Thoughts following a visit to MOMA

A visit to the Museum of Modern Art with Renee and Noah got me wondering about why some works, at least for me, had strong emotional content – and others fell flat.  On the day we were there, the majority of works on the 3rd floor simply said nothing to me, while an escalator ride up to the 4th floor was like entering a different world, one where the paintings spoke volumes.  It occurred to me that some contemporary artists, as they struggle to find a language that is uniquely their own and different from what came before, experiment with the basic elements that make up a painting, and not always with equal success.  The difference in my reaction to the paintings had nothing to do with their surface content – abstract versus representational. Rather, it seemed to me that some based their art on an intellectual concept that was untied to emotion, and the result felt that way.  The basic tools of the trade – color, line, shape, texture, tone, design – were all in evident, masterful use in the paintings that, for me at least, had something to say, but in many cases for the other works, some one of those important elements was missing, and as a result, the entire work wound up feeling like mere decoration on the wall.

As I thought about this, it occurred to me that there is a strong analogy with musical composition.  Those great works of music, the ones that live with you as if dear friends, use all of the tools at a composers command – pitch, timbre, rhythm, volume, harmony, and, perhaps most importantly, structure – to create a soundscape that can transmit emotional content as if straight from the heart.  The day following our visit to MOMA, I was listening to new music on the radio, and what I heard fell as flat on my ears as those artworks on MOMA’s 3rd floor.  The pieces I heard that afternoon all used varying pitches, in various rhythms, played on various instruments, so, yup, it was music – but, decoration on a sonic wall.  Most of what I heard lacked any kind of perceptible structure.  They were just spinning notes until they stopped, without apparent direction or purpose.  Many kept at a sustained level of volume, without any variance that can create a sense of motion, as if traveling from one place to another.  They simply started and eventually stopped (thankfully, in many cases).  For me at least, music like that isn’t worth the labor of writing down the notes.  Yes, music is artifice, but the goal should be to use all of the elements of musical composition combined in such a manner as to create the greatest of illusions – one that can send shivers down your spine, whether of joy or grief.  Succeeding at that is another matter entirely, but the attempt should be made.