Oh, MoMA. The New York museum, considered the world’s top resource for modern art, has been undergoing serious flack for its universally panned retrospective on the indescribable Icelandic tour de force, Björk. The New Yorker called it “embarrassing,” The Atlantic preferred “misconceived.” Art Net News settled for a headline that proved both straightforward and scathing: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Björk Show at MoMA is Bad, Really Bad.” Even in an ambitious Google search you’d be hard pressed to find any semblance of a positive reaction to the event, which still plans to run until June 7. The question of the tip of every art critic’s tongue is, to put it bluntly, how did MoMA fuck up so bad?
While I haven’t been able to see the exhibit in person, all accounts say pretty much the same thing. The exhibit is sparse and the setup is horribly inconvenient for foot traffic. An accompanying audio recording proves both bizarre and disconcerting for listeners and distracts from the artifacts that highlight Björks multi-decade career. The Economist even accused the show of fetishizing the ethereal foreignness of the singer into some sort of intrepid pixie. Yikes.
The Museum of Modern Art has a longstanding relationship with celebrity artists. The museum held a retrospective of macabre director Tim Burton in 2009 (also deemed subpar by critics, but not to the extent of the Björk show), Marina Abramovic sat in a chair for two months in 2010 and stared at a rotating array of strangers and celebrities and Tilda Swinton slept in a glass box in the museum’s atrium for six hours in 2013. These shows are fun to attend and provide an interesting experience that viewers can’t find anywhere else, and, alternatively, they bring in a ton of revenue with tourists who want to tell their friends, “Yeah, I saw Tilda sleep in a glass box. It was no big deal.” However, it’s the style of exhibiting, almost exploiting the celebrity that often dilutes the intention of the artist, and it falls on the audience to realize that they’re getting the short end of the stick, which the attendees of the Björk exhibit became aware of.
The Bjork disaster exemplifies a problem that has been creeping into modern art for quite some time: When a big name is behind the art, it becomes too easy to lean on the celebrity and not the content, leaving much to be desired for the viewer. The celebrity problem is not exclusive to MoMA or the world of modern art. A similar problem plagued the recent debut of Yeezy Season 1, a ready-to-wear collaboration between adidas Originals and rapper Kanye West. Critics’s reactions varied, but the majority rode the line between “eh” and accusations of copying established designers like Rick Owens. While it’s anticipated the line will sell big (it was recently announced that the luxury department store Barney’s will begin to sell the collection later this year), the question of artistic merit remains the same: Is the product selling because of the face behind the collection or because of its content?
In a way, this is the ultimate question of artistic taste. As audiences and consumers, we often buy into fashion and art due to the famous connotations behind them. We’re excited by the possibility of finding a tangible way to connect with our favorite celebrities, and the veil of stardom provides a convenient cover for lacking substance. MoMA learned the hard way with the Björk retrospective, but in creating a highly publicized example of a collection gone bad, audiences can learn to be wary of what is a gimmick and what is art.