Josef Joffe

In 2003, Berlin's Neue Nationalgalerie scored big with an exhibition of East German art, attracting 220,000 visitors. So when an exhibition of 200 pieces from New York's Museum of Modern Art opened in February this year, half a million visitors was thought to be required minimum, 700,000 a "sensation."

This week, attendance figures had reached one million. When MoMA-Berlin closes its doors Sept. 19, the total will probably have reached 1.2 million. To accommodate crowds still to come, the museum has again extended visiting hours.

Still, the wait is lengthy. The Berlin Tagesspiegel calculated that until early August, people had spent 446 years waiting in line. The paper pegs the individual record at nine hours. The fans bring rubber mats, thermos bottles and sleeping bags; some show up as early as 3 a.m. The paper notes that nobody has given birth in line, nor has anybody died. But once every day, an ambulance shows up.

Nonetheless, they keep coming in order to check out the Matisses and Modiglianis, and of course the paintings and objects that show off America's most famous contributions to world art, Pop and Abstract Expressionism. This makes for an startling contrast between the vox populi and the voices of the art critic establishment, which have ranged from the derisory to the downright hostile.

The opening shots wee fired in February by the critic of the distinguished German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. Without having seen the collection, he aimed his volley not so much against MoMA as against imperial America. Regurgitating a piece of European Kulturkritik as old as the American republic itself, this critic insinuated that what America has in the way of culture is not haute and what is haute is not American. After World War II, America had wrested "artistic hegemony" from Europe in two unsavory ways. One culprit was "a new abstract school of painting that hyped itself into high heaven." The other was American mammon: "Everything still available in old Europe was bought up." And this "stolen idea of modern art will now be presented in Berlin."

Toward the end of MoMA's sojourn, it was the turn of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the country's second-largest quality paper. Its critic went one worse. It the author of the Süddeutsche Zeitung had claimed that America's art was either hyped or bought, the man from Frankfurt opined that MoMA's Berlin show was a mendacious ploy, indeed, an imperialist "conspiracy."

Hegemonic arrogance came on cat's feet. It was done by "concealment" and "censorship" in a game full of "marked cards," and the name of the game was to blank out not only Europe's greats, but also to suppress their decisive contribution to American art in the latter part of the 20th century. The naïve visitor might ask how this indictment can be made to stick, given that the 200 MoMA pieces contain such a large number of European works: Matisse, Picasso, Manet, Rousseau, Brancusi, Mondrian, plus assorted Expressionists and Surrealists.

Well, what about contemporary Germans like Beuys, Baselitz and Kiefer? the author huffs. Again, the untutored would think that bringing such artists to Berlin would be carrying coal to Newcastle.. Nonetheless, the show ends with Gerhard Richter's "18 October 1977" cycle depicting dead members of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang. But that precisely proves the anti-European conspiracy, the feuilletoniste from Frankfurt all but shouted. This selection, he contended, merely uses the terrorist motif in order to finger Europe as a "creepy" place, as a messenger of "bad news."

Might there be a moral to this tale of "two" exhibits, with one stirring the fascination of the Great Unwashed, and the other, as seen by the commenting class, disclosing yet another proof of American perfidy? The moral may well be a tale of two Europes. Those who flock to MoMA-Berlin with sleeping bag and thermos in hand are mesmerized by all things American, whether highbrow or low. The other Europe, as represented by the critics cited here, resents America precisely because it is so seductive.

It is hard enough to live with a giant that spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined and unleashed its might on places like Afghanistan and Iraq. It grates even more to see this Gulliver Unbound dominate European culture from McDonald's to MoMA. The fear and loathing of America will outlive President George W. Bush.

Joseph Joffe is publisher and editor of the German weekly Die Zeit.