As much as the hyperactivity of this city can be overwhelming at times, it also brings good things with it: great theatre, music, famous intellectuals who speak all over the city, and, more recently and personally, a good friend of mine from the UK has come to live and work here for the year. This of course means that I get to play hostess/tour-guide and even do some of the things that I never get around to doing otherwise, like visit the many museums this city has to offer.
Which is what we did last weekend when we took a trip to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). But walking around it I started to remember what I dislike about modern art exhibitions: namely that it is often art about art. In situations like this, I start getting philosophical. Philosophy, for me anyway, often begins in frustration (and not, as some might have it, in disappointment). One of the best interpreters that I've read of modern visual art is the American philosopher Arthur Danto. In Beyond the Brillo Box, Danto argued that "to see something as art is to be ready to interpret it in terms of what and how it means" and, " to interpret a work is to be committed to a historical explanation of the work." In other words, in order to understand a work, one must understand how it fits in and relates to previous work: "A red square of 1915 by Malevich," he writes, "is a very different work from a red square which might otherwise resemble it minutely, by Ad Reinhardt, done in 1962, and that in turn is very different from one done in 1981 by Marcia Hafif."
The meaning of the elements of a work of art is not immediately obvious or static, but involves a deep understanding of the 'language' of art, as it were. This concept of art might not be universally accepted, but it is hardly controversial. And I felt the weight of it come down on me while perusing one of the exhibits. Having no deep familiarity with modern art I was struck by how much I did not understand. At one point my friend came up to me and said, 'this is a nice piece.' I replied that I couldn't tell. Modern art so often, it seems to me, is not only its own language, but it is a language that talks to itself.
There was also an exhibit on the significance of the helicopter for civilians during the Vietnam War, and finally an exhibit on the transformation of the kitchen over the latter part of the 20th century. One of the panels on the wall noted that towards the middle of the 20th century arose a new kind of drama, the 'kitchen-sink' drama, which moved the focus of theatrical subjects from the higher classes or aristocracy (Wilde, Shaw etc) to more 'ordinary' people (Michel Tremblay). This makes sense, as the kitchen is a kind of hub of social activity in many (most?) households. And yet what struck me about this exhibit was the complete lack of subjects. Sure there were a couple of videos, some ads from previous decades featuring housewives and kitchen appliances, and even one eerie video of a what seemed like a Stepford wife, following a recipe in a kind of robotic way, making a mess of the ingredients in the process. But mostly there were 'machines of better living' on display, in their varying styles and manifestations.Appliances with smooth and shiny exteriors, made for efficiency and housing various commodities in both times of economic boom and recession/depression filled the displays, demonstrating what kitchens should be rather than what they necessarily are. In his book The Look of Architecture, Witold Rybczynski writes that "both homes and clothes convey values." Put more generally: style conveys value. Sleek, shiny machines are built for sleek and shiny living.
But real living, or dwelling, is not always so simple or easily contained. I was reminded of a time when I was little, when my mum was making a tiramisu for a dinner party the following evening. It was the end of a long day, she had made everything else, and I suppose I was getting bored. So, I thought it might be funny, while she wasn't looking, to turn the blender up to the highest setting. Naturally when she turned it on, the entire eggy-white contents of the blender flew all over the kitchen - onto the ceiling, into the cracks between the cupboards, everywhere. Machines of better living? Not always.
The kitchen exhibit had made us all hungry by that point, so the day ended with another iconic New York experience: Katz's deli (where Meg Ryan has her infamous fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally). I remember once in a cafe in Edinburgh ordering something called the "New York-style pastrami sandwich". What I got was one thin slice of rubbery pastrami on a stale bagel. Contrast that with the Reuben sandwich I got from Katz's: so much meat I could barely fit it in my mouth. Now that's value.