MoMA is a Bank

May 26, 2019

The Museum of Modern Art recently sent out a mailing for fundraising via memberships. Featuring a call to celebrate MoMA90, the mailer offered access in exchange for money because art is cool, artists are cool, and being closer to them makes one cool by extension. Coolness is an affective asset, and can be exchanged for money via the museum-bank.

As part of this cultural laundering effort, MoMA has enlisted aesthetics to do some convincing. The mailer arrived in an envelope marked with a lively pattern of neon-hued shapes, a tessellation as might result from weaving. This pattern, also found on the pitch letter within, launders coolness from two sources: the hip publication techniques of the risograph machine, and the aesthetics of “queerness” with which it is vaguely associated.

MoMA fundraising mailer

The riso prints graphics that look something like screenprints because the technique is similar. The designer creates screens for each color of ink to be deployed by photocopying a black and white sheet. The job is run through the machine for each separate color plate, making it an additive process. If you want to print in red, green, and blue, you might copy your “red” original and then run all your sheets through and let them dry. Then you would photocopy the “green” original and run the sheets through again, then with the blue.

The signs of the risograph are the bright fields of color, a result of unpredictable color mixing, as well as slight registration errors—small borders of white between fields of color or slight overlaps. The MoMA mailer has the fields of color but no registration errors because it was produced using a four-color offset process. The riso’s coolness arises from the zany color palette as well as its allowance for fast, cheap printing in’s possibly closer to the streets than an offset press could be. By adopting the look of riso but not its functionality, MoMA is laundering its intuitive association with politics.

The bright blocks of color also recall some aesthetic habits of the 90s. Some wires crossed around the time Keith Haring was repopularized (by MoMA!) circa 2013 (and then Memphis was revisited in 2014) as a generation of earnest young art kids associated his bright color palette with the nascent popularization of “queer” theory. Nowadays bright colors and shapes have become an aesthetic index for queerness, particularly as filtered through millennial reinterpretations of their own 90s childhoods (the PoMo of the Beetlejuice movie comes to mind), a moment when the changing geopolitical order forced a depoliticization of art along with everything else. Camp is now being digested in the same way; bitchiness is praxis!

But contemporary art derives value from closeness to politics following the displacement of representation into photography, function into design, and concept into art history PhDs. Now that inalterable and/or externally defined aspects of identity are somehow political stances, and the ability to produce publications quickly stands in for the subversive content that used to exist in such fast publications, the MoMA mailer invites its funders to participate in a vague cloud of cool sexy political images, affect without effect, offset riso, queer fundraising.


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