Wednesday, July 29, 2009

At the Met, part three: most of the world gets a special exhibit

About two-thirds of my two days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a couple of weeks ago were spent at the exhibit "African and Oceanic Art from the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva: A Legacy of Collecting," and the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas collection in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing. For anyone with the slightest consciousness about the crimes of imperialism, looking at the objects in these collections can only be a vexing, contradictory experience.

On the one hand, the art is magnificent. And you appreciate, so much, the chance to see it, to experience it, to think about it, to learn about it at least a little. Walking through the rooms you are overwhelmed by the sweep of cultural riches on display; it's impossible to take it in in any real depth over the course of a few hours; you just sort of move about in a state of awe. After all, the areas from which work is on display here constitute more than half the world. The material in these exhibits comes from hundreds and hundreds of nations, and span hundreds, in some cases, thousands of years. The wealth of human creativity, passion, ideas, humor, mythology, statecraft, etc., is mind-boggling. I felt myself dizzied by the creativity surrounding me in those halls.

On the other hand. Oh god, there's so much to the other hand. First of all, given that what's on offer here is art from more than half of the world -- why in the hell is it relegated to a special exhibition, to a single area, why is it separated off as if it is Other, a sideshow, a special feature subordinate to the main attraction? Which of course is European art. Then there's the inescapable fact that everything on display is stolen. The overall blurb for the special exhibit says that the objects on loan here from the Barbier-Muellers, no doubt a simply delightful family of rapacious plunderers,
represent the culmination of more than eight decades of wide-ranging collecting of works from both [Africa and Oceania] regions.
That's one way of putting it, a phrasing of which I'm sure old King Leopold, author of the colonial mass murder and wholesale robbery of the riches of the Congo, would have approved. Me, I can think of alternate ways to describe those eight decades, which would feature words like larceny, theft, cultural genocide, and so on.

The scale of the crimes behind these exhibits is massive. It's not just that "art lovers" were stripping these civilizations of their cultural riches -- and I mean riches, baby, check out the room full of gold from Colombia and Peru -- while the larger colonial enterprise was extracting the main imperial booty of natural resources and labor. It's that they literally took apart these societies. For example, several times I found myself admiring a huge wooden or metal object, in one case from Papua New Guinea, in another from the Ivory Coast, only to find out when I read the curator's notes that the object had been part of a house. That's right, here a doorpost, there a thatched roof, simply removed and transported to Europe and now on display in New York. What happened to that family's house once the doorpost was taken? If anyone imagines they were compensated or offered a new house, well, I mean, really, come now.

And why were they removed and transported and mounted for display? This is 2009 and the Met's curators were at least a little careful with their language, so there's no mention of words like "primitive cultures" in the printed material. But the displays are imbued with that unspoken notion. The notion that here, you civilized sorts, here for your viewing pleasure, is some primitive stuff. Then come to find out that, in fact, this Michael Rockefeller wing did used to be called the "arts of primitive cultures" wing; not only that, but the stuff in the permanent collection all used to be housed in a separate Michael Rockefeller Museum of Primitive Art.

And who was Michael Rockefeller? Not any old John D. descendant. He was a son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the racist butcher who later, in 1971, ordered the troops to open fire and killed 43 people in the rebellion at Attica Prison. Ten years earlier, in 1961, Michael had disappeared, never to be found. He was in what is now Indonesia when his dugout canoe sank because it was so overloaded with art he'd "bought" from the indigenous Asmat people. His guides managed to swim for help; at some point he apparently decided he could make the swim too, and by the time they returned his body was nowhere to be found. That's the official version, anyway. As we walked through room after room of the most astonishingly brilliant, vibrant, original art and were stunned into awestruck contemplation of the hundreds and hundreds of cultures stripped bare by the Michael Rockefellers of the world, cultures that for the most part don't even exist anymore, Teresa and I started spinning our own preferred version of what had happened to him, some story featuring the vengeance of the oppressed. The image shown here is two objects among the thousands Rockefeller brought to New York, in this case from New Guinea.

As is by now obvious, I can't even begin to try to report on the art we viewed. It was extremely diverse, coming as it did from so many different places, so many different cultures. But one thing struck me, very strongly, something that had never occurred to me before but that I think I just might have gotten right. And that is that the flowering of modern art that began in the second half of the 19th century in Europe and continued through the first half of the 20th century, the great outpouring of new, shocking, trailblazing, original art -- impressionism, fauvism, cubism, dada, surrealism and the rest -- all that we think of as the great outburst of modernism in visual art is actually copied from the arts of the indigenous cultures that European colonialism had begun looting and shipping home at that same time.

It struck me first right after we entered the exhibit hall. There was a viscerally exciting, boldly colored, kind of kooky looking image of a face with the eyes and nose and mouth all sort of askew. It was from a nation in the South Pacific. I looked at it and thought, my god, that looks like the great painting the Demoiselles of Avignon by Picasso. Further on, looking at a mask from what is now Malaysia, an elongated face with slit-like eyes, I thought, and gosh, look at that, it's like a Modigliani sculpture. After a couple more times of this sort of thing I suddenly slapped my face and realized, shit, no, that doesn't look like a Picasso, this doesn't look like Modigliani--Picasso and Modigliani's work looks like this! That is, their work copies the work of the artists of these nations! As I thought about the timing, it seemed to me to make sense. By the time the young artists who would become the greats of European modernism were coming of age, the museums of Europe were filled with material that had been looted and shipped from, yes, Oceania and Africa and the Americas, and of course these young artists saw it. And they ripped it off. And claimed to be the originators of brilliant new ways of looking at the world.

Well, this is probably no great original insight. No doubt progressive arts scholars have long since proved such a thesis. But it was very much brought home for me in those two days filled with awe and sadness, grand beauty and the ugly crimes of history.