Terms of Enragement

You say Art Moderne, we say Art Deco. Let's call the whole thing off!

From afar, Miami Beach's Art Deco aficionados seem to be a unified bunch, waging a common struggle against forces that threaten the architectural and artistic legacy of that bygone era. Recently, however, a most uncivil feud has broken out amid the pastels, pitting Art Deco exponents against one another.

And they're not fighting over the fate of a building. This dispute involves nomenclature, specifically the term Art Deco itself. Members of the Miami Design Preservation League (MDPL), the leading activist group for Art Deco preservation, say that's the most common term, and hence the only one that should be used when speaking of the highly decorative design style that reached its apex in the Twenties and Thirties.

But the administrators and staff at the Wolfsonian, a Miami Beach-based institution devoted to the study of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century decorative and propaganda arts, have another name for the style: Art Moderne. That term is correct, they assert, because it was the one used at the time the style enjoyed its heyday. "Art Deco," they point out, wasn't popularized until the late Sixties.

And oddly, what sounds like fodder for academic debate is instead splintering the alliance between collectors and protectors -- on the eve of the nineteenth annual South Beach showcase Art Deco Weekend, no less.

On December 15, Michael Kinerk, vice chairman of the MDPL, wrote an indignant three-page letter to the Wolfsonian, in which he decried the institution's eschewal of the crucial term.

Over the past twenty years, Kinerk stressed, his organization has tirelessly labored to preserve the architectural heritage of South Beach and to bring international attention to the area. It was the MDPL that dreamed up the annual Art Deco Weekend extravaganza, after all. It was MDPL founder Barbara Baer Capitman who lobbied federal officials to designate much of South Beach as a historic district, a triumph that came about in 1979. And it was Capitman who came up with a name for the area: the Art Deco District.

"There were a few persons then who objected to this nomenclature, and there is a vocal minority still who refuses to acknowledge this period of design, music, art, and fashion as the Art Deco era," Kinerk wrote. "Unfortunately, your own curatorial staff is in this small group. . . . In your publications you put Art Deco as an afterthought, in parenthesis: Art Moderne (Art Deco) -- as if to say this is vulgar, an incorrect reference to the former."

Kinerk, who cowrote a 1993 coffee-table book called Rediscovering Art Deco U.S.A., cited numerous art history scholars and authors who have used the term "Art Deco," and argued that the Wolfsonian is alone among museums in its unwavering insistence upon referring to historic periods only by the terms used during those periods. "Though your own institution sits right in the middle of the world-famous Art Deco District, still you use a different name for its era. That is your right, but it flies in the face of common sense and tends to separate you from your own neighborhood, and certainly from us who have worked so hard to promote and protect Art Deco. We could no more sanction calling this period by another name than we could endorse tearing down the buildings."

Nomenclature wasn't Kinerk's only gripe. It seems MDPL preservationists are still smarting from another perceived slight: Three years ago the group awarded its highest preservation award to the Wolfsonian, for the institution's renovation of the Washington Storage Company building at the corner of Washington Avenue and Tenth Street, now its headquarters. "Your current director refused our award, telling our committee chairman it was not worthy to grace your faaade, but was 'better suited to a real estate office,'" wrote Kinerk, who is also co-chairman of Art Deco Weekend. In addition, the preservationist noted, the Wolfsonian's brochure for its inaugural exhibition failed to include Art Deco Weekend among a list of cultural programs around town.

The cumulative effect, it seemed, was too much for Kinerk, who concluded, "Thus, we cannot work further with the Wolfsonian."

Wolfsonian curator Wendy Kaplan says the letter "makes me stutter with amazement." Addressing the nomenclature issue, she says, "I'm just appalled by this explosion of anger at something that to me is a nonissue. They're setting it up as if we're taking an ideological stand against the term 'Art Deco.' It's simply that we've made a decision to use period terminology to describe styles. It was truly free of any value judgment. They're making it seem like we've banned it and told the guides they can't use it. We've told them it's fine to use the term but preface it by saying it was not the period term."

The debate is an echo of one that has simmered in scholarly circles since the Sixties. "The term [Art Deco] and the time frame are simply too broad for most art historians, who have been laboring ever since to clean up what they consider to be a nomenclatural mess," wrote Eric Myers in a New York Times article about the World Congress on Art Deco convention in England last year. (Myers, a New York free-lance writer, coauthored a book about the Art Deco style in the Hollywood movie industry.) "New York's sharply angled Empire State Building has been called Art Deco, but so have the low-rise, streamlined hotels of south Miami Beach that were, for the most part, constructed ten and fifteen years later. Also, style terms created after the fact do not sit well with art historians, who prefer to use terms that were contemporaneous with the style in question." Moreover, the term "Art Deco" only recently made its inaugural appearance in the Oxford English Dictionary. "There," Myers adds, "it is not even afforded the dignity of capitalization."

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