Art: Upstairs And Downstairs at MOMA

A survey of the intersection of art and popular culture gets gridlocked

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Not in a long time, perhaps never, has a major show at New York City's Museum of Modern Art started with such awful press as "High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture," which kicks off MOMA's 1990-91 season. For the past few months one has heard the baying of critics as they hurled themselves against the turkey wire, eager to fix their fangs in it. Old-style formalities like seeing the exhibition or reading its catalog were dropped as writers like Barbara Rose in the Journal of Art expressed their proleptic disapproval of what the show would be and do. And when at last it opened, Roberta Smith in the New York Times denounced it as "a disaster . . . arbitrary, peculiar and maligning." More maligned than maligning, one might think.

There have been two lines of attack. The first: by putting "low" culture -- graffiti, mass print, caricature, comic strips and so forth -- in the museum along with "high," MOMA, under the new curatorial leadership of Kirk Varnedoe, has abandoned its sacred mission of cultural discrimination. The second, and more hip, version: MOMA is too hidebound and elitist an institution to deal with popular culture, or with the recent "high" culture of the '80s, at all. As the clippings pile up, one may expect to see many variations on these themes. One, common to both, is that the show has too many familiar works -- as though there were a slew of undiscovered Cubist, Surrealist or Pop masterpieces lurking out there, miraculously ignored by the world's museums.

It has been the unlucky fate of "High and Low" to attract more than the usual dose of the New York art world's free-floating anxiety. Art-world anxiety is not like real-world anxiety: it is even more paranoid. What the art world frets about is how Varnedoe, whose appointment as director of painting and sculpture at MOMA has made him America's most powerful museum figure in the modern and contemporary field, will represent all its factional interests. Hence his every action is scrutinized and picked to bits, as Etruscan haruspices once examined sacrificial livers for a sign of the future.

Varnedoe and the show's co-curator, Adam Gopnik (art critic of the New Yorker), have taken on a sprawling, slippery, tangled theme -- a survey of the transactions between fine art and popular culture over three-quarters of a century, from Cubism to the '80s. They set out to show how some "high" artists raided "low" (popular and mass) culture for their own purposes. Not all of them, needless to say, did. You won't find the visual argot of advertising, news photography, graffiti or comic strips in the work of the great Apollonians of the past hundred years, from Monet and Matisse to Richard Diebenkorn. But this vernacular, Gopnik and Varnedoe rightly argue, is essential to a grasp of Cubism, Dada, Russian Constructivism, Surrealism and their European offshoots, along with a great deal of American art produced after 1950.

Artists have always been much less snobbish about their sources than the idealizing critics who erect value systems on the back of their work. The process came to a climax in the '60s with Pop art. Moreover, since "low" sources cycle into "high" products that are then cycled back, as style, into "low" areas again, the supposedly rigid divisions between fine and popular art are more like a maze of mirrors, one reflecting the other ad infinitum.

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