MoMA, Movement, and Mardi Gras

I feel very fortunate to have an opportunity to live in the cultural center of the world. Quite honestly, the hardest part of living at the World Youth Alliance in New York City is the difficult decisions involved when choosing how to use my time. There is so much to see and do in this city, from culture to academia and everything in between.

Last night, I made one of those decisions, which turned out to be a very good one. A fellow intern, Nerea, and I attended a Mardi Gras party at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) with a group of friends from the United Nations. It was spectacular with a live jazz band, Mardi Gras masks for everyone, and an open bar.

The best part was that they opened the Francis Picabia exhibit for this after-hours event, which I first saw in November. This is one of the best exhibits I’ve experienced, and it’s impossible for me not to get excited when thinking about it. A quotation of Francis Picabia’s that they chose to highlight in the exhibit was  “Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction.” I love this idea and this way of thinking, but I especially appreciate how well it encapsulates the role of art in relation to the human person.

This openness to newness that I love so much about art is demonstrated well by Picabia’s body of work. His truly exceptional career began quite controversially when he transcended tradition by completing these paintings from postcards rather than in the tradition of “en plain air” or ‘in plain air’, which is actually an essential feature of impressionism. His career is heavily marked by his survival of two world wars, and concludes in a period of abstract expressionism, a series of monochromatic painted canvases and a few dots.

Art is and always has been a way for people not only to express themselves but to understand new ideas or other people’s experiences that they may not have appreciated otherwise. Modern art is not some inaccessible luxury, but it is a language as much as writing. We can communicate through color, shapes, and symbols as much as through letters and numbers. We use form to express the human condition. Take the WYA logo, for example. Upon examination, you will see a ring of figures connected, and the movement figuratively expressed is undeniable. When I first beheld this image, I recognized its origins immediately. The WYA logo drew its inspiration from a painting by Matisse, Dance (I), which actually hangs at the MoMa. Here, Matisse is incredibly successful in articulating the values of joy, freedom, humanity, but especially solidarity through the movement expressed by the five figures.

It seems very fitting that a festival such as Mardi Gras should be celebrated not only through art but side-by-side. When celebrating almost anything, we do so with music.  Why not with art? I frequently find myself at the center of the debate defending modern art. On the one side, my uncle asks what I see, what does this mean, what is the point of a blue dot on a blank canvas? You don’t have to assert meaning to a renaissance or baroque painting, and they actually tell a story. True, I say. But to approach modern art requires some background knowledge. It’s an education. “But,” my uncle argues, “Why should education be required for someone to simply appreciate art?” One should be able to look and understand without background knowledge or being versed in the twentieth-century avant-guard.  

It’s a conversation all art lovers have had in one form or another, and the point that my uncle raises is a valid one. But here is what I would say to this challenge: Everything is an education. Even the recognition of beauty is an education. Right now, I am working on WYA’s Certified Training Program and in these few chapters already I’ve realized that even such things that we take for granted like freedom and dignity require an education to be fully realized. The debate about modern versus traditional art is not a matter of taste or aesthetics as much as it is an education in seeing instead of looking.

Written by Flannery McGale, a current intern at the WYA North America regional office.