“SAFE: Design Takes On Risk,” which opens this Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art, could also be called “FEAR: Design for Scaredy-Cats.” An unusually provocative show, it does more than isolate an important theme in contemporary design. It invokes an especially dispiriting state of mind. Something’s happened to the natural desire for safety. It now saturates our consciousness. It’s become a form of cultural hysteria, one that inhibits, restrains, crimps, smothers, and paralyzes everything from politics to art. Even in once-brave New York.
The organizers of “SAFE”—Paola Antonelli and Patricia Juncosa Vecchierini—do not set out to make this point. They rightly admire many objects that are not cozy or reassuring. In their design, Antonelli finds “grace under pressure,” a resilience that shows “how powerful we can be” in an age of terror. Such objects, she argues, “allow us to embrace our fears.” (One group of artists even turns the mushroom cloud into a fuzzy-wuzzy.) Some items are practical, such as car seats for children. Others represent fantastical responses to a threatening environment. A kind of gallows whimsy is common. As interesting as the show promises to be, however, I’d rather talk about its shocking title—that softly sibilant word safe, which sounds so wrong in New York.
It is wickedly ironic—proof of history’s cruel wit—that the Museum of Modern Art should organize a show with this title. Wasn’t MoMA born of fearless challenge? Didn’t it once emphasize the value of risk with quasi-religious fervor, insisting that the modern mind must forswear existential safety? Safety was not supposed to be part of your metaphysics. You weren’t timid, fearful, or protective. You took chances. You lived in a glass house. Something similar was true of the city, which was the Twentieth Century Limited. People came to New York, or so New Yorkers believed, to hurtle into the future, forever leaving behind the trim little towns of the heartland.
Today, terrorism is blamed for all our failures of nerve. But the paralyzing obsession with safety began here long ago. Why it developed can be argued about, but one important reason is the erosion of New York’s bedrock conviction: faith in the future. The fears of the Depression era were offset by countless ideas about better things to come, including modernist ideas. The terrors of the fifties were met by, among other things, a hope in science. These were not complicated passions, but they were vital. Today, visionary or even hopeful ideas, if they exist, have the strength of herbal tea. The computers don’t give off Utopian light, and science seems beset by problems like global warming, not excited by opportunities.
New York’s future once had an exciting, erotic edge. In today’s city, however, the body trembles, threatened by age, viruses, and imperfections, which are countered by gyms, diets, and plastic surgery. aids, which terrorizes the body, is responsible for “safe sex,” the deadly phrase that saves lives. Safe sex is condom sex, wrapped sex, showbiz sex, sex that doesn’t really touch. How sex goes, of course, often has a bearing upon how art goes. Safe art suits safe sex. And so we have, imaginatively speaking, condom art, wrapped art, showbiz art, art that doesn’t really touch. Often, New York art takes cover within fashionable rhetorical conventions, looking for approval in that safest of all places, the academy. Which can be just another condom. In fact, the condom is arguably the presiding symbol of a narcissistic age. We’re wrapped up in ourselves.
New York’s erotic edge—and feeling for the future—was always best expressed in its buildings. Its architectural vitality, its skyscrapers and canyons, represented power and abandon. (Rem Koolhaas called his book Delirious New York.) Today, the endless dithering over ground zero, which is about finding a compromise that feels safe to everyone, suggests nothing but impotence. The terrorist attack on 9/11 blew a gaping hole into New York. It was obvious that the city must meet this astonishment with an equal astonishment. It must “see you and raise you one”—that is, make a bold new bet upon the future. Instead, ground zero has become the symbol of a can’t-do city, a disgraceful and (perhaps even worse) boring scene of whine-and-bicker. Daniel Libeskind’s original building was not, in any case, equal to the occasion. But seeing it constantly chipped at and chicken-pecked, and then corseted in protective concrete, is a pathetic spectacle. From the first, the Freedom Center, too, conveyed nothing but weakness. Conservatives worried that a museum about freedom might actually be too free and therefore not follow some prescribed line. In response, liberals cluck-clucked. The very idea of a “freedom” museum was always just a highfalutin political piece of phony platitudinous piety—a monument to hot air.