Beneath the dazzle of individual exhibitions with which it is celebrating the year 2000, the Museum of Modern Art is setting in place a philosophy of Modernism that will define its agenda for the century just begun. MoMA has divided the history of modern art into three forty-year segments, to each of which it is dedicating a cycle of exhibitions. Just now, an amazing array of twenty-five exhibitions opens equally as many perspectives on the choices made by artists in the period 1920-60. MoMA has, indeed, given the name “Making Choices” to this phase of its extraordinarily ambitious year-and-a-half-long program. It was preceded by “Modern Starts,” which drew on work done roughly between 1880 and 1920, and is to be followed, from September through early next year, by “Open Ends,” which will take modern art from 1960 to the present moment. It is extremely important to the philosophy of art history that MoMA is eager to defend that these are merely stretches of time rather than distinctive historical periods; and that the divisions are therefore entirely arbitrary.
The date 1880 cannot be defended as the beginning of modern art, nor is there any consensus as to when modern art began. Nor can that question be separated from the deeper question of how Modernism is to be defined. The art historian T.J. Clark recently proposed that modern art began with The Death of Marat, completed by Jacques-Louis David in October 1793–but that is because he construes Modernism politically, as art “no longer reserved for a privileged minority.” Clement Greenberg thought it began with Manet, whose flat, thinly shadowed forms were derived from photographs–a modern technology of representation. MoMA, for its own reasons, is talking not about Modernism as such at all but about modern art, toward whose history it is taking an exceedingly nominalist stance. Modern art is simply the art made in the years 1880 to the present, whether it was in any further sense Modernist, and whether there was modern art before that or not. Indeed, it is the thesis of perhaps the most important component exhibition in “Making Choices” that art can be modern despite not being Modernist. This effort to bracket Modernism as a movement or style is connected with a metaphysical thesis toward history itself: that history is entirely plastic, in the sense that it can be given any shape whatever. Thus the twenty-five separate exhibitions in “Making Choices” merely exemplify different ways in which works from 1920 to 1960 can be grouped. MoMA means in particular to imply that there is no grand narrative of modern art. The substance of art history is simply that of individual artists making individual choices.
It is not difficult to appreciate why MoMA has taken this stand, particularly in distinguishing modern art from Modernism. Its identity is as the museum of modern art–not the museum of Modernist art. We can sense this in the defiance implied by the title of the final show, “Open Ends.” Modern art is not something that is historically finished. Modernism may be over as a period, and it may or may not have been succeeded by something called Postmodernism. These simply represent different sets of choices modern artists have made. But modern art cannot be reduced to just these sets of choices. Modern art will go on and on, and the Museum of Modern Art will be its showcase and temple long after Postmodernism has faded, if it has not faded already.
Each cycle of exhibitions draws exclusively on works from MoMA’s own extraordinary collections, and in “Making Choices,” most of the museum is given over to the twenty-five constituent exhibitions. A great many of the works on view have rarely, and some perhaps never, been seen by the public. One can imagine a museum in which every work owned is a work shown, but in practice decisions have to be made between the two sets: Even after its planned expansion, MoMA will have to select which of its holdings to display. What criteria should be used? One natural answer might be: only the greatest and the best. To have made it to the walls of modern art’s greatest museum is to have achieved the supreme accolade. And this indeed was the implication of the great narrative exhibition through which modern art was until recently presented on the museum’s second floor–a narrative of high moments. The composition of the present show seems to make it clear that a new way of presenting modern art has been adopted. The second-floor galleries in which the great narrative was unfurled have been reassigned to a plurality of exhibitions, and their works have been redistributed. The history of modern art we now see is a complex network of crisscrossing streams and streamlets rather than a single mighty river, flowing forever between the banks of time. If we wish to use the word Modernism, it must lose its capital letter. There are many modernisms: “The bulging accumulation of modernisms currently mingle, overlap, circle back, and collide with each other,” writes Peter Galassi, MoMA’s curator of photography and one of the architects of “Making Choices.” It is this revolution in philosophy that makes it, in my view, the most important show in MoMA’s recent history.