Modernism: The Lure of Heresy

It's Not Frank Gehry's Fault They Put Motorcycles in His Museum
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 5 2007 6:18 PM

Modernism: The Lure of Heresy

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Dear Mia:

Once again, your comments seem reasonable, but I do have a reply to them. I certainly agree that Pop Art did not directly address the "vulgarians." They had no particular interest in art of whatever kind; they didn't go to museums. But, following Duchamp, Pop artists also had no use for distinctions that had been considered safe and necessary by "serious" progressive artists in earlier decades.

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This may be a way out having to do with my taste, which in fact has little use for installations, for a show that has a rectangular board painted whatever color leaned against a wall, or for paintings by Jim Dine appending a necktie to a canvas showing a shirt. I do agree with you, and could have said more about it, that fashion had a lot to do with it. When we look at the insane auction prices (Warhols regularly going for millions, to say nothing of the other amazing totals realized when some of our billionaires decided to get into the market), we are facing an unprecedented time for "artistic" success. Where all this is going to go is beyond my power to speculate. It's certainly unprecedented. I do remember that, when Japanese entrepreneurs 20 years ago shoved van Goghs to above $70 million, we all thought that this would go on forever. Yet when the Japanese bubble burst, the inflation stopped (not for long, to be sure, but we didn't know—certainly I didn't know—that it would all come back).

As for Gehry and Postmodernism. Early on, I wrote a chapter on Postmodernism, which particularly worried and incensed the academy. I therefore decided not to get involved in quite another fight. I greatly enjoyed and enjoy Modernism (whether Picasso or Virginia Woolf or Orson Welles) but thought that Postmodernism was a fad and would not last forever. So I gave up writing about it and threw away the chapter. I don't call Gehry Postmodern. I agree that he is unwilling to be enlisted in any school or category. He tries in the most interesting way to fulfill the client's needs. But as distinct from Postmodernist architects like Eisenman and Libeskind, he does respect form following, or at the least not offending, function. To judge from his recent (say last quarter-century) designs, he does not construct things that simply play games or impose their moral prejudices on the public. Thus Eisenman's balconies in Tegel or Libeskind's voids, areas of devout silence (where you are supposed to feel terrible about the Holocaust), make demands on the public that Gehry and others like him would not dream of making. The Bilbao Museum is quite functional, with its rooms adjusted to the kind of art each is supposed to house. One real problem, which is not Gehry's fault, is that the quality of much recent art is not particularly inspiring. When I was there, the big historical survey of motorcycles dominated the biggest of the rooms. It was plainly a lot of fun for the young Spaniards who had dragged their girlfriends in (the girls behaved very well, I thought, obviously pretending to be charmed by the shape of saddles and whatever). But that, of course, said very little about the architecture except that it was highly adaptable. I grant that Postmodernists have emphasized irony and other mainstays, qualities that existed earlier, especially in fiction, I think. But their deliberate fragmentations, and their attacks on any security about the external, and internal, world are in my mind the enemy of the kind of knowledge on which we can depend.

And so, dear Mia, we must remain somewhat divided. But I appreciated your doubts!

Best,
Peter

Peter Gay, a professor emeritus of history at Yale University, is the author of Modernism: The Lure of Heresy.

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