Alfred Barr Jr.
It's been seventy-five years since Alfred
H. Barr Jr.s exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art
. If you go to any museum
that has modern art, his influence is visible in the organization and artists
selected. Throughout the museum and curatorial world Barrs shows and clout
are controversial topics - and should be. Why should it be controversial? Anyone
that has been that successful in creating a paradigm that still exists today has
to be examined. It also happens that the paradigm that Barr created is the common
understanding of modernism. On the one hand, it is not possible for everyone to
have such clarity of thought on such new and difficult subjects, and on the other
if there were a first rule of modernism, it would be to overturn the rules of
your forefathers. So lets take a look at how Cubism and Abstract Art interacts
with the notion of modernism and the period.
Hindsight makes the past clear. There is one caveat about modernism that is
often overlooked: every modernist statement was active within a time period
where all these manifestos, artists statements and methods of science
and industry were emphatic, pointed, aggressive, unquestionable, didactic -
something to have faith in. These voices create Truth. In my examination of
the Cubism and Abstract Art I cant help but want for such an entrance
point into the contemporary art conversations. And, apparently, critics can't
help but want the past to be as open-ended as the present is. Overall, it's
not that I agree with Barr in a totalitarian sense, but his clairvoyant ability
to share difficult subjects with the public is something to idealize and strive
Barr with MoMA Trustees and Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (a key acquisition)
Alfred H. Barr Jr. received his B.A. and M.A from Princeton University and
received his Ph. D. from Harvard. He taught three years at Wellesley College
where he offered the first Modern Art class and used the notion of treating
his students as, faculty. This notion is something that relates
to his famous notion of museum as, a
laboratory; in its experiments, the public is invited to participate
After three years of teaching, he was awarded a Carnegie Fellowship and appointed
as the first director of the Museum of Modern Art. It is said that he almost
didnt get the job because he was dressed shabbily. As director, the first
show he put together at MoMA was Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh.
Some of highlight shows of his career are Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism; Picasso:
Fifty Years of his Art; Van Gogh Show (1935) and the point of examination in
this paper, Cubism and Abstract Art. Throughout his career he worked passionately
as both an advocate and educator of modern art. His relentless drive to create
hundreds of papers, books, and shows on modernity that distilled ideas over
time can be thanked for shaping our contemporary reception and perception of
many artists who make up the modern canon of art and the shape not just the
way we organize modernism but contemporary art in museums.
In art museums today there are often too many visual conversations to really
engage in any one of them. It also doesn't help when the explanation or
statements about the shows are lacking in content and context, but just make
small homogenizing sweeps at a time frame or idea. Not to say that this is every
show, but in the greater art world of today we are stuck with comments like,
decline of art criticism
end of art,
death of painting
, and my new favorite reality
as art as trash as art
. The spirit of the times is not a call to action,
an examination of trending styles, or words that inspire faith. In a specific,
funny-sad truth it is piles of trash in museums or galleries that get cleaned
up by janitors to then decompose in a landfill. Such fatalistic and negative
terms are not surprising in todays society. The language of visual
art is increasingly abstract, convoluted and decentralized. It is of growing
importance for the public (layman, art enthusiast, and various professionals)
to seek clarity from our cultural experts (historians, critics, and museologists).
It is impossible to talk about everything. It is not impossible to talk about
a paradigm one creates.
The continuously expanding and blurring of every element in life and art is
as confusing as Marcel Duchamp could have wanted or dreamed. It is ironic -
in a time where there is an imperative need for clarification/simplification
(to point out an entrance point) for this new and often borderless art/culture,
the writing is becoming equally convoluted. It doesnt help that the economic-realities
of a post 9/11 world dried up much of the fertile land where insightful criticism
happened, developed, and flourished into clarified thoughts.
Arts journalism as we used to know it is sinking with the ship
The problem is that the cuts [to newspapers] are deepening an already miserable
shortage of resources, set against a cultural universe that continues to expand
[emphasis mine]. We are past the tipping point: it has become acceptable to
run a paper with just a skeletal culture staff. Specialized writers are giving
way to generalists. Culture sections are being tossed overboard (standalone
book review sections, in particular, are a dying breed). Article lengths and
news holes (space for editorial content) are shrinking. All this
has eviscerated newspapers ability to deliver quality arts coverage, which,
as a result, must migrate elsewhere
. Many experts believe that daily newspapers
will never find a way back to sustaining solid arts journalism. Magazines are
doing marginally better, but they cannot shoulder the burden of timely local
arts coverage, especially for non-specialist readers and some are folding.
in the Art Newspaper
Much of the art writing that is happening now is not just technical speak trapped
within the conversation of art that the Ivory Tower grows - it has become at
times meta-jargon (or a simple travelogue description... Barr presented an
understanding and a structure for such also his own understanding of art was
more complicated than the version he touted to the general public, but that's
fine he did want to expand the franchise). It is a common notion for artist
or critic alike to speak in references or particular vocabulary that when boiled
down might not really say much or anything. The x-rayed statement shows only
references referencing other references. This is not saying that Barr was not
part of the Ivory Tower but he worked to turn everyone into a faculty member
- allowing a larger demographic into the abstract conversations where complex
art becomes accessible. To be in the NBA is 99.99% impossible for the 59
Alex Rauch, with his small hands, but he can play basketball. Just like sports
there are many levels of play in art.
Right now there is a greater liminal darkness around general understanding
of post-disciplinary art today. Our understanding of contemporary art is similarly
difficult to the work of the previous hundred years. The continual over-turning
of modernism, technological and information revolutions of the past 100 years
have left us with false realities and ego
, where one is trained to expect advancement on a regular occasion
- despite effort. It is a strange time in the USA where getting fired or flunking
is of little agency because there are other ways to get by. Thinking, it seems,
is not always a priority. This may be a poor example, but it seems to be a visible
theme within institutional settings and often continues into the Real
World of employment.
When the effort is too great, many people in society just shut down. Viewers
find when engaging in difficult art that the society built upon perpetual advancement
is nowhere to be found. How, then, is the viewer to know or believe that something
is at the end of the tunnel? The lack of accessible contemporary language doesnt
just hurt the viewers trying to engage with art, it also hinders the artists.
Where could one find filler for the educational void?
Filling this hole often falls on the museums specifically the educational
department. The educational department separate, from the curatorial department,
has the job of interpreting their shows for the general public, minority demographics,
donors, and children. A tall order! It makes sense, after all, why they have
their own department? I guess. There is something there that doesnt
sit well, though. It seems like a break in the system. It is a strange notion
having interrupters for the interpretation. It really makes me ask the question:
does the first party (the curatorial department) really get it. It is like an
echoing of the notion of meta-jargon. In a few contexts it doesnt matter
if people even go to the museum it good enough for the people of the
community to know the museum is there, preserving their history, raising morale!
Hypothetically, they will go at some point. Then, they do go and feel lost,
not understanding how these things are part of their culture. They stop and
get disconnected, looking like they have just ate a lemon or are so indifferent
as to not even to give the work a second look. But, if they go and connect,
something special can happen! Art can be a healing forceeven something
spiritual. The imagination kicks in and abstract and autonomous understanding
happen inside the viewer. Is the lack of spirituality because of the break in
museology? Maybe we need more Missionaries.
In their early history, museums were thought of places of Truth and infallibility.
Now they have been humanized, turning them into just another institution to
be questioned and not to be trusted one more part of a Foucauldian panopticon.
The distrust of large museums is not altogether a bad thing. It does add an
element of dynamism. The negative thing is that it takes the Truth and the authority
experts in a field should have and turns them into a maybe. Even in the information
age, one does not have time to be an expert in everything. This is not a discouragement
to research Truth as much as you can for yourself. But maybe outside of the
notion that museums are now part of the panopticon there is an element between
authority and faith that is positive.
One reason to talk about the positive effects of faith is that according to
the census the non-religious population in the USA has increased from 8% in
1990 to 15% in 2008. This is not a statement saying that religion is inherently
good or bad; it is an examination of a trend. The rise of individuals lacking
faith is a concerning factor that points to a larger overall problem that
is apparent in museums and art today.
Is this a problem between science and faith? Some scholars say that faith and
science are separate. This is just not true. For example, science to the layman
is not just the massive taxonomization to find the best answers for the questions
in life but also often stands for capital T Truth more like
faith. The professional scientist thinks more in terms of the best solution
for the problem at the time. So on the one hand, the layman generally considers
science a kind of faith and on the other hand, the two can operate at the same
time. It should be noted that there is aggregated evidence that shows
positive effects on day-to-day welfare of the spiritually active
This is where this art historical Missionary figure of Barr seems
as important as ever in this confusing time. It is naïve to think that
modernism and the industrial revolution was a less confusing time than it is
now. The elements in our daily life casting fog on our mind, vision, and spirituality
have only changed.
One of Barrs largest criticisms was being a Missionary for the
Modern. His passionate advocation of modernism is shown especially strong
and clear in Cubism and Abstract Art. The dust jacket that could have been a
banal object is now a figure that has shaped modern visual culture. This dust
jacket covering the shows catalog lives on in infamy. Edward Tufte says,
The art chart serves several purposes: a dust jacket for the catalog,
a table of contents for the show, an organizing history of modern art displayed
throughout the museum itself, and a symbol of the entire enterprise. Many
criticisms come from his omissions from the chart and causal inferences.
This show did end up being tremendously influential on the canon of modernism.
That said, one cannot anticipate how important a show will be. In the same vein,
no show can be wholly encompassing. So while other people may still want other
things, in Barrs paradigm that notion goes back to the turning over of
modernism. It is important to build off the work of our forefathers. If our
ancestors had done it all, we would be out of work. It should be taken into
account that any attempt to encompass anything in a totalitarian sense will
fall short. Barr was not trying to be a dictator and say, this is all
that happened and there is nothing else. He was putting together a show
that ended up being significantly communicable. He was working on refining these
notions for some time. This show was a shining moment where many years of smaller
essays and lectures solidified.
That is why one should have a hard time labeling the lines on the map of modernism
causal. They are well informed and researched. The show and catalogue
should be seen as part of the blooming collection of a new museum. The dust
jacket could be seen as a great work of advertising for the show. Its flow and
sharing of intense connections is brilliant. Visually teaching visual culture.
Reading the preface in the catalog, Barr states that this show is not
in a controversial sprit
and is in no sense a pioneer effort
and he wishes the text to be considered as a series of notes accompanying
the illustrations without any pretensions to originality or inclusiveness.
The notions that he was stating what was already agreed upon by scholars of
the time is still agreed upon now. It is only he way he said it and the limitations.
The map of modernism could have been a crazier map. Which then would make it
more inclusive, accurate, less casual and looking more like a map of the Paris
metro system. The beauty of Cubism and Abstract Art is that it is digestible.
This is not to say that it is simple. It really is not that simple. It looks
like some scientific chart denoting infallibility. That is a success: utilizing
the great graphic design, research, and a didactic sensibility of the time.
Each section is broken down to a page or two with accompanying pictures that
are referenced in the text. Prior to the text in each movement is a brief chronology
Since the missionary has been dead now for some time, he could be considered
more a prophet. And if modern art had a bible this wouldnt be it. It would
be a great sermon, or cliff notes. The catalogue has such a great framework
that delivers a solid foundation that it is still being talked about today and
implemented in museums. Many curators lack this kind of vision in a show. He
may not have been saying anything new, but no one else said it like he did.
His parameters were and are guidelines for basic understanding of great works
of modernist art around the turn of the 20th century. In a time of information
and technology where more and more things are becoming meta-themselves, where
can faith be generated? Our strong words and works are something to believe
in and stand behind as Barr stood behind Cubism and Abstract Art. It is important
not to forget the most basic element within all humans our fallibility.