Twenty-five years ago in the autumn of 1929, even before it opened its doors to the public, the Museum of Modern Art began to form its collection. Today in its manifold departments, the collection numbers many thousands of works of art. A few of the best or most characteristic are reproduced here, more to give pleasure than for any systematic exposition or record. Even more, this picture-book is an invitation to see the originals!
The words 'best' or 'most characteristic' immediately raise certain fundamental questions not only about this volume but about the collection it represents and, indeed, about the Museum itself. The Museum collects works radically different in purpose, medium, school and generation. Who is to say what is really important? The public is often slow to comprehend; critics and museum people are notoriously blind. Even the artist is no guide. Whistler's contempt for Cézanne was equalled only by Cézanne's contempt for Gauguin. Frank Lloyd Wright assails Le Corbusier. A leading authority on cubism still insists that a Mondrian is not a work of art at all; a devotee of Mondrian denounces the surrealism of Ernst and Dali as perversion of true art; a dadaist of 1920 finds the abstract expressionist of 1950 tedious; and the socialist realist cries a plague on all their bourgeois-bohemian houses. Artists and their champions may indeed seem a squabbling banderlog of isms. But, actually, they are not; their differences are real and significant, slowly developed, passionately believed in, and expressive not simply of artistic convictions but often of deeply-felt philosophies of life.
Even granting that the Museum should collect works of many kinds, there is still the problem of choosing the best of each. Quality, of course, should be and has been the first criterion. Yet the matter is not so simple. Picasso Three Musicians, page 83, may be superior in quality to Picasso Demoiselles d'Avignon, page 69, but the latter, with all its coarseness and experimental changes of mind may be equally important to the Museum: whatever its esthetic quality, it is a dramatic record of agonistic effort and the first detonation of a great historic movement.
Yes, it may be argued, but these two paintings are monumental achievements such as are essential to a collection's greatness. What about John Sloan's tiny etching, page 110, the Tiffany vase, page 215, the Olivetti typewriter, page 225, and Buster Keaton's obsessed slapstick, page 207 -- what place have they in the same collection? Taken together, an important place, for in spite of their smaller scale or 'humbler' medium, each is a work of exceptional distinction within the wide range of the visual arts of our period.
Of course many mistakes are made. No one connected with the Museum pretends to infallibility. Yet, if fifty years from now our errors should seem egregious, perhaps a hundred years hence some of our judgments may be justified. In any case, it is already clear that errors of omission are by far the most serious for they are usually irrevocable.