Modern Art & Power
Henry CK Liu has published a very interesting series of article in the Asia Times online: Money Power and Modern Art. A Harvard graduated architect and urban designer, Liu developed and interest in economics and international relations. He is an independent commentator on culture, economics and politics. He is currently chairman of the New York-based Liu Investment Group and a contributor to Asia Times. His homepage contains articles mainly on monetary and economic issues.
Money Power and Modern Art focuses on the creation of the Museum of the Modern Art in New York and the legacy of a few protagonists, mainly Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the wife of John D Rockefeller Jr, son of the founder of the Standard Oil.
The first two articles describe the historic and economic background: the rise of Rockefeller, the monetary controversy in the late 19 and early 20th century, the private control of currency, and the creation and implementation of institutions and acts which made the wealth accumulation structurally systemic.
A third article The Year of Contradictions is about 1913. A year marked by the Armory Show in New York, with the purpose of introducing the work of antiacademic artists from both sides of the Atlantic usually neglected by current shows. 1913 was also the year of the creation of the Federal Reserve System and the textile workers strikes. Left-wing intellectuals such as John Reed were debating about social responsibility and the cultural cause, while a rightist radicalism was taking form through what Liu calls a monetary coup d’état.
Pivotal figures of the creation of the MoMA in 1929 are also introduced in this article.
View across garden, in new MoMA building by Yoshio Taniguchi
In Modern art and socialism Liu describes Abby Aldrich Rockefeller‘s commitment to modernity as well as the innovative approach of Alfred Barr the founding director of the MoMA. This article includes an interesting reflection on the conceptual problem facing a museum of modern art and the contradiction between the museum as a depository of things of the past, a legitimizing academy and modernity.
Regarding the dominant socialist content of art and culture of this era, Liu writes: “In many ways, what saved the Modern Movement in the US, more than the sanitizing of its socialist content, was its rejection by the Soviets, a fundamental error in a series of fundamental errors traceable to a garrison-state mentality, killing the revolution to protect the revolution. Stalin, who saw the state as the sole agent of revolution rejected non-objective art…”
Other interesting chapters are the beginnings of the Modern Art Movement, the architecture of the MoMA at the beginning and the latest addition, architectural considerations in a museum design, as well as the business aspects of a museum.
The last article: Modern Art and freedom of expression
In the early 30’s, the Junior Advisory Committee of the MoMa criticized the museum’s trustees of the Modern’s near-exclusive focus on European artists and for neglecting the works of American artists. The trustees authorized the committee to organize a show, “Murals by Painters and Photographers”, of works of American muralists. This exhibition included controversial artworks, such as Us Fellas Gotta Stick Together – Al Capone by Hugo Gellert, depicting among others Henry Ford, president Hoover and Rockefeller Sr sitting with Al Capone. The controversy of this artwork was a prelude to a later famous scandal: Diego Rivera‘s mural including a portrait of Lenin in the Rockefeller Center, an episode which is widely reported including Rivera’s own narration. Through these episodes Liu writes about the contradiction of ideals of liberal capitalism and freedom of expression through art. Is it legitimate to “sanitize the unwanted social-political content of art“?
We read about more recent controversies, such as mayor Giuliani’s outrage over an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 99, lawsuits against some government funded exhibitions – censorship based on the taxpayer’s money rationale, and the private money versus public funding of art events and their respective prerogative in censorship.
I tried to present some of the headlines of these articles. Liu draws some very interesting parallels between this era and the present times, such as common aspects with Stalinism, early Protestantism in part 3, or the (lack of) historic basis of protection of intellectual property rights and the Microsoft case – part 2: A monetary coup d’état.
If this field interests you, I highly recommend the original text.