Oberlin Blogs

Making Modern Art at the Museum of Modern Art

February 19, 2009

Daniel Tam-Claiborne ’09

A little outdated, apologies in advance...

Time at home has been good. Unlike previous breaks where I've found myself oscillating between desperation to get back to Oberlin and grief for leaving friends and family in New York, for the time being, I have simply been content. This, my last Christmas as a college student, has found me more nostalgic than anything, thinking about all the changes that will inevitably take place between now and next December.

I realized too that I might not really be at home again for a while. I will spend this Winter Term taking a month-long Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) training course at Oberlin to prepare for two years of teaching in China post-graduation. In addition, I am considering using my last college spring break to plan a trip to Cancun do a community service project in the Gulf Coast with the recently minted organization, Immerse Yourself in Service (IYS), started by Oberlin College students. And if my going to China for two years wasn't bad enough for family and friends back home, Shansi is paying for all of the Fellows to take a summer of intensive language study prior to working at our respective sites in Asia. As far as my situation is concerned, that means I'll either be studying through the FALCON program at Cornell University or the CET program in Beijing, China, both of which make a drawn-out post-graduate lounge-fest in the comfort of my living room an unfortunate infeasibility.

All of this to say, that I had to make the most of my time at home. And so in addition to copious | blogging, I made a pact to see everyone I had any remote interest in seeing for at least the foreseeable future. Which is naturally how I ended up at the Museum of Modern Art.

Art museum exhibit: a big white structure, open on one side, with fluffy stuff and a long rope.

My friends and I back home had a revelation a while back. There's little debate that art and culture are important, and especially in a city like New York, both are made easily accessible at almost any place and time. But by the same token (err...Metrocard?), it is so rare that we get an opportunity to experience them on the limited school breaks and budgets that we find ourselves perpetually confined. And so, in an effort to tackle the problem head on, we decided this past summer to balance our "fun" and "culture" equally, making special effort to combine the two whenever possible. This landed us at a number of free concerts and art openings, and most notably, at an event at the Brooklyn Museum in August that proved to be quite a life-altering experience.

Image of a cow, repeating, on a wall.

So with that promise in mind, and the span of days between the start of winter break and when I was to report back to Oberlin shrinking by the minute, my friend Scott and I decided to make a last-ditch trip to the Museum of Modern Art. Having realized that neither of us had been to MOMA in at least a year (not to mention that it was promoting a new Van Gogh exhibit!), and helped by the fact that the MET was citing shortened holiday hours, it handily edged out as our pick for cultural destination of the winter.

And because we went on New Year's Eve, a solemn holiday I had previously thought to be reserved for sound judgment and prudent sobriety, MOMA was absolutely packed, with fiendish tourists, ladies in huge fur coats, and socialite elites all jockeying for position by the ticket counter and throughout the various exhibitions. There's more to the New York art scene than pretentiousness and Andy Warhol, but you certainly won't find it in this post. What you will find is a retrospective of some of the various art--both deliberate and not--that we happened to come across during our afternoon visit.

But while I'm on the subject of MOMA, I must give credit where credit is due. MOMA oftentimes gets a bad rap from nay-sayers talking derisively about the whole notion of "modern art," and in many cases, I don't spare any insult to injury. But no matter how much I may sometimes poke fun at the institution--preferring the quiet and wonder of smaller, more niche museums scattered throughout the city--MOMA has ironically contributed to a handful of the artistic endeavors in my life more than I would like to admit. In recent weeks, that has meant delivering the culmination of my Creative Writing major, a senior reading. As Yitka already poignantly discussed in a post a while back, we held a joint poetry/fiction/nonfiction bonanza at the Cat in the Cream as a front to share with friends some of the writing that we've done over the past four years. As weird as it sounds, MOMA entered the picture not in terms of the content of my work, but more so in the cobbling of the event's theme and overall aesthetic.

For you see, three years ago, Yitka and I visited the Museum of Modern Art in a whirlwind tour of New York City. Determined to be a reputable cultural ambassador to Yitka, who had never traveled to the city before, I made sure to add the museum to my list of touristy-but-necessary-destinations-for-first-time-visitors-to-New-York, a list I have consulted time and again when receiving friends from Oberlin on my home turf. We ended up having a great time at the museum, and in the process, stumbled upon Yves Klein's clinically-titled "Blue Monochrome," itself subsisting of "nothing" more than blue paint layered over a blank canvas. Finding incredible humor in the audacity of the piece (despite whatever deep "utopian" vision of society it is said to convey), we decided to adopt that image of a "Blue Panel" as the backdrop to our senior reading. It functioned most saliently as a shared memory, and a reminder that ever since we first met, we were able to keep to our promise of doing a senior reading together, and in doing so, share with Oberlin the distilling of our creative juices.

As opposed to Klein's perennial favorite, my poetry is not what one might describe as "modern" by most means. Not to say that I write in a Shakespearean or form-driven classical style either, but I don't take many risks when I write--my line lengths are quite standardized, I don't scatter whole phrases or stanzas to opposing corners of the page, and I tend not to involve special movement/sound/lighting or any of a plethora of other "modern" stylistic accompaniments that sometimes overshadow what, in my opinion, should largely be the quality and configuration of the words themselves. That's not to say, though, that all modern poetry has to fit those criteria either.

What I have been doing is trying to expand my stylistic repertoire. I always wished that I could do something as boisterous and soul-baring as "slam poetry," though I haven't been able to produce the right kind of content to drive it. Partly in an effort to expand my narrative voice and the stylistic tendencies I use when I write, and partly by accident, I created a poetry experiment for myself last summer that eventually became the basis for my advanced project at Oberlin. Its basic premise was simple: I solicited friends and family members for any eleven words (short phrases and compound words included) as well as a two-five sentence blurb about themselves in their own words. Using those two pieces of information, I set out to write a poem using ten of those words (setting aside one for sheer impracticality) that somehow reflected upon the person for whom I had borrowed words (or a moment for which that person could be placed), as well as linking the poem's meaning to a greater theme/musing/comment about the world.

As fate would have it, the project proved to be a great deal of fun despite the challenges and pitfalls along the way, and the portfolio of those poems made up the core of my half of the senior reading. Now in my last semester and with no more Creative Writing classes to go towards my major, I am left for the first time at Oberlin to fend for myself with regard to writing, setting my own deadlines and constantly trying to keep myself motivated to write. Needless to say, it has been no small feat, and if the complete scarcity of blog posts thus far is any indication, I'm still trying to get the hang of it. But never fear! A new semester brings great hope and the promises of a wordier future.

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