Thursday, October 25, 2012

Art with Different Interpretive Glasses

I wrote last week about my visit to the Walter’s Gallery in Baltimore, describing how intrigued I was by their new exhibition.  I also found their permanent collections, which I walked through briefly afterwards, commendably well done.  Their collection is as traditional as can be, built up like the collections in so many museums today, by cultured millionaire men of the late 19th and early 20th century.  It is particularly strong in ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman art, and includes works from all the favorite periods of the Western Art Cannon.  Yet its presentation is far from conservative.  The museum does a good job at including the newest scholarship, drawing connections to contemporary world, and combining the art works in unexpected ways that keep the visitor alert. 

After my visit to the Walters that Sunday, I walked down to the Baltimore waterfront and meandered my way around the harbor to a totally different art-viewing experience: the American Visionary Art Museum.  This was a museum with an unexpected relationship to art.  It’s hard to describe. Even the information sheet I picked up at the museum’s entrance states that, “it is not easy to define ‘visionary art’.  Like love, you know it when you’re in it.” 

AVAM, Baltimore.  image source 
It’s not a museum of art history.  It is not a museum with displays of any famous artists, or art movements.  Its collection is not based on the Art Cannon.  Neither is its collection folk art i.e. art in the tradition of a long inherited cultural practice.  Instead, it is a museum that collects and presents artworks in a way that emphasizes the particular link between art and the artist’s soul.  The works are moving not because they all display amazing technique or talent (although some of them certainly do) but because they are so intensely personal.  A number of the artists whose works are on display suffer from a trauma or a disability, and their art practice is a way of coping, healing. 

This way of organizing and collecting might be embarrassing or uncomfortable for some art historians and museum curators.  Art therapy, or art as soul-work, especially from largely untrained artists, isn’t exactly high art.  No matter its personal value to the artist, can it possibly have a commercial and aesthetic value anywhere near what a work of high art might have?  The AVAM and its emotive exhibitions force skeptics to reconsider their preconceptions, and respect this type of work.  I wish I could show some of the photos I might have accidentally/secretly taken with my iPod, but I noticed the “No Photos” sign on the way out, and I will respect the museum’s regulations.  I’ll have to make do with sharing an image from the Museum’s own website and facebook page:

Mad Growth, Beatrice Coron, made of cut tyvek
There are museums, like the Walter’s that differ in degree from the traditional 20th century model.  Then there are museums like the American Visionary Art Museum that differ in kind.  It is places like the AVAM that remind us art historians to break out of our traditional sense of organization once in a while, and allow us to see art with a different pair of interpretative glasses.  

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Renaissance Art, asking new questions about an old topic

The European Renaissance: one of the great over-collected and over-studied periods of Art History.  I say this not to disparage the Renaissance, which was a time of interesting, unprecedented change, but to emphasize how entrenched our stories of this era are.  A thousand times over, art historians have used paintings and sculptures from Europe’s 1400s and 1500s to build an overarching picture of an era. This picture illustrates a time influenced by Humanist beliefs and renewed interest in Roman and Greek culture, a time with a shifts in religious thought, a time with new developments in disciplines from mathematics to philosophy.  All of these aspects are visible in Renaissance art, and they feature in reiterations everywhere, from our history textbooks to our museum halls. 

Last week I stumbled upon an ad for the opening of a new show at the Walter’s Museum in Baltimore, titled African Presence in Renaissance Europe.  I was instantly intrigued: here is a new angle on this favorite era.  I had never heard of an African presence in Renaissance Europe –that isn’t usually part of the narrative of the era.  The very idea of this exhibit highlights of one of the things I love the most about working in the art and culture field: history is a palimpsest, and digging into its complicated depths may suddenly reveal new layers of truth.  No matter how many exhibits there have been on Renaissance art, and now many times studies have corroborated our theories about Renaissance developments, the art works still hold more stories within their frames, stories we aren’t able to see until we figure out the right questions to ask.

With the help of new technological developments in navigation, in the 1400s, people of the European continent were interacting with people of the African continent more than they had in a century, since North Africa was part of the Roman Empire.  Ergo, the thinkers behind the exhibition reasoned, we should see a proliferation of interpretations of Africa and Africans within European Renaissance art.  What shaped the discourse about Africa and Africans in Europe during the Renaissance?  What were the interactions between Europeans and Africans like?  What roles did Africans play in Europe?  African Presence in Renaissance Europe is structured on these new, open-minded questions.  Armed with this new set of questions, scholars can find evidence of an African presence in Europe all over the Renaissance art, in aspects not particularly hidden, but nonetheless often overlooked earlier generations of art historians.   
Girolamo da Santacroce Adoration of the Kings 1525-30 oil on panel, 27" x 32"
 I took the train to Baltimore to see the exhibit last Sunday, the first day it opened.  The exhibit starts with a gorgeous painting of a nativity scene with the three kings, one king portrayed as a black man, as became a common piece of Christian iconography starting in the 1400s.  (We’ve all seen these representations of the nativity with a black king.  But have we ever thought about what this black king represented to Renaissance artists and art viewers?  Who acted as the model for the painting?) 

Moving around the corner from the first painting, I entered the first gallery, a space focusing on the European historical context.  I looked at a lot of old illustrated books, of which the Walter’s has an impressive collection.  In the travel books, atlases and scientific tombs of the time, the mix of study and stereotypes highlighted the increased encounters between Europe and Africa.

The next gallery showed examples of African presence in Christian iconography, and in the iconography of other key Renaissance stories, such as Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.  Next came a gallery of portraits.  A decent sized minority population of Africans lived in some European cities –diplomats, business people, merchants, artisans, servants and slaves- and all of them appear in studies and portraits by European Renaissance artists. 
Some portraits from the exhibition, featured on the Walter's website
By the beginning of the 1600s, the diversity of roles that Africans played in European society dwindled, as the European image of Africa became irrevocably entwined with the inhuman slave trade to the colonies in the New World.  But between 1400 and 1600, the exhibition demonstrated for me that there was far more complex interaction, and fluidity between Europe and Africa than I would have thought.  Plenty of racism existed, but it was inchoate, mixed, not as all-powerful as in later manifestations. 

As is appropriate for an exhibit that is trying to break with ingrained beliefs about the Renaissance, there were a lot of opportunities for visitors to interact and participate in the exhibit.  “Conversation Cubes”, with a question on each side, sat on a bench at the center of the exhibit, provoking visitors to think about issues of art and ethnic identity that the exhibit brought up.  “How does art contribute to the shaping of identity?” and “How does previous knowledge influence the perception of the artwork?” are two examples of questions from these cubes. 

An adjacent gallery displayed the results of interactive projects between the museum and Baltimore middle schools.  In the preceding months, classes had talked about the art to be featured in the exhibit, and had responded to it creatively.  This gallery displayed student work ranging from drawings of new imagined scenes featuring historical people from the exhibit, to a class letter to their textbook company, pointing out how little Africans are ever mentioned in history textbooks and calling for this gap to be rectified.  I enjoyed seeing these contemporary responses to the exhibit; they enhanced its message by demonstrated that the new questions being asked about this over-studied period are making an impact on how we think about the Renaissance.    

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Architecture of the National Museum of the American Indian

Yesterday, I visited the National Museum of the American Indian with a class, and we got the amazing chance to speak with Kevin Gover, the museum director. 
Photo Source
The idea for the museum was established in 1989, and it opened in 2004.  NMAI is now an undulating, sand colored building, not much more than a stone’s throw away from the US capitol building.  A museum’s architecture is almost always a key symbol of its cultural meaning, and the architecture of the NMAI is rich with symbolism.  Just as the institution itself is trying to bring together the Native American cultures with the Euro-American ideas of collection and display in a balanced way, the architecture of the NMAI balances undulating, earthy elements with neoclassical aesthetic aspects.  Here are some interesting things that struck me about the architecture and what it might symbolize:

-       Placement.  I already mentioned how close NMAI is to the Capitol building.  Its central placement reminds us of the need for the US to recognize the centrality of the American Indian story to our national narrative.  The Capitol building is on a hill, towering above all the museums on the mall, so there is still a sense of power discrepancy.  However, as I sat with my class in the conference room at the top floor of NMAI, and looked out the windows at the Capitol building, it felt almost as if the two buildings are in dialog with each other.  NMAI’s placement symbolizes hope for a more just relationship between the US government and American Indians moving forward. 

-       Size.  The National Gallery of Art, the Natural History Museum, the Air and Space Museum are huge dominating structures, and the NMAI is as giant as the rest of them. I felt tiny walking through the front door.  Enormity can evoke a lot of things –power and intimidation, for example, but in this context, it seems to evoke a sense of permanence and longevity.  The NMAI isn’t yet 10 years old, and yet when you walk up to it, its presence is so dominant that you can’t imagine this space without it. 

-       Neoclassical connections.  It surprised me, looking around yesterday, to realize that the central space of the NMAI is shaped rather like the Roman Pantheon, with a spherical dome roof, ending in an oculus.  Museums have been built for decades with Greek and Roman architecture, but I figured that the NMAI would be trying to distance itself from classical museum practices that so degraded Indians.  Yet as I thought about it, I realized that the Pantheon-like dome was actually totally appropriate.  NMAI doesn’t want to erase museum history; it wants to repurpose the power of it to create a museum of more equality and justice.  The dome acknowledges this link architecturally. 
Photo Source
-       Undulating, Sandstone walls, and the emphasis in the display design inside on circles.  This feels earthy, windblown.  Even a visitor not interested in or educated in architecture is going to notice this connection.  Is a deep connection to the earth part of American Indians’ identities?  The choice of the earthy architecture answers resoundingly yes. 
photo source

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Craft exhibits and the definition of Craft

I stopped into the Renwick Gallery today to see their exhibit of young artists: "40 Under 40: Craft Futures", and to ponder what exactly crafts are, different from art that might be shown in another type of art museum.  I was surprised by the way contemporary craft seemed to be defined by the works in the Renwick's exhibition -not good or bad surprised, just surprised.

Before visiting the exhibit, I might have defined crafts as handmade objects that strike a balance between function and beauty, made by people who feel a deep affinity to a long tradition of cultural practices of creation, even as their works range from the conservative to the wildly updated and unique.  An example from the Renwick's permanent collection illustrates this:

This is a Teapot, made 1989 by Ralph Bacerra.  It is tied into folk traditions of ceramic and tea drinking, while having its own kooky, tilted personality.  It is beautiful and original, without completely loosing its connection to functionality.  (Of course, being inside a glass case at a museum, it never fulfills its function as a teapot -but in theory, you could take it out of the glass case and serve tea in it if you wanted to.)  Other works in the permanent collection which seemed to fit with my definition of crafts included quilts, jewelry, furniture, vases and utensils.  

The works displayed in "40 Under 40" had a different relationship to all aspects of my definition.  Many were not handmade, but took advantage of computer and other technologies.  Many so altered traditional forms that although they might remind viewers of objects with a function, they could no longer function themselves as anything but displayable art.  An example is this quilt made entirely out of 16mm film tape, not a material you could cuddle up under on a cold night (work shown below, Hula Hoop by Sabrina Gschwandtner, 2010, 34" x 34").

Connections to a traditional cultural practice haven't disappeared in these new works -they are very evident, for example in the quilt above, but the most important connection seems to be with movements of the post-modern art scene, more than to folk traditions.  There wasn't a great deal of difference between what was on display at "40 Under 40", from what might be found at many a museum of contemporary art.

I liked the definition the exhibit gave for contemporary craft, that craft is no longer as much about being "handmade" but about the attitude of the maker to "improve quality of life through a closer relationship with making." This meant that the exhibit paid a lot of attention to the process, through videos of the artists at work.   I was also fully convinced by the beauty of many of the objects, and the complicated issues they raised about contemporary society.  The exhibit was engaging.  However, I wonder if something isn't lost by this trend for craft to distance itself from connections to functionality and traditional practice, and become more like other forms of contemporary art. Are functional objects less worthy of placement in a museum? If they are being crowded out even in a craft museum, a place where they should reign supreme, where will they every be shown?

Museum Objects, and Beauty in Context

The thoughts I expressed in my last blog entry were informed by, and in some ways an argument against, the ideas in the essay by James Cuno, “The Object of Art Museums”, published in the 2004 compilation book Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust.  The book brings together essays from six high level art museum directors and curators, musing (no pun intended) on the proper shape of the Art Museum in the twenty-first century.  And all of the six gentlemen (the essays were all by men) generally agreed that for the museum to retain its status as a trusted cultural institution, it needed to return its focus from fancy educational programs and new technological gadgets geared toward attracting visitor participation, back to a focus on the art objects that are the center of a museum’s identity. 

I don’t exactly agree…

Some of the essays in the book did a better job than others of convincing me that an overabundance of information and programs detracted from the experience of the artwork.  John Walsh’s essay “Pictures, Tears, Lights, and Seats”, pondered the shift from a past time when the appropriate response to great works of art was deep emotion –crying or laughing, to today when the appropriate response is usually intellectual advancement, irrelevant of any emotional response.  When did art shift from being largely about the heart to being largely about the mind? 

I love Walsh’s question, because I had never thought about it this way before, and it strikes me as remarkably true about how I perceive and connect with art: in focusing on connecting to it with my intellect, I forget to notice how it makes me feel.  I think I could find a lot of satisfaction and meaning by sometimes turning off my intellect, or at least setting it to the side, when I visit a museum, and letting works of art strike more my heart.  The museum too, could encourage emotional responses, perhaps by changing lighting, or by reflecting not just on facts in information cards, but on touching stories.

Reading James Cuno’s essay, on the other hand, my pen was kept busy marking the places where I disagreed with his vision of art, and how museum visitors best relate to it.  He believes that an art museum is a “steward of beauty”, the noblest of quests, because when visitors experience beauty, they  “experience an ‘unselfing,’ and all the energy [visitors] formerly put into the service of protecting, guarding, and advancing the self is then free to be in the service of something else” (Cuno 50).  It strikes me, that museums aren’t stewards of beauty; beauty can be found everywhere.  Besides, whether or not something strikes one as beautiful depends on ones personal taste, and current mood, as well as cultural trends.  Cuno’s perspective on beauty seems far too elitist, and far too absolutist.  Besides, I disagree that seeing something beautiful is an “unselfing”, as he puts it.  Noticing beauty gives me a stronger connection to my self –things we find beautiful are things we can, on some level, feel a kinship with. 

In my experience, beauty is enhanced by context.  Cuno argues that we should remove labels from the walls so that visitors can contemplate beauty undistracted.  And then he delegitimizes his own argument in giving examples of beautiful objects and convincing us to be excited about these objects by the thoughtful anecdotes he relates.  Far from being distractions, stories, words are powerful ways to connect to objects and their beauty. Labels, and other ways that museums use to connect the art objects to stories, shouldn’t be removed; they should be created with utmost care, since they are such a valuable 

In sum: slow down, connect not just intellectually to works of art, but emotionally.  Accept the power of story and contextualization to make a work of art more powerful, and memorable to the viewer, give the viewer these stories to allow the him or her a greater chance of a sense of kinship with the art.