NEW ORLEANS, DAY TWO
TUESDAY, 20 DECEMBER 2011
NEW ORLEANS MUSEUM OF ART
We went to NOMA today -- well, we generally go to the art museum in whatever place we visit -- primarily because I'm going to be writing about it for Curator. I hope to produce something fairly balanced and coherent for that excellent voice of reason, so here is my chance to ramble, vent, and babble.
It's really a bit of a mess. There are some lovely pieces, but the collection is a gumbo, or a gallimaufry, or a mishmash. It's quite jarring to walk from a Picasso to a Rodin to a Warhol to a Boucher. OK, it's not quite that bad, because each room or at least each wall has some kind of unifying theme. But the collection is totally random. There is just one work by each artist; frequently just one piece from an entire culture or time period. The rooms are small, so even those that have some kind of reasonable scheme do not allow much time for that concept to sink in.
But I suppose I've been spoiled by having my taste formed, more or less, at the Met, the Louvre, the various National Galleries, the Smithsonians. Not that I have spent many, many hours at these, but that each visit to one of the biggies was at some impressionable, important stage in my life, and was therefore unforgettable.
Back to NOMA, though: the signature, advertized bits of the collection were the worst of all. The famed Vogel collection is sickening rubbish. Drops of watercolor on pieces of notebook paper. Three jagged lines in pencil on a white field. A badly made movie about the Vogels at home, talking to their "artist" friends on the phone, or revisiting their old co-wokers. It made me sick. Is it all a fraud? Is it a joke? Who is fooling whom? Did the Vogels fool the galleries? [they gave 50 pieces of "art" each to 50 museums]. Did the "artists" fool the Vogels? Are the museums fooling us, the admission-paying public?
These lines constitute a work of art?
This little piece of steel is a work of art?
Yup, those are pieces of notebook paper with blotches of watercolor paint.
Yup, they're in a glass case.
Yup, they're in a glass case.
So I got worried that maybe I was just an ignoramus. After all, Picasso doesn't do much for me. I sometimes think Warhol was a charlatan -- and probably John Cage, too, although that's off-topic. I'm a bit terrified admitting this. Am I going to be tossed out of the arts world? Am I going to be labeled as one of those ridiculous throwbacks who never got over the 1940s? Sigh.
So then I started thinking about what I do get, what does it for me. It's basically stuff from the European continent from about 300 BC - 300 AD and then from about 1300 AD until about 1900. That's not much. Kind of pathetic, really.
Is it just a matter of education? Is that just how I've been trained?
Or a matter of genetics and cultural context: when and where I was born, to whom?
So then I walked up to the third floor of NOMA, where the "Pre-Columbian" floor, where there is stuff from Cambodia in the 700s, from the Mayan empire, from Africa in 1050, Zen Buddhist drawings from Japan.... And it was spectacular. Amazing stuff. Real artisanship, with intricate detail, profound feeling, wit, intelligence, insight, spiritual depth, humor. Wowie.
All it took was time, a very little time, to see into those pieces.
They licked the 20th century hollow.
And I'm going to stop now, but the thought that crossed my mind then was that this stuff was made for a practical purpose: for war, love, religion, or death. It was all useful. And the 20th century art was useless. And arrogant. And self-serving.
Hm. Am I on to something there?
Juztaposition of the Classical and the Crazy