IF the show has a blind spot, it is infrastructure. After Hurricane Katrina, American designers have begun refocusing their efforts on the largest scale: reinventing flood control and the levee system for New Orleans and more broadly addressing the crumbling state of many American cities, New York prominently among them. The consumer-oriented items on view in "Safe," particularly shimmering examples of high-end product design, such as Karim Rashid's packaging for Prada, look like so many trinkets in comparison with the big-ticket challenges that architects and designers have been debating in recent weeks.
But curators are hardly in a position to predict natural disasters or change a museum exhibition on the fly. This particular show was already delayed and rejiggered once, after Sept. 11.
Precisely because "Safe" has such outsized psychological and sociological ambitions, though, it winds up seeming limited by the confidence of its own artistic judgments -- limited by the notion that exhibitions should be in the business showing us the best rather than the most revealing objects in a given field.
This notion of linking taste and advocacy (or the slightly less aggressive enlightenment) is one that Western museums were essentially built upon, and that the Museum of Modern Art -- in particular its design department over the decades -- has explored more doggedly than any other.
When you are celebrating the work of a single artist or group of artists, that curatorial idea makes enough sense to be entirely transparent. (Nobody wants to see the great paintings from a particular era next to mediocre but somehow representative examples by lesser talents.) And in an age of museum shows that embrace multimedia-heavy context with abandon -- putting up a video loop of a painter at work next to the painting itself, for example, and piping in contemporary music for good measure -- there is something refreshing about the Modern's refusal to abandon the hermeticism of high standards.
But when you are trying to take on a big, messy societal theme such as this one, restricting yourself in that manner can seem to vacuum-seal the galleries against the intrusion of the real world.
And no two words sum up the show's limitations like these: Freedom Tower.
As first sketched out by Daniel Libeskind as the architectural heart of his master plan for the World Trade Center site, that skyscraper was meant as a crystalline, transparent symbol of American democracy. Since then it has been taken over by another architect, David Childs, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who smoothed out its eccentricities and gave it a corporate sheen. Over the summer, just before its design was going to be finalized, the New York Police Department stepped in, insisting that the building's lower floors be fortified against possible car and truck bombs.
The result is an office tower disguised as a bunker. As a symbol of America's tortured ambivalence about safety, risk and openness after Sept. 11, none of the hundreds of objects in "Safe" comes close to matching it.