his tenure.

  1. “High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture,” organized by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik, at the Museum of Modern Art, October 7-January 15. The exhibition will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago (February 20-May 12) and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (June 21-September 15). Go back to the text.
  2. High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik; the Museum of Modern Art/Abrams, 460 pages. $60; $29.95 paper. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 4 , on page 5
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