How modern art can be so horrid

Every day I walk by Gehry’s Stata center, which overall I have to admit is one of the more interesting and visually appealing modern buildings. The “centerpiece” of the building, however, is this bit of architectural self-abuse:

Stata Center

The building cost almost half a billion dollars to make, and over 15 million dollars went to the architect, Frank Gehry. It was intended to be a masterpiece on the vanguard of modern architecture, representing MIT’s engineering audacity. Upon its completion the head of MIT’s campus development proudly boasted of the genius of the building, breathlessly noting the way the snorkel of the central section playfully echoes and mocks the radar dish at the top of the neighboring Green building. The head of the computer science department waxed poetic about the way the light interacts with the angles and the “spaces.” This kind of guileless, sychophantic adoration by intellectuals in the academic community is revealing of the culture in which contemporary art manages to flourish despite its near general popular rejection (in NYC, the attendance at the Met is five times that of MOMA). [Update: As pointed out by a commenter, this may be a specious argument to use.] What’s most telling is the self-conscious way the praise must always be justified in (pseudo) intellectual terms, as they try to hitch their ego to the train of the artist.

If the Stata Center represents anything, however, it’s the gullibility and vanity of MIT’s former president, Charles Vest. Determined to leave a visible legacy as if he were a French King, he was blinded by the glow of yet another celebrity architect and wanted to shine a little on himself. But it was a fast burn, and the love affair soon cooled when MIT, under a much more level-headed President Susan Hockfield, decided to sue Gehry when it was discovered that the state of the art in modern architecture doesn’t apparently include proper ventilation or drainage. The lack of discipline inherent in such a $300,000,000 travesty, committed by a celebrated giant in the field, no less, should be a source of shame to the profession, or at least Gehry.

But if modern art is one thing, it is shameless. An honest person would be deeply embarrassed to use the kind of mealymouthed hyperbole that passes for discourse in architecture these days. But today the main product of the art world is not the work itself, but the post-rationalization; that pseudointellectual theoryspeak that goes in the gallery brochure, or in the building press release, or in the concert liner notes. An example, pulled from the website of MIT’s List art gallery:

Throughout his body of work, Robert Mapplethorpe interrogates classical notions of beauty…

Without this blurb, I guess you’d just have a guy with a bullwhip up his posterior. But now that you know he’s “interrogating classical notions” you have the satisfaction of getting it, which is really the only stock in trade of much of art. Too often contemporary art is not so much something we are trusted to percieve for what it is, as it is something that is dictated to us by intellectuals on gallery blurb sheets. But in the majority of cases, I think they protest too much. The obtuse theoryspeak is a diversion, a guilty wave of the hand so you don’t notice the smoke and mirrors and meaninglessness of it all. How much did Michelangelo feel he had to write or say about the Sistine Chapel?

I’m quite certain Gehry spent less time concieving the “snorkel” than our campus planner spent deciding how to appear enlightened by writing about it. And I’m equally certain that the appeal of the building will be shorter in duration as well. The Stata Center is a concept first, and a building later. And as a building it will not stand the test of time. (In fact, it should probably be considered an architectural design rule that anything clad entirely in reflective aluminum will not.)

In making these arguments, I can’t avoid having to rely on unsubstantiated notions of beauty. I would love to be able to make a compelling case for the worthlessness of Gehry’s shining aluminum pod using erudite sounding theoryspeak of my own. But there is no honest verbal way to explain or justify aesthetics, and thus no sufficient way to discuss lack the thereof. As they say, you know it when you see it. And that may be pretty much all that can be said with any itegrity. Of course beauty is subjective, but the fact that people will not be uniform in their visceral reaction should not discount it as the major goal of art. But to admit this would be to put the lie to the idea of art as an academically viable subject and democratize something the elites have worked so hard to claim for themselves. The favorite canard of academics that “all art is political” is really just an excuse for why it is so unsatisfying under their control.

I think the basis of the decline of visceral appeal in modern art and architecture is the intellectuallization of something that can not, and should not, be treated as such. Somehow, insecure academics were allowed to take the arts and distort them into psuedo-sciences, replete with jargon and self-conscious convoluted rationalizations. They try to intellectually own the unspeakable, and in doing so shrink and diminish art to fit in their contrived intellectual frameworks. Like school children catching butterflys, they kill what they are trying to study. By replacing the true but inarticulable beauty of real art with the falsely eloquent self-referential theories of academic art, they break it free from its inscrutible but nonetheless real basis: visceral human reaction. Thus detached and adrift, art has become ripe fodder for charlatans. We are left with stunt art: candy wrappers thrown on the floor as scupture, emotionless atonal noise as music, and desk sculpture scaled up and masquerading as architecture. It’s somehow unsatistfying and dehumanizing. The problem is, we can’t quite explain why.

10 thoughts on “How modern art can be so horrid

  1. Anatoly Yakovlev

    Excellent article!
    I have not seen The Stata Center, although I very much would like to; however, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles surely fits the “art” category you described. All I can say about this kind of art is that it appears to be a meaningless pile of glossy metal, and only fame of architects give it any kind of (undue) authority in art.

  2. Jonathan Post author

    I will say this about Gehry’s stuff: at least it takes more effort than the concrete boxes we got in the 70s. But I don’t think his stuff will stand the test of time. I predict that Gehry’s architecture will begin to look very tired in less than a decade.

  3. greg

    I’ve only just heard that MIT is suing Gehry. Of course I’d prefer they shoot him, or draw and quarter him. But these are squeamish days we’s a livin’ in, and I suppose a lawsuit is the best I can hope for.

    I saw the Stata center a couple of years ago, not too long after it was finished. Jonathan is right, on an abstract level, in saying, “It’s somehow unsatistfying and dehumanizing. The problem is, we can’t explain why.”

    But you can viscerally know the explanation you can’t abstractly specify. Looking at the Stata center, I could clearly hear Gehry saying, “F**k you, a**hole. This is all about me.” That was all the explanation I needed.

    I must agree with Jonathan that this sort of architecture takes more effort than the bomb-proof cinder-block bunkers of the 1970s. But then again, that says nothing more than the truism that it takes more effort to say, “F**k you, a**hole” than it takes to say, “Ehhh…whatever.”

  4. Jonathan Post author

    greg: For the most part, I agree with you. I probably should’ve been more clear in my essay that as far as the artist is concerned, it’s all about ego, and little more. In fact, at this point the art world is in such disarray that I don’t think the artist matters; he’s just the charlatan du jour. And there will always be a surplus of such people. But what’s harder to explain is why our culture allows these fools to be so successful. Gehry makes a lot of sense to me; he’s just a guy with a big ego and little patience. But what I’m still trying to get my head around is how people keep hiring him.

  5. Johnny

    The basis for your post is something I struggle with. Is it “art” if I need to read a thesis about it and if so, is it worthwhile? Suspending a giant bathrobe in a gallery or writing a phrase in ten foot tall neon letters doesn’t seem all that brilliant. When one imagines the effort to create the actual piece it seems downright ludicrous. I think modern art is a dialogue that a casual observer may not understand by hearing bits and pieces. Maybe that bathrobe is clever because it’s really a response to some other artist’s performance art but nevertheless, it will certainly be discarded and forgotten.

    Obviously, the most frustrating part about starchitects is that their work is permanent and is supposed to serve a function. So if they design a mediocre building that’s mildly interesting because it’s different then we may be stuck with it forever. Especially since it seems like every building more than ten years old has preservationists clamoring to save it.

    One place where I found your argument to be particularly weak was your comparison of the number of people who visit Moma and the Met. The Met is at least 5 times the size, is cheaper (suggested donation) and has thousands of years of art to choose from and therefore a much higher quality overall. And also don’t discount the entire Moma as the type of “art” you are describing. I think everyone would consider a few artists in their collection to be exceptional and likely to stand the test of time.

    And as far as bad Boston buildings, one has to look no further than the brutalist City Hall to find one that is both horrifying and completely dysfunctional. The only advantage City Hall has over Gehry’s is that there will likely be no opposition when they tear it down

  6. Jonathan Post author


    I have to admit I agree with you that my use of MOMA vs. Met statistics is not a very good way to estimate the public perception of modern art, for all the reasons you state. (And I’ve added a note to that effect in the post.) Having said that, a factor of five is hard to entirely account for by differences in size or price, and to the extent that people are going to see the timeless art that is there, that is even fewer of them who are going to see the post-modern pap that I’m talking about in this post.

    You’re preaching to the choir on the brutalist buildings! I work in a the 70s era concrete box next to Stata, which looks to be modeled after a minimum security prison.

  7. Jan

    “But now that you know he’s “interrogating classical notions” you have the satisfaction of getting it, which is really the only stock in trade of much of art.”

    I couldn’t have put it better – well done!

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  9. Kelseigh

    Great article. I would have to argue that beauty is not subjective; rather, attraction is subjective, while beauty remains objective. Thus, the pile o’ candy wrappers sculpture may really click with me, while you hate it, but we are both left drooling at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

    In any case, I’m saving the page. Thank you for an excellent article.

  10. Marie

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