Mar 2, 2014

Thinking about Culture as Capital: Obscenity and the Case of MoMA, Diller Scofidio and Tod Williams Billie Tsien

Recently, Diller Scofidio's commission by the Museum of Modern Art to design an expansion that would take over the adjacent lot previously occupied by the American Folk Art Museum caused an enormous controversy in New York among the architectural community. An enviable problem for most communities, where the American Folk Art Museum would have remained for decades an essential institution, and where an expansion on the scale of MoMA's would have been unthinkable but impossible to deny. The speed of Manhattanism has reached a new level, obeying its own laws; we residents are not the rulers of the culture. Rants against "gentrification" are irrelevant; they are publicity for the churning of the cultural economy.

As a historical note, both Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Diller Scofidio were young architects in the late 1970s and early 1980s working in New York still in a condition of strange half-abandonment, where they had early opportunities to collaborate on experiments with construction of new temporary structures on the landfill of the World Trade Center for Art on the Beach, the series of events and installations organized by Creative Time starting in 1978. Even then New York was churning, Dutch Lower Manhattan demoed to build a land of 50 to 110 story modern office towers, turning Soho into an artists community that rapidly expanded throughout downtown Manhattan, and two years was the normal lifespan of a cultural movement before it generated an outlandish inflation of capital around itself.

Back then, Richard Weinstein, the architect who guided David Rockefeller's redevelopment of Lower Manhattan, had moved to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and developed a plan to eliminate MoMA's deficit, which was growing by a million dollars a year, subsidized by the Rockefellers. Weinstein proposed using the expedient of air rights transfers, pioneered to save the South Street Seaport district, along with tax increment financing to generate revenues to fund an expansion, so that MoMA could expand, build 50-story condominiums on adjacent property using the air rights, bring more ticket sales, increase bookstore sales, and thereby cover its deficit.

Now, along with the latest MoMA expansion, replacing an expansion only a few years old, alongside a $1 billion 1,050-foot Tower Verre luxury apartment skyscraper by Jean Nouvel, Diller Scofidio are rebuilding the new Lincoln Center--another Rockefeller family venture--and are building the Broad Museum, in downtown Los Angeles, across from the MoCA and Gehry's Disney Concert Hall, for Eli Broad, the real estate mogul, to house a part of his expansive art collection. Los Angeles is going through the throes of its own strange cultural and real-estate expansion in a largely low-rise city where any part could theoretically be ballooned into the sky, its endless sprawl-within-city seemingly looking for some center. The center, however, is big and hollow. Probably every block in L.A. should instead be quartered and given four more weird corner stores.

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien built a new facility for the Barnes Foundation that is unfairly compared to the MoMA's inhalation of American Folk Art Museum. The goal of these institutions in their expansion is to make their collections more accessible to a wider public, while preserving their history, and to leave themselves on a more secure financial footing. There is, of course, a common disregard for a part of that history, in the case of the Barnes, the disregard for its founders wish for the collection to remain on display as an intimate house museum. Yet the Barnes is an extraordinary experience that merges the idiosyncratic world of the original Barnes Foundation, with its inclusion of historical crafts and household objects, and comparisons of deep art historical references with contemporary works, and its display of Philadelphia artists like William Glackens, who overturn the stagnant modern canon that MoMA is bound to recite. The creation of a social space within MoMA's tourist art-gawking factory would certainly be a welcome change.

Both husband-and-wife architecture teams are enormously respected professionals giving shape to a type of architecture that was barely imagined in the late 1970s, when dull International Style corporate boxes and even blander Postmodern historical pastiche buildings predominated. The new architecture that they helped bring into practice was part of a cultural movement that engendered a new public excitement in cities, creating compelling attractions in places that had the resources or foresight to see culture as one of the tools of urban transformation. 

The difference, whether by choice, by the nature of their work, or by circumstance, TWBT have tended to produce work that pays attention, in its fine-grained materials and embedded relation to its environment, to specific places, and exudes a sense of reverence for them. (See its forthcoming library at MacDowell Colony as another example.) It's somewhat shocking to witness the speed of Manhattanism's destruction of specificity. It would be hopelessly naive to not see it as just the norm, however. There's nothing unexpected about MoMA's erasure of the American Folk Art Museum. One day it will be a superblock, extending from 5th to 6th Avenue.

It always seemed like this movement of capital back to cities was a righteous cause, a reaction against the fleeing of whites from cities after passage of the Civil Rights Act, Black riots, subsidized suburbanization of the late 1960s and 70s, and the stripping of resources from them by state and Federal institutions. Since that time, our assumptions have remained the same: any resources would have to come through tax revenues generated by property taxes and income taxes. Culture became an integral form of capital that generated that churning of real estate.

Back then, government funding for the arts was radically cut by charges of obscenity against the new performance and visual art rooted in a new autonomy for women and sexual freedom that grew out of the freedom of the city. Obscenity is the use of culture to fund luxurious lifestyles of the rich and famous, and the expectation that culture will inevitably be used to serve that inflation of value, without real resources ever being devoted to the support of artists and their work in communities. Unless big-name contemporary artists demand a change from government, start redirecting their cultural capital in useful ways, and refuse to participate in the obscenities of art-as-unfunded-lifestyle-real-estate-urban-development-accessory, culture will have to keep churning, in ever more obscene ways.