Who’s Really to Blame for MoMA’s Björkgate?

(image by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)
(image by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

On Tuesday, artnet News posted an article by Christian Viveros-Fauné with the attention-grabbing and self-explanatory title, “MoMA Curator Klaus Biesenbach Should Be Fired Over Björk Show Debacle.” The piece detailed how members of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) board have expressed their extreme displeasure over the Björk show organized by MoMA Curator-at-Large Klaus Biesenbach — so much so that Biesenbach, and even MoMA Director Glenn Lowry, are in jeopardy of losing their jobs, a supposition based on a quote by Jerry Saltz, citing “long-time MoMA watchers” who believe that Lowry should have been fired long ago. While Viveros-Fauné’s sourcing is highly questionable, his story has caused an understandable furor and would be extraordinary if true. Here are some thoughts on the matter.

There have been other rumors that Lowry has been formulating an exit strategy, possibly because he sees the handwriting on the wall. I’m no fan of his, but it is the case that he has been dutifully executing the will of the board, whether that’s meant tearing down the American Folk Art Museum at the whim of MoMA Board Chairman Jerry Speyer or doing any of the other things meant to increase attendance and expand the museum. In fact, Lowry once told me in an interview that his primary job as director is to “serve” the board.

So, it’s a bit rich that unnamed board members are now shocked, SHOCKED! that MoMA has been catering to tourists. I certainly agree that the Björk show stinks up the joint, but in theory it could have worked had the star not stayed in her dressing room instead of going onstage. It’s evident to me that’s precisely what happened. After all, nobody complained about the Tim Burton show that I recall, but that’s probably because he actually showed up and did the necessary work to make it fly.

This is obviously about the board members going to dinner parties and such, and being told by friends and associates that they should be embarrassed by the show. And they should be, I guess; the problem is that they refuse to accept any responsibility for fostering the conditions that allowed it to happen. I also think it’s interesting that the story suggests it’s more important that the board didn’t attend the show rather than the public — though the jury is still out on the actual number of visitors. In the scheme of things, that’s true, but again it’s a case of chickens coming home to roost; the board is just trying to get out of the way of all the chickenshit falling from the skies.

I have to say, I feel bad for Klaus. I personally like him, and while I haven’t necessarily agreed with everything he’s done, I also like that fact that he’s a populist. Is he a publicity hog? Absolutely. So is Jerry Saltz. At least Klaus is involved in good works like helping his neighborhood, the Rockaways, recover from Sandy, because it’s the last f-ing place in New York that artists can afford to live (for now, anyway). He doesn’t spend all of his time looking in the mirror.

Finally, why shouldn’t everyone be let in on art? What sacred, ecclesiastical idea is contemporary art promoting that requires a group of the elect to govern, when contemporary art itself has become little more than an asset for plutocrats? True, a lot of academics think their theoretical exertions in Artforum and elsewhere are worth something, but their arguments are in inverse proportion to the thinness of most of the art they support.

So why this pantomime of defending vestigial ideas that the little guy supposedly doesn’t get when they no longer exist? Why wouldn’t ordinary people get the popular-culture references riddling art, or even abstraction at this point? And if popular culture is such a linchpin for artists, why shouldn’t the real deal be represented in museums? The point is to do it right, as opposed to not doing it all. And if it’s so difficult to balance the popular with the elite, why are collectors gobbling up crap like Jeff Koons? Because it’s okay for the rich to do it (when they feel like it) but not anyone else? That’s messed up.

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