America’s preëminent museum finally embraces contemporary art.
Gertrude Stein’s famous remark that “you can be a museum or you can be modern, but you can’t be both” sounds archaic today. Every self-respecting urban center has its museum of modern art, and climate-change-denying business leaders will spend lavishly to get their name on its walls. The fact that nobody seems to know what art is anymore makes a curator’s job all the more difficult.
Does anyone still subscribe to Alfred Barr’s definition of what he and his colleagues at MOMA were doing as “the conscientious, continuous, resolute distinction of quality from mediocrity”? Many curators would say that they do, but, as any Chelsea gallery-goer can attest, a vast amount of mediocre art is being shown these days, and some of it commands absurdly high prices at auction. The unfashionable, élitist notion of quality doesn’t really go away, and our need for museums to sift, select, and make illuminating judgments about recent art has never been more acute.
The Met is taking a risk in its effort to view modern and contemporary art through the lens of its historical collections, and vice versa, but no other museum could do it, or do it as well. At the very least, the effort should remind us that all art was contemporary once, and that, if it’s good enough, it stays that way.