On the Idea of a Modern Art Museum

Idea of Modern Art Rufino Tamayo at MOMA (1941)

I’ve often thought that history should be taught backwards. Start with our place in time and trace the steps back. Of course, that would be hard to do with museums. We don’t know quite what from our own time deserves collecting. We also don’t know quite where we are in the particular paradigm of art. Hats off to Crystal Bridges for their State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now show and to the recent Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. But how much of this art from our own time will be in museums in a couple of decades? A hundred decades?

To this point, non-collecting contemporary art museums make sense. Unless you’re going to deaccession on an ongoing basis, nothing much will remain contemporary. Leave out the word museum, however.

Then we have the concept of a modern art museum.

A stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art brought a thought exercise about how a general museum can collect as much contemporary art as it wants, but the label of modern on a museum is limiting. Modern art is from the modern era, a general point in time, relatively recently in the scheme of things, when the dramatic change began. These museums contain works created after a significant paradigm shift that occurred in the late 19th Century. Some with the label don’t go nearly that far back.

Modern art museums show work from our own time, but depending on how you define it, we may or may not be living in the modern era (though I think we haven’t given up on it yet). Many works from the modern era are getting pretty old. If the generic definition of an antique is 100 years, there are many paintings in the Museum Of Modern Art (MOMA) that would meet that criterion.

So the question is, for how long will the term “modern art” be relevant? Or will it always be relevant? How far removed from the modern era do we have to be before singling out this category of work no longer makes sense? Will there be an equally significant paradigm shift in the art world for this to occur? Can there even be such a shift?

These are interesting questions, and of course, I don’t have answers. But I do have a selection of paintings currently hanging in the MOMA that was created in 1914, one hundred years ago including these two. Feel free to chime in.

Malevich, Idea of Modern Art De Chirico


The idea of modern art

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