Object Without Dignity

The Zagreb Museum of Contemporary Art aspires to be the most earnest place on earth despite the wit, the whimsy, the art for art’s sake that it contains. Founded in 1953, during the time the restorers of the Zagreb Cathedral would call the Period of Communist Neglect, one might expect the contemporary art scene to reflect the realities of Soviet influence. By the time the present building was erected in the new section of the city in 2003, the Period of Neglect was more an object of derision than hopelessness or resistance, as one can see in the faux graffiti painted on an inner courtyard wall:

No Mickey Mouse Politics Here

a slightly lopsided silhouette of Mickey Mouse carries the familiar flag of the hammer and sickle; beneath, the caption reads, “You Won’t Fool the Children of the Revolution.” Ironic word, revolution.

Communist Neglect, Revolution, Hammer and Sickle—all these suggest to the Western visitor a political commentary, a rejection of an ideological absurdity enforced by absolute power. But here, at least in retrospect, it seems the question is a philosophic rather than a political one. You can vote political ideas out of power, or you can overthrow them, or you can watch them collapse under the weight their own misfeasance. Philosophical conditions and ideas are different. They subsist, I imagine, not in the will of parties or majorities but in an unreal world of ideals struggling to realize themselves. Put less abstractly, politics wants power; philosophy wants, for lack of a better word, humanism.

This museum affirms that it is interested in ways of considering humanism. The temporary exhibit’s very title, “Object Without Dignity,” underscores the institution’s interest in describing, or defining, or defending some notion of humanism. The museum brochure describes its curatorial thesis this way: “Respecting the fact that a work of art is the personal expression of the artist, but at the same time an expression of the surrounding world—art, the society, the historical moment, or politics—these artworks can be classified according to the different relationships they establish with the art world and the life world, we have presented them in five large units—Project and Destiny, Art as Life, Art on Art, The Great Enigma of the World, and Words and Images—as well as sixteen corresponding sub-groups.” That is, we begin with the single individual and then expand exponentially through the issues the artists raise as a consequence of their being human. One of those issues, snideness notices, is a failure to write a coherent sentence to define one’s aims.

The building itself is as kind of sculpture to its conditional earnestness. The brochure calls it Functionalist Architecture; I’d call it Brutal. Bare concrete walls, floors, stairwells, exhibition spaces. Glass walls here and there. An elevator that doesn’t work. Temporary walls erected to separate one thematic moment from the next. But then, but then, on the top floor and again on the floor beneath, there are entrances to a slide that spirals down to the ground floor. Aides help you into a sliding bag so your own skin and clothing don’t impede your plunge, and down you go like a delirious child. What gives, earnestness?

The earnestness is most dramatically announced as you climb the stairs to the first exhibit, a vast enlargement of a poster, now thirty or thirty-five feet tall. In the background we see the portrait of a young woman. Imposed on the photograph is the graffiti left by a Dutch soldier while he was stationed in Bosnia to protect citizens like her.

I’ll let pictures in the gallery continue the description of this museum. For comparison’s sake, I’ve added a few from the Museum of Arts and Crafts, an institution founded in 1880 “to preserve the traditional values of national crafts, and at the same time to provide new cultural standards for the rising middle-class.” This, too, was a kind of political institution, and there’s no surprise that a river and a long bus ride separate the two museums.

18th Century Radiator

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