MoMA Takes Strange Turn With a Chic, Empty Show

In the mythology of Greek antiquity, the Muses were thought to be the patron goddesses of the arts and sciences. In the beginning there were only three. Later, presumably to accommodate the traffic, this company of female divinities was expanded to nine. Among the best-known to posterity are Clio, the Muse of history; Terpsichore, the Muse of choral song and dance; and Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. Our word “museum” thus derives from the Greek, mouseion , meaning a place where the Muses preside. In other words, sacred ground.

In the modern world, where the concept of divine intervention is largely limited to the fashion industry, the concept of a muse, now lower-case in every sense, has been demoted to mean something else-a guiding spirit, perhaps, or a source of inspiration or maybe just a half-baked idea. Thus, in contemporary usage a muse is just about anything-man or beast, animate or inanimate-upon which our will has imposed some self-aggrandizing interest or with which it would be flattering to have our earthly endeavors associated in the public eye.

It is in this latter sense that the word is invoked in the title of the exhibition called The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect , which Kynaston McShine has organized at the Museum of Modern Art. In the nearly four decades that Mr. McShine has served as a curator at the Modern, he has apparently had occasion to notice “the different ways in which artists have made the museum a subject” of their art, as he writes in his introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition. “The museum as an institution generally, and maybe even the Museum of Modern Art specifically,” he writes, “has had great meaning for contemporary artists, and they often have felt strong emotional connections to it, whether of love or hate.”

Now this last statement, whether or not it is a viable basis for an art exhibition, is undoubtedly true. But it needs also to be said that you don’t have to be an artist to entertain strong feelings about museums in general and about MoMA in particular. For example, I have very strong feelings about MoMA mounting a travesty like The Museum as Muse , which is a woeful waste of time for the public and an unconscionable waste of resources for the museum. On occasions like this I have to remind myself of the museum’s past achievements-among which, most recently, was its great Bonnard exhibition. I find that the best antidote to a show like The Museum as Muse -intellectually chic but esthetically barren-is to go directly upstairs to look at the Matisses and the Brancusis in the permanent collection. It may not quite reconcile you to this latest inanity, but it does help to support a conviction that there is, after all, a significant difference to be observed between artistic seriousness and museological folly.

It’s not that I don’t understand why exhibitions like The Museum as Muse are thought to be necessary at MoMA. Given the level to which our culture has descended in this last decade of the century, aging institutions like MoMA, which once aspired to set a standard of quality in the visual arts, nowadays live in constant dread of being overtaken by history. As a consequence of this dread, the very name of the Museum of Modern Art has become an embarrassment to the institution itself-something to make amends for-in a period more and more dominated by the postmodern assault on modernism. A show like The Museum as Muse is one of the ways in which MoMA is attempting to make amends for its own history, which is now-in the judgment of the postmodernists-tainted by charges of elitism and God knows whatever other offenses in the catechism of political correctness.

The show itself is a kind of sop for the museum’s postmodernist critics. It has something of the quality of a highly stylized flea market, but a flea market with intellectual pretensions. At the outset, visitors to The Museum as Muse are presented with a series of photographs which depict museumgoers like themselves looking at objects, or at each other, in various museum settings. I suppose this is meant to be both amusing and somewhat reassuring, insofar as it attempts to make the museum visitor part of the subject of the exhibition. Yet, as the photographs are also, in part, a satire of the museum public, they have the effect of making the museumgoer complicit in the self-mockery that is the principal subject of The Museum as Muse . We are, in other words, plunged straightaway into the morass of postmodern gamesmanship.

Then come the so-called “personal museums”-portable collections of some miscellaneous objects, some of artistic interest, some not, which some artists, in common with a great many nonartists, have acquired over the course of their lives. Some of these “personal museums” are, of course, meant to be works of art themselves or at least parodies of art. Most are tiresome trivia. You can walk into almost any art-supplies shop-or, for that matter, any Staples office-supply emporium-and find collections of more visual interest than those on display in this exhibition.

As is usually the case with flea markets, one even encounters some genuine antiques in The Museum as Muse -the most notable is Charles Willson Peale’s painting of The Artist in His Museum -but the lion’s share of attention in this show is inevitably lavished on the junkier stuff. As is usually the case with postmodern exhibitions, there are the inevitable little peevish attempts at political criticism on view, too. In this category, we are offered an imitation Picasso collage, called Cowboy with Cigarette (1990), by Hans Haacke, which is intended to ridicule museum exhibitions that are underwritten by the big tobacco companies. Like most art of this persuasion, however, what is billed here as an assault on museum ethics turns out to be a ticket of admission to a highly publicized museum exhibition-a perfect example of having nice feelings and selling out at the same time.

Let it not be said, however, that there is no art of any real esthetic interest in The Museum as Muse exhibition. As a matter of fact, there is. It consists of exactly four paintings by Giorgio de Chirico from MoMA’s permanent collection. In the current exhibition, however, they have been incorporated into a larger project especially commissioned by the museum for this show: something called To Displace, to Place, to Replace (Work In Situ) (1975-1999) by Daniel Buren. This is a mixed-media deal, in which de Chirico’s paintings are listed along with the other materials employed by the artist: sheet rock, wood, screws, nails, tape, wall paint, plastic lettering and labels. In other words, Mr. Buren has removed the de Chirico paintings from the gallery in which they are usually seen, and created a special environment for them in the current show. In the space vacated by the paintings in the permanent collection, he has been allowed to paint the walls with bright green stripes.

It would certainly be interesting to know exactly how much it cost MoMA to commission this stupid project-maybe the museum should commission Mr. Haacke to devote a future work to this question-but that is about the only interesting thing about the work. On the question of who should be considered-conceptually, so to speak-the muse of The Museum as Muse , there can be little doubt that it is Marcel Duchamp. If that is a name you still thrill to, and if you hunger to see what his malign influence has wrought in high places, The Museum as Muse is your kind of show. If not, not. It remains on view at MoMA through June 1, and will mercifully not blight any other venue.