The Michelin Man’s Lesson: 25 years ago, Björk at MoMA Was Unthinkable

THE DAILY PIC: MoMA was once so "high", even the best "low" was a threat.


THE DAILY PIC: This is an image of my pal Christian Viveros-Fauné placing a well-aimed, well-deserved kick at MoMA’s solar plexus, in the Artnet piece he published this week. (See MoMA Curator Klaus Biesenbach Should Be Fired Over Björk Show Debacle.) OK, so I’m lying. This isn’t Christian. It’s an image of Bibendum, the Michelin Man, who had a starring role in MoMA’s famous “High Low” exhibition of 1990. I bring up that show because it’s a useful reminder of how far the Modern, and so many other museums, have sunk in just 25 years. “High Low” was a deeply researched, scholarly look at the contacts with pop culture that have always been central to modernism. And yet, at that distant, more innocent moment, even that tiny crack in the wall of high art could be seen as a chasm that would let the barbarians in: Hilton Kramer’s attack on the show’s curators, Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (yes, my brother), is a necessary and hilarious addendum to Christian’s piece. For Kramer, even discussing a figure like Bibendum, in the most sober way, was seen as bringing MoMA “to the brink of one of the gravest crises in its history.” It represented the storm troopers of postmodernism – in the guise of Varnedoe and Gopnik, if you’ll believe it! – banging at the gates of Alfred Barr’s temple. (Although Barr, as almost everyone now forgets, was one of the first champions of un-high art, and got fired for it. Read Tom Crow’s new book on Pop.)

And here we are, a quarter century later, being made to discuss whether a minor pop star (we’re not talking the Beatles) deserves the MoMA space that she’s getting. We’ve lost sight of how much culture gained from the tension between “high” and “low”: It produced both Warhol and Lennon-McCartney. Get rid of the tension, as MoMA’s Björk project does, and all we get is muzak.

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