New York summer museum scene resembles an amusement park

That thousands of people would wait in line five hours or more for a 10-minute artificial experience of rain falling befuddles me. But that’s what they’re doing.

For days, the New York news media has been reporting that people are waiting five or more hours to walk through the Museum of Modern Art’s (MOMA) “Rain Room.”

Rain Room is a dark alley way in which a heavy rain is coming down except where sensors detect people. People thus get the sensation of walking between rain drops. Whether or not it’s an aesthetic experience is open to discussion, as is the parallel question of whether Rain Room is a work of art. I haven’t been there and I won’t go, but my sense is that the installation would fit more easily in an amusement park or Universal Studios.  I had a similar feeling about the Punk fashion exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I did see, but that was because of the exhibit itself. In the case of  MOMA, it is not the curator who has decided to present artifacts of culture in an amusement park environment, but the artists who have decided to conjure an amusement park experience and present it as art.

That “Rain Room” makes an interesting juxtaposition with a summer exhibit at another New York cultural mainstay—the James Turrell show at the Guggenheim, which is also generating enormous lines of paying customers. Turrell is a light artist, which means he makes boxes and other shapes in which all the color is provided by light.  The show includes a retrospective of light boxes meant to look like Joseph Alber’s paintings, but the center is a new piece called ”Aten Reign” that turns the Guggenheim’s famous rotunda into an enormous volume filled with light that gradually changes color.

Like “Rain Room,” the Turrell pieces depend more on technology than the individual hand craft of the artist. Mental skills such as manipulating light, small engines, gears and arrays of photovoltaic sensors replace the hand skills of applying paint, cutting shapes or molding clay. The raw materials tend to be pre-fabricated parts.

Of greater relevance is the similarity in the aesthetic experience between “Rain Room” and the Turrells: Both are primarily physical experiences, such as you get from a light show or an amusement park ride. The Turrell may make a much greater claim to being art because of the allusions to Albers and other artists, unless you consider his light versions to be similar to stuffed toy versions of the Mona Lisa or neckties with “Starry Night” printed on them.

The issue of what is or isn’t art has plagued critics and scholars since recorded history began. Dresses, scepters, bowls, jewelry boxes and advertisements have all laid claim to art, as have blank canvases, lumps of material and even jars of the so-called artist’s stool. At the end of the day, the question, “What is art?,’ can have as many legitimate answers as the number of people who ask it.

The more interesting question is not whether Turrell or “Rain Room” is art, but why at the same point of time, two of the most important museums in the United States have decided to have exhibits of art based on the amusement park values of physical titillation and the manipulation of engineering concepts at the same time as a third major museum in the same city is presenting an exhibit which is itself an amusement park experience.

When James Ensor and Emil Nolde used amusement park imagery in their paintings and Fellini and Bergman did so in their movies, they were reanimating the tradition of their respective art forms, but the aesthetic pleasure of the painting or movie remained.  This current crop of exhibits takes not the imagery, but the techniques of the amusement park to produce the aesthetic experience of the amusement park. Entertaining, but probably not art.

But the very fact that one can find the amusement park experience at a museum probably is contributing to the popularity of all three shows. People may not want to stand in line to see a Titian or a Picasso, but they are used to long lines at Disney World.

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