“The Forever Now” at MoMA: Death, Atemporality, and Zombies


Installation shot with works by Kerstin Bratsch


Critic Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker dates the last contemporary painting show at MoMA to 1958, over 50 years ago. Which is to say, an exhibition of contemporary painting seems timely, if not overdue. Enter “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” an exhibition of recent work by 17 contemporary painters up through April 5. Yet reviews of the show are hardly celebratory. Instead, they ring a death knell.

Installation view of The Forever Now Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, The Museum of Modern Art

Installation view including works by Oscar Murillo, Kerstin Bratsch, and Mary Weatherford, from left to right.

Schjeldahl writes of “dismay,” the “plight of painting,” and “crisis.” Thomas Micchelli, in his Hyperallergic review titled “The Death of Painting: All-New, 2014 Edition,” argues that the show affirms “the inability of painting to do anything surprising or new—aka painting is dead.” Schjeldahl, on the other hand, argues that painting is not dead, but rather that it has “lost symbolic force and function in a culture of promiscuous knowledge and glutting information.” Oh, well, great. From such statements, one can see why there have been no surveys of contemporary painting at MoMA. Painting is on its deathbed; somehow the medium has exhausted itself and is merely preparing to die, safely archived in the depths of MoMA’s warehouses where it can be brought out and examined as a historical curiosity.


Installation view with Variable Foot (2014) by Matt Connors and Carlotta (2013) by Charline von Heyl.

However, if you visit “The Forever Now,” you might not glean that painting is dead–at least I didn’t. The works on view are big, bold paintings that are not afraid to embrace the medium and use color and size to declare their presence. Jam-packed as they are, they overwhelm MoMA’s space, and, unfortunately, each other. Sticking true to MoMA’s modus operendi to canonize taste, the show’s safe roster includes current art world favorites, such as the Germans Charline von Heyl and Kerstin Bratsch, Americans Julie Mehretu, Rashid Johnson, Mark Grotjahn, and Amy Sillman, and a new-favorite, the young (28-year-old) Columbian Oscar Murillo. Within them, there are some great paintings, and certainly a lot to talk about, but the curation fails to provide a good context for doing so.

9 canvases of Josh Smith FOREVERMOMA-slide-8XOE-jumbo

Nine canvases by Josh Smith.

More than review after review carping on the death of painting, what irks me most about the exhibition is its subtitle: “Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World.” “Atemporal” seems a vague, but much cooler way of saying post-modern, while avoiding the complex burden that using the much-debated P-word would entail. Curator Laura Hoptman took the word “atemporal” from Sci-fi writer William Gibson, who, per the exhibition catalog, “in 2003 used the word atemporality to describe a new and strange state of the world in which, courtesy of the Internet, all eras seem to exist at once.” Sci-fi and the Internet would indeed provide a great context for a show of contemporary painting, but they are not strongly in evidence here. Hoptman glorifies the painting on view as zombie painting, half-dead and half-alive. While, again, the terminology is cool, the concept is thin, and all it does is reinforce the notion that nothing new can be done in painting (while presenting the acceptance of that as a new freedom).


Installation view with three paintings by Mark Grotjahn on left.

“Atemporality” seems like purgatory, sentencing painting to the ennui of repeated gestures. But to freely use elements of art historical tradition does not have to equate to a death sentence, or even a half-death sentence. It is glib to say that these works are “atemporal,” that is, post-modern, and leave the relationship to the past with a mere reference to the Internet (capital “I”). Atemporality, zombies, and the Internet feel like a jargon-y sidestep that puts off dealing with what happens to art history when we discard the Modernist progress narrative and cult of originality. Certainly, of all places, MoMA could do a little better by the breadth of work being made today.

What would Picasso’s hourly rate be?: Art & Copyright on the Internet

tpb_awkThe new documentary Pirate Bay: Away from the Keyboard is out, telling the story of the three founders of the largest file sharing software in the world as they defend the legality of their role in the sharing of copyrighted information, predominately movies and music. A clear division exists between the defendants, three Swedish computer nerds interested in technical challenges and the open internet, and the plaintiffs, Hollywood and the music industry with its vested corporate interest in traditional methods of pricing and distribution. The defendants claim that Pirate Bay is just a vehicle for sharing information, and that they are not responsible for what any of their thousands of users choose to share. The plaintiffs allege that Pirate Bay actively enables the sharing of copyrighted information, and also profits from it (that is, rather than promoting the free exchange of information they are profiting from it in exactly the same capitalist way that Hollywood et al. does). After an initial loss and lengthy appeals, the founders of Pirate Bay were found guilty and sentenced to jail time—which is happening now.

This case is illustrative of the battle between the vested corporate interests in information and culture production and all the capitalist money-making behind it, and the open, flexible, low-cost alternatives made available by the internet and its ethos of free and open access to information. How the internet is handled—how and to what extent restrictions are placed on it, whether it will be allowed to function as a free and open conduit of information—is one of the central issues of our time, one that will determine the lives of many across the globe, who will either be included into a network of information that can benefit them or who will be excluded and will suffer from that lack of knowledge.

What does this have to do with Picasso? The alternatives offered by the internet are exciting, revolutionary even, in terms of arts and culture. To treat art (by art I am thinking of traditional visual arts, but also movies be they Hollywood blockbusters or experimental art films, music, etc.) as a commodity is standard today. Thus we have the art market, cinemas, expensive DVDs and CDs, an iTunes-mediated music purchasing system. But there is a huge discrepancy between the art market and the art. The value of a Picasso is apparently in the millions, but really this is an arbitrary number. It does not adequately represent the value of his work to our cultural life, nor can its costs of production be calculated the way we calculate the cost of a washing machine. What would Picasso’s hourly rate have been? The questions seem ridiculous. It does not make sense to us that Picasso would have sat at his stool and timed himself while he painted, and then charged an hourly rate for the product. To treat art as a commodity is to stuff a square peg into a round hole; it just doesn’t fit.

A corollary problem of treating art as a commodity is that it turns art into property that can be owned. Just as the art market exists, so too does art ownership. There is nothing inherently wrong in this, but it is an imperfect systems that does not adequately represent the value of art. And we see the cracks in this system all the time. On one hand, collectors buy and own art. Yet we also spend a substantial part of public money and private donations on funding the arts in the public cultural sphere through museums. We talk about cultural heritage as something to be preserved and protected, often in national terms. So we also have a sense of the arts as a societal value and belonging to the public.

Of course, just because the value of art cannot be defined in monetary terms does not mean an artist shouldn’t be able to earn a living, or that what an artist creates is not of value. Quite the opposite. While the art market offers a way for artists to earn a living, it is an imperfect one, based on the buying and selling of objects in a time when art has generally moved away from the central importance of the art object. The mechanics of the art market and the idea of art as investment transfers objects of cultural value into the private sphere, where everyone does not have access to them. But the solution is perhaps not to defend the established modes of copyright, but to create new systems. This might also offer a solution to some of the problems of the art market, which pools its dollars very much on the top end of the market without fostering the growth of emerging artists or the stable development of careers.

How does the internet offer anything exciting or revolutionary to solve these problems? It offers alternative modes of funding and distribution. In fact, there has been an emergence of many different ventures, created by individuals or small groups, that are able to survive because of the low barriers to entry and the active participation of individuals. For example, there are Kickstarter, Bandcamp, the now on-hiatus 20×200 and its subsequent, similar cohort of online fine art retailers. Just as people crowdsource information, through Kickstarter and Bandcamp artists and musicians can ‘crowdsource’ funds for projects. Many artists have successfully funded projects through Kickstarter, and many more have become their own internet business and PR teams, as artist websites become de rigueur and Facebook pages normal. Bandcamp is also notable because the money goes directly to the musicians, they control the pricing, and success is not manufactured by an industry machine with a huge advertising budget. Organizations like 20×200 offer the promise of affordable art to the masses.

The internet is an easy means to distribute your work outside of copyright and the traditional market. Flickr is populated by photographers who post their work with varying amounts of controls over how they can be used, often only requesting credit for the image if it used elsewhere. Radiohead released In Rainbows online, requesting donations in an amount that the user could determine, and it proved remarkably successful. Russian poet and activist Kirill Medvedev has renounced copyright on all his works, and now publishes on his website and Facebook.

Having alternative means of reaching and making, a third way between private and public money, seems incredibly promising. The concept of the internet is based on the idea of individual participation, a decentralized structure of connections, and an exchange of information without a monetary price on it. Yet when artists bring their ‘product’ directly to people through the medium of the internet, and ask for support in terms of a monetary contribution, despite assumptions of human selfishness especially in the supposed de-personalization of the internet, people choose to give. This sort of exchange, which is more marked by generosity and support and the creation of a direct connection to an individual or small organizations, seem to me to be more akin to the nature and value of art than our current system.

Similarly, my sympathies are very much with the pirates, the hackers, and the free and open source of information that the internet should be. Traditionally the hacker ethos behind the structure of the internet is not a destructive one, but a creative one—one that creates systems and facilitates the sharing of knowledge. This ethos finds a complement in academia, where scholarly results are published for the good of the community (and/or scholarly prestige/tenure, etc.) but not with expectations of high profits. Hackers are rarely destructive, except maybe of an ailing industry’s profits. I think the movie and music industry can hardly expect to stop the millions of people around the world who download music and movies by suing three men in Stockholm. They might more profitably investigate how to increase the value of DVDs with special features and alternate methods of pricing and distribution.

Sharing information online is not always illegal; the organization of non-copyright information shared over the internet has proved highly valuable. Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg are great examples of sites that contribute to human knowledge through the collaborative efforts of individuals across the world. (Did you know anybody could become a proofreader for Project Gutenberg? I just joined myself.) Most libraries and museums are dedicated to moving their collections into the online sphere. With the alternatives that the internet offers, the large, creaking corporate juggernaut of copyright could indeed be forced to adapt to how new cultural products are shared in a structure that might be less profitable for companies, but could enable a long tail of cultural producers to produce their artistic work through self-organized or small organizations.

Internet Censorship and Gangnam Style

First, there was Gangnam Style by PSY, a Pop song celebrating/lampooning a wealthy South Korean lifestyle. It is absurd, catchy, and quickly became an international sensation. Then Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei did a parody of this already ridiculous video. Except when he mimics the dancing of the original video, he occasionally adds handcuffs.

Anish Kapoor, bringing in other art world influentials, felt compelled to make another Gangnam Style parody in support of Ai Weiwei. Museums, galleries, and others such as MoMA and Sepertine Gallery have all joined in contributing a video clip as a gesture of support for the artist who has notoriously battled with Chinese authorities over making and showing his art. And it is awesome.

Hopefully it will be spread the message of the need for human rights and freedom of expression in China. (And not just China, as you can see in the video, the wall also has a Pussy Riot tag among others.) Internet censorship is one of the issues that Ai Weiwei combats, managing to effectively skirt “the Great Firewall.” Check out Ai Weiwei’s Youtube channel for more insight into a complex and radically different world, such as this video.

However, it isn’t as simple as pointing a finger at China.

The Google Blog just released the most recent transparency report with statistics showing governmental requests for user data and how the number has steadily risen. Russia, formerly quite open, has begun to take measures limiting internet freedom in the manner of China, according to this Economist article. And the New York Times published a fascinating opinion piece last week about how it is not only active government censorship impacts people’s access to the internet, but also supposedly liberal corporations who now dominate our experience of the internet, like Google, through the conservatively geared algorithms they use to direct search engine traffic. This invisible and pervasive force also shapes our experience of the web, and thus our culture.