Inside Out and Outside In

Someone asked me how I felt about Michael Sorkin’s criticism of me in his survey of responses to Renzo Piano’s new building for the Whitney Museum of American Art [“Lost at Sea,” Oct. 19]. I was surprised to be asked, because I didn’t feel very criticized—at least not in comparison with many of the other writers Sorkin mentions. Besides, it seems to me his issue is that people don’t know how to evaluate a building. He’s probably right, in general and about me, but I claim a pass on that one because I am not an architecture critic and would never pretend to be. If I need to criticize a building, I’ll have to wait for Sorkin to teach me how.

However, since he raises the hoary old form/function dichotomy, I’ll admit that I spoke of this building’s function, which I take it is basically to make the art it houses look good. At that, I think, it succeeds very well. Still, but just by the by, I had to express my bemusement at the fact that the Whitney succeeds in making the art inside it look good precisely through neglecting to make its own exterior look very good. Maybe there’s some loss in that—I can still see the point of a museum drawing you toward it through its sheer sense of style, of its giving you a visceral feeling that you’re heading toward something wonderful before you’ve even stepped inside. But I’m not unhappy with a different idea: that of the museum as deferential servant, silent until directly addressed, of the art it presents.

Beyond that, I have only one objection to Sorkin’s treatment of me: I have to insist that I do not ever “riff.” And in this case particularly, I did not riff on Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. I described it (although I’ll admit to wishing my editor had granted me space to analyze it at greater length) and tried to indicate the effect that it had on me, which I found rather interesting: that of making me want not to look at it longer, but to go outside and look around at things at street level. Again, this has to do with the thought of buildings and what’s inside and outside them, though not in the way an architecture critic might think about this.

Although my interest in writing about the new Whitney was primarily in its exhibitions and only secondarily in the building itself, the fact that the structure is a new one, never before seen, made me ponder more than usual the fact—trivial perhaps and yet somehow unavoidable—that most artworks are encountered in buildings. And I was trying to reflect a bit on the fact that, in general, I am very comfortable with this circumstance of encountering artworks “housed,” even despite it being the nature of much contemporary art to direct my attention back to the outside, to the environs, to the at-large, to all that is not contained by the building in which I encounter it. And so I went outside and looked around me with some echo in mind of the art I’d seen.

I should also add that in looking differently at the Lower East Side, I wasn’t looking at my old neighborhood, as Sorkin imagines. I’m a newcomer, a gentrifier like the rest.

Barry Schwabsky
new york city

Sorkin Replies

I cited Barry Schwabsky’s reference to Hans Haacke’s work about buildings in Schwabsky’s “own neighborhood” as an interestingly off-site elaboration of the trope of gentrification that has been part of so many critiques of the Whitney, Schwabsky’s included (“gentrification is an art lover, just like you and me.” Sweet phrase!). Haacke’s piece seems an especially telling extension because of its historical repression by the (rival) Guggenheim (it calls out the holdings of a slumlord trustee and was thus found unfit to hang) and, in particular, because it functions as a kind of self-innoculation by the Whitney. It is one of the only works in the opening show to be housed in its very own room, as if it really were still dangerous and, by implication, certifies the great gentrifier’s own bravery and sense of PC in housing (harboring!) it. I found Schwabsky’s dilation (rumination?) on questions of transparency and opacity (and, by implication, privacy and publicity) to be, like all his work, most elegant and concise. Whether architecture is best parsed from inside out or outside in, I leave for a conversation over cocktails. I’m buying!
Michael Sorkin
new york city

Gates’s Gilded Gospel

There was one notable misstep in David Rieff’s perfectly sensible critique of the antidemocratic implications of “philanthrocapitalism” [“Philanthrocapitalism: A Self-Love Story,” Oct. 19]. At the end of the article, Rieff writes: “[F]or the first time in modern history, it has become the conventional wisdom that private business…should be entrusted with the welfare and fate of the powerless and the hungry.” But it is not the first time this has happened in modern history; it is the second. The first would be during the Gilded Age, when “self-made” men like Andrew Car­negie insisted that the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few was a good thing, the source of all progress and of civilization itself.

Carnegie’s “ideal state,” as described in his “Gospel of Wealth,” was one in which “the surplus wealth of the few will become, in the best sense, the property of the many, because administered for the common good.” The problem of rich and poor was to be solved not by any “communist” redistribution, but by allowing the rich to exercise their good judgment on behalf of a vexed and incompetent humanity: “[T]he millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor; entrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself.” This logic was widespread and durable, at least among Carnegie’s peers.

One need hardly note that the proper name for the “ideal state” imagined by Carnegie and others is not democracy, but oligarchy. Yet it seems that we constantly have to remind ourselves of this. I would humbly suggest that the reason for this is that we have been so thoroughly trained to accept the basic logic of Carnegie’s argument that we’ve become forgetful of the real meaning of democracy. Wherever there is great disparity in wealth, democracy is extinguished. And yet, on discovering this fact, we still insist on being surprised, as if it were “the first time.”

Christopher Pedersen

Obstacle Illusions

In his article “Nuclear Implosion” [Oct. 12], M.J. Rosenberg writes: “AIPAC’s power is built on the belief that it cannot be challenged with impunity, a belief that is on the verge of being exposed as illusory.” Next illusion we should drag into the light: that the NRA cannot be challenged with impunity.
Jim Houghton