What we learned about Europe after World War I — the war to end all wars that didn’t — is that everything was stable until everything fell apart. War caught Europeans by surprise, ripped its roots from the soil. Power in Europe had been balanced by a complicated and tangled system of alliances that worked nicely when it wasn’t looked at too closely. Of course, there was always a battle going on someplace — it was Europe, after all — but daily life for most people had a continuity, experienced at a pace that had been more or less the same for a century. The Great War came and severed the 19th century from the 20th, created a Europe that was driven by speed, information, technology and nationalism. Walter Benjamin’s observations in The Storyteller have become a continent’s epitaph: “A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now… More…

Everyone knows the feeling: discomfort, annoyance, rage, an entire range of emotions provoked by other people when one might wish to have total solitude, or at least relative peace and quiet. Welcome to the modern museum experience.

What do we want when confronting great art? Books are easy, ready companions, and it’s always possible to block out other distractions by resorting to noise-reducing devices that insulate us with auditory privacy. With film, live music and especially theater, the audience and its collective responses contribute to the greater pleasure of attending, even though there are plenty of times when one wants to smack the people sitting behind, talking as though they are in their living room; or the woman with dangling jewelry and poisonous perfume in the next seat. Rock concerts are based on mass participation; classical ones, formerly the closest thing to silent… More…

Long has the fate of mankind been tied to apples. They got Adam and Eve banished from Paradise. With the apple, Johnny Appleseed tamed the New World. And then, in the late 19th century, Paul Cézanne declared he would paint the otherwise unremarkable fruit and “astonish Paris with an apple.” 

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

Francisco Goya was felled by a mysterious illness in 1792. He didn’t die, he just fell. The illness made him dizzy and disoriented. Goya stumbled; he teetered. He was nauseous. Voices sounded in his head. He was frequently in terror. His hearing began to fail. Soon, he was completely deaf. By all accounts, he was temporarily insane at points. Then he recovered, though he would never regain his hearing.

“Goya and the Altamira Family” Through August 3. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Before the illness, Goya had been a successful painter for the Spanish court. He was good, but unremarkable. After the illness, Goya became the extraordinary artist whose paintings — like The Third Of May 1808 — are among the most celebrated works in the history of art. In the late 1790s, Goya began working on a series of prints… More…

Jasper Johns has a way of making a flip thing into a deep thing. Take his current show at the Museum of Modern Art. It is called “Regrets.” The title comes from a rubber stamp. Johns uses the stamp as a quick and painless form of R.S.V.P. When people send him letters or cards asking him to do things he doesn’t want to do, he stamps the offending item with his “regrets” and then sends it back. Onerous obligation avoided. Problem solved.

“Regrets” Through September 1. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Used this way, the word “regrets” doesn’t have any regrets. There are no bad feelings involved. Not really. Johns wasn’t torn up about saying “no” to these requests. He didn’t have any deeper regrets. “Regret,” in this context, simply means, “a polite, usually formal refusal of an… More…

My wife, the over-observant Shuffy, noticed a group of children playing with geometric shapes cut from pieces of black paper. The children were arranging these shapes on larger sheets of construction paper. The construction paper was lying on the floor of the Guggenheim Museum and the Guggenheim Museum was in the midst of its exhibit of Italian Futurism.

“Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe.” Through September 1. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. 

One wonders what Filippo Tommaso Marinetti would have thought about these children. Marinetti (1876-1944) was the founder of Futurism. In 1909, he wrote a document that has since become the most famous testament of Futurism. It is known as The Futurist Manifesto. The fourth “principle” of Futurism states, infamously: “We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the… More…

They are among the most mysterious paintings. But it is very hard to say why. Nothing much happens in the paintings. People engage in simple tasks. A man and a woman sit at a table and speak. A woman smiles. A woman reads a letter. A girl looks at us over her left shoulder. A woman sews. A woman pours some milk out of a jug. That’s it. One task, one episode, one moment in each painting.

Vermeer used various painterly tricks to make these moments — these mundane tasks — look special. He expended a great deal of time and energy capturing the effects of light. He studied the way light comes in through a window, bathing a room. He seems to have painted most of his pictures in one or two rooms in his own home. He knew that light well. He analyzed that light, meditated on it…. More…

Fifty years ago a show of male nude art at a small gallery in Long Island, New York provoked the confusion and disdain of the critics. The poet and art critic John Ashbery complained in New York Magazine, “Nude women seem to be in their natural state; men, for some reason, merely look undressed.” (Ashbery’s concern here might have been masking his own homosexuality.) In a more sympathetic response, Vicky Goldberg noted that the homoeroticism that many of the works provoked cast such art “from its traditions and in search of some niche to call its home.” But it was Gene Thompson at the New York Times who pointed to the deeper concerns of this show when he wrote, “there is something disconcerting about the site of a man’s naked body being presented as a sexual object.” We have thankfully moved beyond such acute prejudices. But even today looking at… More…

Poor Fernand Léger. He is a man trapped in sociology. His paintings aren’t looked at for their own sake anymore but for what they show us about city life in the early 20th century.

“Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis.” Through January 5, 2014. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

You can see why Léger’s art is approached sociologically when you look at his most famous painting “The City,” painted in 1919. “The City” is owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The current exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum, “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis,” features “The City” as its central work. It is because of this painting that Léger is often called “the painter of the modern city.”

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New… More…

Have you ever felt odd? Perhaps an odd feeling came upon you one morning at the market. You saw the piles of vegetables and the cuts of meats covered in clear plastic. You noticed, with particular attention, the little signs above the individual fruits giving their names and prices. Suddenly, it seemed unaccountably odd that any of this should make any sense to anyone. How very strange that these numbers and words and pictures and physical objects are all related, you thought. It was a warm morning and you walked out into the sunlight with a beating heart and a sheen of sweat on the palms of your hands. For a few more moments you trusted neither sun, nor earth, nor sky. All aspects of reality seemed as arbitrary to you as those signs above the fruit in the market. And then the feeling faded and you were back in the… More…