Last weekend I had the chance to visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I found this visit disturbing because my perception of the art in the gallery was that everything seemed old and shabby. A collection of photographs by the renowned Diane Arbus seemed to have faded and browned over the past fifty years, becoming something that if it were hanging in my house, would be moved out of the living room into the garage for storage to be replaced by something in better condition. It wasn’t only the Arbus pictures that seemed to have lost their luster – I was struck by the paucity of a recent work by Cremaster performance artist Matthew Barney, who had used climbing equipment to scale the underside of a catwalk, then abseiled down the wall, pausing to scribble a diagram on the white surface. The ropes and scribble had been left as evidence of the performance event, which is surely intended to be thought provoking, inspiring reflection upon the action of an artist in the process of creation being as important and valid as a work of art as anything else. The problem with this tired effort to “make you think” is that I’m not sure that the thought it provokes is really worth having. (To tell the truth the thought the work provoked in me was a state of irritation at the loss of the fifteen bucks I paid to see it that I could have used towards buying a new shirt)

The thought that the piece really provoked in me is this: shouldn’t we transcend the everyday in our work? I want art to be out of the ordinary, not dwelling upon the small gestures of scribbling a diagram on a wall, or using climbing equipment. I defer with all due respect to Matthew’s climbing abilities, which far exceed mine, but mountain climbers conquer far more impressive and imposing obstacles all the time, and this effort wasn’t particularly extraordinary if a scribbled and obscure diagram is the feeble remnant of the adventure. For centuries artists have built structures, ascended ladders and lifts, lowered themselves upon ropes and gone to far greater lengths to create wildly more inspiring and impressive works of art – Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling comes to mind, with the amazing performance of the artist working on his back atop a scaffold for years to create his transcendent masterpiece.

On a more optimistic note, perhaps the tiredness of MOMA’s collection indicates that after a century of replaying Duchamp we can at last move with positivity toward art that transcends the everyday, because celebrating temporary, ephemeral bright and shiny popular culture has been beaten to death. While this might sound reactionary at first glance I believe this is actually a radical avant garde stance, because in 2010 MOMA is about as establishment as it gets.

Time for a change.

Lux ex Tenebris

About pearce

Michael Pearce is an artist, writer, and professor of art. He is the author of "Art in the Age of Emergence."
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