I was up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City recently, a great place to spend a rainy Saturday.

We went to see the exhibit of Picasso’s guitars. They were one of his favorite subjects as he was experimenting with cubism.

We worked our way through some new exhibits, notably a display of linoleum prints from South Africa. Stark, poster-sized renderings of the country’s trials under apartheid and beyond.

We ended our visit with a trip to the fifth floor to see some old friends: the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. It’s ironic, of course, that these ground-breaking works, so shocking in their day, are now considered as mainstream and harmless as an oldies radio station. Artists such as Paul Cezanne and Paul Gauguin intended to shake up their audience, and gave us the idea that art’s primary function is to shock.

But the irony just kept coming.

The highlight of the trip for me was getting another look at Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 painting, “Starry Night.”

People of my generation can’t look at this painting without having the Don McLean song, “Vincent,” running through our heads, and, for us, some of the sentimentality of the song has surely transferred to the image.

Marcel Duchamp, of “Nude Descending a Staircase” fame, said, “Art is whatever an artist says it is.” But I think “Starry Night” is an example of art being whatever its audience makes of it.

As usual, there was a crowd around the painting, and many of them were making something new of it.

They stood with cell phones and cameras outstretched, looking not at the painting, but at the screens in their hands. It seemed odd to me, at first, to be passing up the chance to see a thing to see instead the image of it. But I guess filtering a van Gogh through this new medium is just another way to see it. More than that, here were people using van Gogh’s work to create art of their own, or at least a cool screen saver.

My experience became something entirely different. The painting in front of me was mirrored in tiny images to my right and left, like some spontaneous performance art piece with vague things to say about paint on canvas meeting pixels on plastic.

Beauty in the iPhone of the beholder.


The Picasso exhibit runs through June 6;the South African prints through Aug. 14.