Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—harbinger of Cubism, first of Picasso’s major works, visual equivalent of The Waste Land or Ulysses—came into its own in the summer of 1907. It had endured a difficult birth. Picasso had conceived of a grand, ambitious painting earlier in the year, but he didn’t have the room to paint one, living as he was with his first great and subsequently discarded love, Fernande Olivier, in a cramped studio in Montmarte. It was only with money from his reliable benefactress Gertrude Stein that he was able to rent a second studio, drag in a massive canvas—nearly eight feet square—and begin. But for months the painting existed in a twilight state, unfinished, waiting for its defining transformation—the great addition that would split the painting down the middle and disturb so many of Picasso’s contemporaries. (“It’s as if you are making us eat rope and drink turpentine,” Braque complained.)
The metamorphosis occurred as the result of a visit Picasso made to the free museums housed in the Palais de Trocadéro, now the Chaillot, located near the Eiffel Tower. Browsing through the Museum of Comparative Sculpture, Picasso wandered across the hall into the Ethnological Museum, which housed a large collection of African sculpture. It was there, staring at a series of gruesome wooden masks, that he had the revelation that altered his painting, and which he described in the 1970s to André Malraux:
When I went to the old Trocadéro, it was disgusting. The Flea Market. The smell. I was all alone. I wanted to get away. But I didn’t leave. I stayed. I stayed. I understood that it was very important: something was happening to me, right? The masks weren’t just like any other piece of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things . . . The Negro pieces were intercesseurs, mediators; ever since then I’ve known the word in French. They were against everything—against unknown, threatening spirits. I always looked at fetishes. I understood; I too am against everything. I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy! Everything! Not the details—women, children, babies, tobacco, playing—but the whole of it! . . . I understood why I was a painter.
A few months later, the painting underwent its change. Of the five prostitutes in the painting, two, the women on the right, were given masks for heads—grotesque, disturbing, remarkable masks. It was to many as if Picasso had taken a chainsaw to the center of the painting, dividing the left from the right. Even Picasso was disturbed by the alteration, but he couldn’t resolve the divide, so he left it. The result was what we now know as Les Demoiselles.
A hundred years later, Les Demoiselles does not lack for the space that nearly blocked its birth. Its home is the fifth floor of the newly renovated, $858 million Museum of Modern Art, which acquired the painting in 1939 and has pointed to it as the cornerstone of its collection ever since. Neither, however, does the painting possess the accessibility of the art that inspired it. To help pay for the operating costs of so large a building—the new MoMA is double the size of its predecessor—the museum’s administrators have boosted the price of admission by two thirds, from $12 to $20.
Twenty dollars! The doyens of art criticism (Updike et. al) have made passing mention of this new price in their reviews of the building, but they have typically considered it well worth it, especially in comparison to the price of, say, a two-hour movie, or a Broadway show. Others, however, have been outraged. On the day of the museum’s opening—November 20, 2004—Dan Levenson, a 32-year-old painter from Park Slope, dressed up in a giant sandwich board Andrew Jackson and passed out flyers for his Web site freemoma.org (“If MoMA’s greedy gambit succeeds, it will set a dangerous precedent for our society in general”). Filip Noterdaeme, a Belgian artist and the founder of the online conceptual (two adjectives that do not go well together) Homeless Museum, urged visitors to pay the entire entrance fee in pennies.
So the question has been flitting about town: Is $20 too much? Theatrics aside, the arguments against the fee have taken two forms. The first is that MoMA, as a nonprofit, as a museum, and as a nonprofit museum, has a public responsibility to share its collection with the greatest number of visitors—that art, in the tired phrase, belongs to the people. “Museums have a deep responsibility to the culture,” Levenson has said. “The things they own, like van Gogh’s Starry Night or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, belong to the world. They don’t belong to a private museum.” This argument, of course, is not technically true—Starry Night and Les Demoiselles, along with the rest of the collection, belong to MoMA, which is a private organization—but it speaks well to the idealistic and necessary conception of the public duty of the art patron.
The second argument is more articulate, and more troubling. It is that the price increase is not just unfair but purposeful, that it is part of a calculated marketing strategy on behalf of the Modern’s administrators—an upscaling of their product. There is the obvious evidence in support of this argument: the shops and products, the cafés and restaurants on three separate floors, all of them managed by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group (“Café 2,” reads MoMA’s breathless website, “offers seasonal Roman fare, including pasta, panini, pizza, salumi, roasted meats, cheeses, salads and soups. Guests can also take a quick break in the espresso bar”), the alcoves for cell-phone conversations, the glamorous opening-night parties. But there is also evidence of a colder calculation at work. MoMA’s administrators have stated that they considered several business models in regard to admissions—for example, the Disneyland model (pay per gallery visited) and the airline model (pay according to the day and time of the visit). But the model that its market researchers concluded would maximize revenue was the prix-fixe model. Though this model would likely cut off the bottom end of the museum’s audience, they seem to have decided, it would not deter the top end. Indeed, it might even attract them, just as a Gucci handbag or a Lexus SUV lures buyers with its cultural cachet. In raising the price so high, in other words, MoMA was not just charging for its product, it was branding modern art as a luxury.
The administrators, of course, have proclaimed less cunning reasons for the price hike, defending it primarily as the symptom of a larger economic trend—namely, the decline in public support of private cultural institutions. They have also been quick to point out the four hours of free admission (which are sponsored by Target) that the museum has set aside on Friday afternoons. But whatever the mitigating arguments and whatever the concessions that have been built into the system, there remains the conspicuous fact of the new building itself. In speaking to The New York Times, Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, argued that the price increase was necessary because “there are very few elements of a museum’s budget that have any tweak to them.” To which one might respond: spending $850 million on a building and its upkeep was a massive and avoidable tweak.
There is also the history of the museum and its contents, to which the new fee now stands in ironic juxtaposition. When “public museums” arose in the 18th century, they were little more than private clubs for the aristocracy. It took two hundred years for those institutions to earn their name, and the primary beneficiaries were artists themselves, who were able to come and go as they pleased, as if ambling through the stacks of a public library. Many of MoMA’s paintings and sculptures, and therefore the museum itself, grew out of that atmosphere. At the November opening, Will Bennet, a painter whose works now hang on MoMA’s walls, told a reporter of being able as a young man to see all the art he wanted for free. “It’s such an overwhelming change,” he said. It is also perhaps the true end of an era. MoMA has always worried over when modern art should be capped off, when its collection should cease to grow. By sealing its borders to many of its own suppliers, it may have just made that choice.