On November 7, 1929, the Museum of Modern Art “opened in a five-room rented space with an ‘historical’ exhibition of (European) Post-Impressionist art, titled ‘The First Loan Exhibition: Cezanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh.’” MoMA’s founding director, Alfred Barr, had the idea that modern works that passed a test called “Torpedo in Time” would, after some fifty years, be considered historical and transfer to the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At the time, Gertrude Stein also famously quipped that the very idea of a museum of the modern was an oxymoron. In short, MoMA was more of a kunsthalle than what we usually mean by a “museum.” This October, the building on West 53rd Street in Manhattan was reopened with half a billion dollars of expansion and renovation on the outside, and an enlarged and reframed collection on the inside. It’s been noted that the white, male-dominated canon that has persisted in the museum’s eighty-year history has been finally studded conspicuously with certain works by those old masters’ contemporaries of color and women. It has also been noted, to the chagrin of certain art historians, that the wall texts explaining the works have been crafted in a way that suggests a dancing away from placing pieces of art within authoritative movements, rather offering looser, descriptive terms to tell of their place and time. Instead of the Harlem Renaissance, for example, we read “In and Around Harlem.”
Art institutions, like any small or megalithic enterprise shot through with capital, are inherently political beasts. But the larger of these often try to gloss and shade away certain political lineages or leanings. So, though institutions may develop public strategies offering a new history of modern art that represents the diversity of its protagonists, the vague results are instead an obfuscation of political movements and hidden narratives that would otherwise offer power back to those overlooked and displaced. They continue to be buried deep in the still vast, unseen collection, or, more likely, never collected or touched by the institution in the first place. For example, there is no room in MoMA’s now 708,000 square feet for the major contributions to art made by practitioners of socialist realism. Nor for that matter do we see works even tenuously connected to that tradition—there is no section titled “In and Around Socialism.”…
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