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New MoMA exhibits leave culture critic asking: This is art?

Jackson Pollack's painting, "Number 17, 1949," is typical of how the artist would cast large amounts of paint across vast canvases.HO/REUTERS

Jackson Pollack’s painting, “Number 17, 1949,” is typical of how the artist would cast large amounts of paint across vast canvases.

As your mother undoubtedly told you when you were little, the floor is no place for an art project.

And yet, Mom notwithstanding, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City currently features two exhibitions featuring artists who use the floor as their workshop.

Jackson Pollock is known to art lovers as the premiere example of action painting, in which he would cast large amounts of paint across vast canvases, several of which are currently on display at MoMA.

Life magazine famously asked whether Pollock was “the greatest living painter in the United States,” the question mark at the end of that story title symbolizing the rage the art world felt over his paintings.

Were they art?

Or just the kind of thing that would enrage Mom if she saw you spreading paint all over the floor?

On your way to the Pollock exhibition, you’ll have to step carefully around a group of other artists — performance artists — who have taken up residence on the stairs and floors of the museum.

That curly-haired person whom the guards will caution you to step carefully around is Maria Hassabi — lying fetally, head downward, as if she has been shot.

The artistry here is what you, the viewer, bring to the occasion — how do you feel when you encounter a person lying down in a place where people are typically not allowed to lie down?

Hassabi and her cohorts practice what she calls the “velocity of deceleration,” a form of choreography in which the performers move at a snail’s pace, if at all, causing you, the observer, confusion, consternation, or perhaps some other emotional reaction.

At the Museum of Modern Art these days, the artists certainly have the floor.

Like most people, I desperately want to see and be seen as hip, au courant, one who gets it.

But I don’t get it.

When I’ve stood in front of Guernica, Picasso’s massive and moving homage to victims of the Spanish Civil War, or Monet’s Water Lilies, or Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing The Alps — vast works of art that take up as much wall space as Jackson Pollock’s biggest paintings — I feel something.

I see the greatness of the human spirit, which is a reflection of the divine.

I see grace, which is what you get when you multiply artistic talent by aesthetic delight.

When I stand at MoMA gazing at Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950, I don’t know what I feel.

Awe, I suppose.

It’s a big, famous painting.

When you see a big, famous painting, you feel awe.

I once met Gene Perret, a gag writer for Bob Hope.

He told me that one time, Hope was delivering a monologue to a theater audience in London.

He told a joke so topical that it wouldn’t have been funny to anyone but Americans.

Nonetheless, the British laughed uproariously.

“Why?” I asked.

“Well,” Perret explained, “they knew that Bob Hope is a famous comedian, and they knew that he had just finished telling a joke.

“After you hear a joke, you laugh. So they laughed.”

Even though they didn’t get the joke.

That’s how I felt as I stood before the huge Pollock canvas, speckled and spattered with paint.

I didn’t get the joke, but I didn’t want anybody to know.

Not long ago, I was walking in Beverly Hills when I saw a crowd gathered, complete with news cameras.

Being a curious chap, I wandered over.

“Kim Kardashian is getting her nails done in there,” a man said excitedly. “Look!”

I looked, and I saw the back of Kim Kardashian’s famous head.

Is there a straight line from Jackson Pollock’s action painting to Kim Kardashian’s nails?

It must have been nice to live in 17th century Amsterdam, where you might stumble upon the latest Rembrandt or Vermeer or Jan Hals in a gallery.

Museumgoers back then didn’t have to worry about stepping on choreographers as they headed up the stairs to see the paintings.

Maybe a drunk or two, but no performance artists.

Even the Museum of Modern Art hedges, calling One: Number 31, 1950 “arguably Pollock’s greatest masterpiece.”


Who’s still arguing about a painting old enough to draw Social Security?

I’m sure that painters who throw paint on the floor and self-described choreographers who lie on the floor have a special place in art.

I’m just too uncool to figure out what place that might be.

When it comes to keeping art off the floor, I’m afraid Mom was right.

Michael Levin, a 12-time bestselling author, runs BusinessGhost.com, a provider of ghostwriting and publishing services.

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