Modern thoughts on contemporary wordplay

By Henry Soong

Museums are great.

To be frank, I don’t know much about art, but art museums ooze of intellectual mystique – and that’s enough for me. Soaking up the pensive atmosphere at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, I felt brilliant during my last visit. Its monochrome, white walls were the perfect backdrops for some of contemporary art’s most beguiling works.

Strolling past a tower made of cotton balls and cardboard, I adjusted the glasses on the bridge of my nose, perusing the giant contraption with squinted eyes. Stroking my beardless chin meditatively while studying the hodge-podge tower from multiple angles, I looked like the picture-perfect intellectual.

And that’s just what museums do. They make me look cultured; they make me feel enlightened. There is artificial magic in the clicking of heels crossing a quiet gallery. In the broken silences at the MCA, the echoes of footsteps complete the intellectual mood.

So it was to no surprise I sat cross-legged smiling smugly to myself on the subway back home. Scanning the rattling rail car, I noticed an ad for the MCA above the window. I recognized the sculpture in the poster: The Pink Panther hugged a buxom mermaid in a piece aptly called “Pink Panther.” And beside the picture, the billboard read:

“FEARNOART. The MCA – not modern. Contemporary.”

Genius. Brilliant! … Bravo! I thought. Not only had I examined that very sculpture for an entire 10 minutes while I was in the museum, the billboard advertising; it was curt and clever. How witty of the MCA! It’s not modern; it’s contemporary! It’s not modern … it’s contemporary.

But wait: It’s not modern. It’s … contemporary?

What did this mean? Could the museum be contemporary but not modern? Could its works of art be contemporary but not modern? Was there even a difference between the two? I looked around the rest of the rail car in search of another billboard for an answer but found only a poster for pomegranate juice staring back at me.

We are all guilty of occasional wordplay. We embellish, we mince, we pun with the words of our language and give life to clever phrases. In the infinite subtleties of the English language, wordplay is innovation and reinvention. Used properly, it can help define the culture of a generation. I fondly remind you of Beyonce’s “bootylicious” and Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness.”

Abused, though, wordplay is a poor way to disguise the truth. Sectarian violence is a fabulous case study in recent abuses of the English language. If anyone else has a more media-friendly way of euphemizing civil war, please contact your local United States president immediately.

Sadly, that’s just what too much of today’s wordplay is: euphemism. I appreciate being let down easily as much as the next person, but sometimes, I just want the give-it-to-me-straight.

In the instance of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s subway poster, clarity is all I want. I have considered that the MCA wants to distinguish itself from New York’s Museum of Modern Art in calling itself not modern. Contemporary. And I have considered the fact that Wikipedia does make distinction between modern and contemporary art by giving each its own entry. The differences amount to little, however, and for all laymen intensive purposes are inconsequential. So what does the MCA, in an ad campaign titled, “FEARNOART,” mean in being not modern but contemporary?

Like the scene of me posing as the perusing intellectual in the art gallery, I suspect the Museum of Contemporary Art has created something less than genuine in being not modern. Contemporary. Perhaps a little more pretentious than necessary, the quip-like wordplay has gone astray and lost its meaning.

This is not to say the MCA can’t be clever and be honest, though. In fact, if the museum is truly a place for contemporary art, then “The Simpsons”‘ Moe Syzlak has the perfect pitch: The MCA – Weird for the sake of weird.

Henry is a freshman in Business who despite his frustrations does in fact enjoy wordplay swordplay. All pun intended.