[Paleopsych] NYT: New Mix: Outside In
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The New York Times > Arts > Arts Special > New Mix: Outside In
March 30, 2005
[There's a special section in the print edition devoted to museums. At
least temporarily, it can be viewed at http://nytimes.com/museums.]
By HOLLAND COTTER
Art museums are our most conservative cultural institutions. How can
they not be? Their first job is to collect fragile objects and
preserve them from harm. But the conservatism is ideological too.
Those objects, most of us are taught, represent humanity at its best,
its most heroic or refined. Museums preserve that vision, which many
of us have a big stake in holding on to. That's why they are stoutly
built, like temples and banks. It's the look of Classical.
But in the 1980's and 90's, a new kind of thinking - which was
actually a continuation of an old kind of thinking that started with
the empowerment movement of the 60's - began raising unsettling
questions about all of this. About the vision thing, for example.
Whose vision of culture are we talking about, anyway? Yours? Mine?
Ours? Theirs? In the case of modern art, what makes West best? In the
case of old, traditional or non-Western art, who really deserves to
own these magnetic objects, the people who made them or those who
collected them? Who can rightly assign values to them: good, bad;
major, minor; worthy, unworthy? Who says that a Renaissance altarpiece
is high art, while a 21st-century portable shrine from South India is
folk art, or artifact or craft? And, finally, who says that
charismatic objects like these, once collected, have lost their
Mainstream art museums say so, or rather the people who founded,
supported and ran them. On the one hand, these cornucopian
institutions are an homage to the richness of the human past. At the
same time, they are advertisements for power in the present: the power
of wealth, the power of possession, the power to enforce particular
perspectives on the way history was and is.
In the world of politics, power is pretty upfront: you argue; you face
off; you declare war. In culture, the playing out is subtler, but can
be, in its way, no less ruthless and devastating. By excluding certain
kinds of objects, or by presenting them as relics of a dead past, a
museum can degrade a culture just as surely as time and weather can.
Fortunately, a museum can also reverse this process. And that has been
happening, sometimes with vigor, sometimes with foot dragging, in
America over the last 20 years. Whatever the motivating trend - call
it postmodernism, pluralism, multiculturalism - the status of
non-Western art is beginning to change in mainstream institutions,
including sleeping giants in New York like the Metropolitan Museum of
Art and the recently repackaged Museum of Modern Art, from obscurity
to varying degrees of prominence.
Some of these changes are straightforward. The Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, among the most eminent of America's universal art museums,
opened permanent galleries devoted to the arts of Africa and Oceania
just last spring, and hired a curator to oversee them. The spaces are
small, but the institutional statement they make is not.
Exhibitions that would once have been confined to small or culturally
specific museums are appearing in mainstream venues. Last year, for
example, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, presented "Inverted
Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America," the first comprehensive
exhibition in the United States to address vanguard art throughout
South America in the 1960's and 70's. For anyone who assumed that
great Latin American art began and ended with Frida Kahlo, the show
must have been a revelation.
As it would have been to those who assumed Conceptualism was a
Euro-American invention. In fact, some of its most important
developments originated in South America, Asia and Africa.
Avant-garde African art? For many people, African art still evokes
"tribal" sculpture, nothing more. But the reality is very different,
as was demonstrated on a colossal scale by "The Short Century:
Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994," which
traveled from Europe to Chicago and arrived in 2002 at the P.S. 1
Contemporary Art Center, the Museum of Modern Art's contemporary
outpost in Queens.
Not only did the show offer largely unfamiliar painting, sculpture and
photography of thrilling range, it also departed from standard
exhibition genres, combining conventional fine art media and a survey
of material culture that included music, films, literature, design,
advertising and theater.
And while certain mainstream museums are taking what for them are
adventurous directions, culturally specific institutions are
demonstrating mainstream-scale ambition. The Asia Society in New York
has put together major surveys of contemporary Asian art, in each case
partnering with other institutions. In 1998, "Inside Out: New Chinese
Art," also appeared at P.S. 1; "Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India"
is currently at the Asia Society and the Queens Museum of Art.
And El Museo del Barrio, which began in the 60's as a neighborhood
workshop-gallery for Nuyorican artists, recently presented a
substantial selection of work from the Museum of Modern Art's Latin
American collection. This was followed by a historical survey, with
substantial loans from South America, of Latin American portraiture.
Clearly, the major Latino museum in this increasingly Latin city is
looking to attract an audience beyond the demographic suggested by its
Yet it is still our culturally specific institutions that are
generating the most innovative, even radical thinking about exhibition
styles. Many of these museums venture into cross-cultural and
cross-disciplinary terrain that larger institutions shy away from. And
they tackle difficult subjects like the role of sacredness in art that
mainstream museums do not go near.
The Museum for African Art in New York, under the direction of its
founder, Susan Vogel, revolutionized the concept of what art
institutions could be and could do. In one show after another,
beginning in 1984, she subjected conventions of display to scrutiny,
to suggest how the traditional museum, with its controlled ambience
and edited information, dictates and circumscribes approaches to art.
Mixing fine art and ethnological resources - dioramas, films, field
photographs and theatrical lighting - Ms. Vogel attempted to convey
the kinetic dimension of African objects, which is all but absent in
most displays. Her work inspired many other curators in the field,
including those who designed the new African Voices installation at
the National Museum of Natural History in Washington as a dense
layering of visual and aural elements, creating a total immersion in
The National Museum of the American Indian, first at the George Gustav
Heye Center in Lower Manhattan and now in its new home on the Mall in
Washington, seems to be on the same track. But in transforming its
institutional image from art museum to cultural history center,
designed for American Indians by American Indians, it pushed the ratio
of object to context in extreme directions.
To visitors familiar with the museum's fabulous collection of Native
American work, this de-emphasis on art was dismaying. Yet it makes
some sense when you consider that many of the objects in question
don't conform to Euro-American definitions of art as a passive medium
of contemplation and exchange. In the Native American view, as the
museum explains it, the process of creation is more important than the
end product. And when objects are valued in themselves it is because
they have a spiritual potency that requires they be kept from public
Such beliefs make heavy demands on the average museum. But the reality
is that if you are going to seriously embark on the job of presenting
non-Western cultures, you are going to run up against fundamental
challenges to your own conventions. And how to be true to the spirit
of religious art within the secular precincts of a Western museum
remains a question.
Again, the Museum for African Art led the way with one answer in its
1993 exhibition "Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the
African Americas." Organized by the art historian Robert Farris
Thompson, the show examined the trans-Atlantic links between African
and New World religious traditions. And it did so by treating its
subject as alive in the present rather than locked in the past.
The museum invited priests from Brazilian and Afro-Cuban Caribbean
religions to build active altars in the galleries. The results were
electrifying, not just because some of the altars were gorgeous, but
because visitors to the show regularly included religious devotees.
They came to look and to worship. Many left money at the altars as
offerings, which the museum staff periodically collected to pay for
refurbishing the ephemeral structures.
Some critics saw in "Face of the Gods" a new realness in art
presentation. Others detected a retooling of romantic exoticism. There
was no question of the show's impact, however, and it spawned some
One was "Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou," organized for the U.C.L.A.
Fowler Museum of Cultural History in 1995. It, too, attracted
religious devotees. Another has been "A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts
of Urban Senegal," also from the Fowler and recently at the Samuel P.
Harn Museum of Art at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In its
original Los Angeles setting, both Muslim and Buddhist visitors came
to the galleries for prayer and meditation.
Nor is the interdisciplinary approach to display restricted to
African-related shows. In the past decade, several museums - among
them the Newark Museum and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington
- have been presenting South Asian ritual art in a similar spirit,
though usually in more conventional look-but-don't-touch formats.
The painstaking creations by Tibetan monks of the sand mandala called
Kalachakra, or Wheel of Time, also fall into this category. Several
American art and natural history museums have commissioned monks to
produce a mandala on site, a process that usually takes several days
and is open for public viewing, blurring the line between performance
art and ritual.
A logical question is: Why aren't the exhibition principles used for
non-Western art also applied to showing Western Christian religious
art? I'm thinking of those sculptures and paintings originally in
churches, where they were actively worshipped, and in some cases still
are. One obvious answer is that such objects are still active in
Western culture and don't have the comfort zone of unfamiliarity that,
say, African objects have. In a word, they're just too "hot," and
might invite disruptive responses.
There are exceptions. For a show on African-American religion at the
Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture,
which is part of the Smithsonian in Washington, the curators created a
chapel-like setting with pews and piped-in music. To many of the
show's black visitors, the context was instantly familiar, and they
sang along with Mahalia Jackson as they absorbed historical
Such participation is never invited at a museum like the Met, though
in certain recent exhibitions of religious art, subtle efforts have
been made to acknowledge the work's nature and function. This was true
in the great Tilman Riemenschneider show in 2000, which, through a
strategic positioning of sculpture and the use of carefully composed
object labels, evoked the specific religious sensibility of the
Northern Gothic. At the same time, the suggestion of a spiritual
dynamic was so discreet as to pass unnoticed unless you were alert to
it. So, the show both departed from and adhered to the age-old Western
museum ploy of cleaning up socially and ritually messy realities, of
turning lived experiences into art experiences.
And part of the museum audience wants it that way, resisting heterodox
intrusions on art viewing, which has its own devotional rituals. An
exhibition titled "Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art" at the
Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year, which presented Buddhist
religious objects from the vantage of a practitioner, was accused in
the local press of promoting Buddhism as a religion. It is one thing
for art museums to be Temples of Beauty, but quite another for them to
be religious shrines.
IN short, issues surrounding art and religion remain provocative, as
do the exhibitions that address them head-on. At the same time,
certain museums are tackling comparably radical ideas in more
traditional forms. There is a growing trend toward transcultural or
intercultural shows that trace aesthetic connections between far-flung
cultures, and do so in ways that fit smoothly into mainstream museum
settings. And while such exhibitions may stick to old-style display,
they can turn history on its head. In 2007, the Museum for African Art
will have a show, organized by its new curator, Enid Schildkrout, of
woven baskets from West Africa and South Carolina. Shown together,
these objects tell a story of how rice-growing techniques were
transported from Africa through the slave trade to America. There, new
research suggests, slaves were valued not merely for their labor, but
for their expertise in rice farming techniques, which white owners
exploited and sought to control.
This kind of focused, revisionist take on a specific history is still
rare in mainstream museums, which feel compelled to sell art through
spectacle, and keep complications and provocations to a minimum. Yet,
changes creep in. A 2002 show, "Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African
Sculpture," organized at the Met by its curator of African art, Alisa
LaGamma, included an ethnographic film of sculptural headdresses being
worn in performance, a modest "first" in multimedia terms, but a giant
step for the Met.
So was the inclusion, in another show, of African contemporary art
with traditional "tribal" objects.
But no need to panic. Other changes at the Met stop well short of
revolution. Object labels in galleries have been allowed to grow in
length. And in general, providing more contextual information seems to
be the direction museums are taking. To an older, more conservative
generation of observers this constitutes an erosion of aesthetic
supremacy. But you don't need to be a genius to figure out that people
who don't like labels can ignore them; and those who want information
can now have more.
And where does the art institution of the moment, the new Museum of
Modern Art, stand on all of this? Well, of course, the new Modern is
still very much the old Modern. In its heart of hearts, it is still
wedded to an art-object-speaks-for-itself formalism. And it will
surely be a very long intercultural time before we'll be seeing an
altar set up in its spanking white precincts.
Yet there is a huge revisionist task to be undertaken if the Modern is
to fully justify its name. I'm speaking of the need for a broadening
of the museum's past and present definition of Modern Art to include
African, Asian, Latin American and Eastern European modernisms; or,
put another way, for an institutional acknowledgment of a global
modernism, of which Western European and North American modernism were
a tremendously important part, but only a part.
I wonder if, at this point, in fact, it might not make sense for the
museum to stop collecting vertically and start collecting
horizontally, to stop acquiring contemporary art and concentrate
instead on filling out the yawning international gaps in its
20th-century Modernist collection. Perhaps it could then exhibit what
it finds under a curatorial staff that would include African and Asian
specialists along with the Latin-American specialist, Paulo
Herkenhoff, already on board.
O.K., I'm dreaming. Meanwhile, though, redefining steps have taken
place, notably in the unruly reinstallations that closed the old 53rd
Street building. A residue of those experiments has been carried over
into the new installation, where a bit of African work is integrated
into the photography collection, and a handful of Latin American
artists join some of their starry European colleagues.
It's great, in the new galleries, to encounter two utopians, the
Uruguayan avant-garde painter Joaquín Torres-García and Piet Mondrian,
deep in conversation, and to find the Venezuelan artist Armando
Reverón sharing cosmopolitan space with Picasso and Giacometti.
Difference and relatedness, that's what I see, and a mainstream museum
that could change the course of that stream. We just get a hint of
that now. But the story can expand only outward from here.
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