MoMA’s Mercenary Acquisition

March 24, 2010 § 4 Comments

The announcement by MOMA NY that it had acquired the “@” symbol for its collection sent more than a few critical thinkers into a tizzy. Knowing the gesture would raise questions about how the acquisition was acquired from whom, who owned the ubiquitous cinnamon swirl, their statement, “It relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary,” seems like cosmetic paint to an empty spectacle. If it were the museum’s true belief that “therefore it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that ‘cannot be had’,” then there should be less need to consider budgeting concerns and proprietary issues when it comes to acquiring works of art.

Isn’t that a cute erudite’s insider joke: We didn’t say that we own it, only that it’s been “acquisitioned” to the collection, tee hee hee. So avante garde, breaking status quo. It’s like the underaged kid slipping into an adult party while sipping a Virgin Mary. It’s wanting to geek out to the sexy tune of technology.

I don’t deny how tantalizing the intellectual play may be surrounding the declaration that someone has “acquired” a digital symbol, but the exercise feels to be entrusted to the wrong hands. Perhaps it would be better explored through an educational institution. Beyond a blanket observation of the insecurity of artistic rights in the contemporary age of reproducibility, MOMA almost admits that its own stance with their acquisition is limited to its presentation as a case study. Although the exhibition was curated by MOMA’s Architecture & Design department, their materials support it more as an artifact of language, linguistics anthropology.

The written language is comprised of symbols to represent spoken word, communication borne of a need to be made graphic that the marketing department is trying to prescribe a larger meaning to than it’s worth. The sign is cited as first appearing in the sixth or seventh-century, “a ligature meant to fuse the Latin preposition ad—meaning ‘at’, ‘to,’ or ‘toward,’ ” which for all intents and purposes remains unchanged today. To be acquired by the Museum of Modern Art seems a rather belated move.

By the ’60s, it was adopted for accounting and commercial invoices as an abbreviation for “at the rate of,” a mashing of characters that is as logical an act as shortening “without” to “w/o,” which I’m sure everyone will agree is more convenience than profound design. Contrast this to the New York City health department’s conscious decision to incorporate the powerful symbolism of the computer’s on/off button into a citywide released condom design. If the visual construct is unchanged and its interpretation untouched since archaic memory, the symbol hasn’t evolved as a conscious “design” for centuries.

It was borne of a necessity of exchange, like currency. Senior Curator Paola Antonelli further notes that the symbol was used in sixteenth-century Venetian trade to mean amphora, a terracotta vessel used as a unit of measure. It is adopted by each country, with slight variations in context during translation, and recognized well for its enabling of other transactions rather than in itself having any transcendent existential meaning. What MOMA has collected is marketable trivia, not modern art.

The @ symbol used in a 1536 letter from an Italian merchant, via MoMA.

The production exploits a desire for spirituality by simulating synthetic meaning.
Maybe to make such a big deal out of its coincidental perpetuation through to today is partly culture envy. The English language is created from Latin characters that do not hold any significance in its graphic representation beyond its phonetics. When the spoken word progressed more quickly than the written word could accommodate, simple modifications emerged–running out of vowels, dots were added to make an umlaut, strikes put through to form the ø–minimal morphology to record new sounds. The @ is an acronym, a new character combination formed by placing the letter “a” within another letter “o.” Alone, few ideas can be gleaned from the perfect circles and line segments that comprise the Latin alphabet. It doesn’t have the depth of linguistic meaning as a language whose long historical development can be visibly seen through the ingenious manipulation of its roots. By this I mean hieroglyphs, such as Chinese kanji.

With Chinese, we can literally trace the evolution of the language by taking apart a character’s components to reveal layered meanings. The earliest Chinese characters started as an arrangement of squiggles and dashes to represent basic elements, the fluidity of water or animated resilience of reeds, and cardinal directions. An expanding need for more intricate communications drew more formalized shapes, straight bars, a square with a cross to represent a quartered field. Rising consciousness led to further abstraction—the male signified by the character of a field held above by a symbol of power below—and so on until the variations ran out and characters had to be combined with other characters to express more complex meanings. It’s truly pictorial, a perfect symbiosis of graphics and communication, wrapped in one linguistic symbol.

This perhaps explains why so many foreigners sport all sorts of Chinese tattoos, supposedly to symbolize strength and other virtues with a depth that is lacking within their own linguistic culture. MOMA’s own exploitation of that void is like a plea for the art community’s approval, as if relapsing into the high school mentality of needing inexplicably to scratch initials into a tree: MOMAw@shere. It is not unnoticed how the curators plead for recognition of the acquisition as a right to be set “free to tag the world.” It would be a fair understanding to read the “acquisition” as appropriation for commercial use. It’s a spectacular gesture without interpretative intelligence, creating pagan idols to manifest a phenomenon.

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§ 4 Responses to MoMA’s Mercenary Acquisition

    • okapicrux says:

      that’s an interesting project. The “price of words” always came up in the context of saying disagreeable things that couldn’t be taken back, which could result in the end of an affair or a political beheading. But to put a commercial value just hits a unsavory reality, especially since I’ve now seen some of the inner-workings of online marketing.
      I like that the artist connected the keywords to poems. The experiment could be furthered if he made opposing messages for the same keyword to see where net surfers swayed, although it might not have anything to do with the premise unless those keywords are in close affinity to his subjects of query?

      I also wonder how effective is a happening if participants don’t feel a collective momentum.
      sympathies to the premature pulling of the plug, but I understand Google’s business integrity. That’s what drives truly viral (and inane) phenomena like the google/yahoo debate.
      thanks for the submission!

  • I agree with your well-written and well-thought out piece, although I ‘m sure that many others would strongly disagree (as is evidenced by the strong response, both for and against, on the MoMA website).

    But c’mon, really, MoMA pleading for approval, or screaming for attention? Surely not! ;)

    I also found it interesting what you said about Chinese characters and lettering. I find Chinese script beautiful to look at – even though I have no idea how to interpret it.

    BTW, now I will never look at a power button again without worrying if I’m out of condoms! :P

    • okapicrux says:

      true dat, they don’t neeed the attention, but once in a while a friend rides the insecure bling bandwagon, saying, Look at me! I’m still sexy and mysterious, right?
      I especially appreciate your blog comment about finding humor behind the promotional stunt, even if left scratching your head looking for an intellectual irony.

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