Peer Day 10: Art for Everyone
For a lot of people, going to a museum conjures the image of walking in a gaggle behind a humorless tour guide in sensible shoes past numberless bland impressionist landscapes that speak nothing to them, works painted by long-dead white artists with French names, men who have an elusive concept of beauty that simply cannot be understood in the simple minds of the average folk. Perhaps some of those feelings of disconnect come from a lack of relationship to the art in the museum, and a lack of representation among the curatorial staff. According to Museum Studies experts like Edmund Barry Gaither, for people from traditionally marginalized cultures, the experience of going to the museum has made them feel disenfranchised because their cultures have not been adequately represented. Museums like the Studio Museum in Harlem and el Museo del barrio were created to address the issues of marginalization and representation; these issues were the topic of discussion in Leslie Bedford’s peer day.
Edmund Barry Gaither discusses issues of inclusion in his article in a recent Smithsonian collection, Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture. Gaither believes that museums devoted specifically to the cultural heritage of a single group are important because they offer “a forum for the discussion of cultural issues and for the development of criticism, without becoming bogged down in racism” (60). At present, when more generally oriented museums attempt to reach out to diverse groups, often they do so in a condescending manner. So, perhaps, says Gaither, “when museums in the Unites [sic] States tell a more accurate and integrated story, more Americans from all cultural groups will feel ownership in them, and will say, ‘Hey, that’s mine’” (64).
When a museum oriented toward a specific racial group hosts an exhibit, then, presumably, the show is curated by a person from that racial group. According to Paula Vogel’s essay from Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, that’s an important consideration, since, though many museum visitors are not aware of it, the contents of a show are “mediated” through the eyes of its curator” (193). So if we see a show in a museum designed by and for Latinos, then presumably, we see the artifacts through the eyes of Latinos, an important mediation.
Concepts like these in the readings were fascinating and, I thought, useful to me not just for the peer day, but also as a student of culture. During the first half of our peer day, we discussed the theoretical readings we did in preparation for our touring the museums. Each of the readings favors the existence of museums oriented to marginalized cultures. While I agree in principle with having such museums, I find it interesting to connect some of the ideas, particularly mediation, to some reading I am doing for Union coursework. Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in it raises an interesting and related idea regarding culture and mediation.
In the context of mediation, de Zengotita tells about an Australian ethnic group, Imparja, who were given a television station to broadcast in their native language, “to give a cultural voice to the aboriginal peoples in the outback” (223). In this case, they were allowed to “mediate” themselves publicly through the Australian airwaves rather than in a museum. The interesting part, de Zengotita tells us, is that the “highest demand on the Imparja channel” was “Seinfeld. Other American sitcoms too, but especially Seinfeld” (223). According to what Gaither said, we might have expected the group to desire more Imparja-culture programming, but almost none of the shows were anything other than U.S. situation comedies. So de Zengotita explains if reading that these native people want to watch these programs makes you “recoil, hold on a minute. Who are you to say that Australian aborigines should prefer traditional activities to kicking back with Jerry and the gang? Haven’t they got a right to be hip? No one’s forcing them. It’s a choice, right?” (223).
I brought up this example in our discussion in the peer day, wondering whether exclusive, segregated museums are in fact good for race relations. We (peer day participants Leslie Bedford, Lila Staples, Paul Gaffney and I) debated the relative value of exclusive or segregated museums and a few important issues were raised. To begin with, in favor of these museums, Gaither made his argument from the perspective of an African-American man, a point of view none of the four white people at the table, no matter how sensitive we want to be, can fully grasp. Also, the museums segregated by culture might inspire a certain pride in heritage among groups that were previously marginalized. Those were good arguments raised in favor of the exclusive or segregated museums. But on the other hand, who is to say that the only exhibit Latino museum visitors want to see is, for example, a display of photographs by a Latino photographer? Perhaps Latino museum visitors would like to see an exhibit about Asian weaving, or African American visitors would be interested in an exhibit about Latino women painters. For those reasons, it seems as though museums with a broader range of interest make better sense, particularly in this era of limited public funding for the arts. The best way to make a determination, though, was to go to the museums and see for ourselves.
Taking the subway from Greenwich Village to Harlem was, to my mind, as much a part of the peer day as the museum visits and discussion. We had the chance on the trip to experience the transition between the upscale West Village and the extreme range of diversity in Harlem, where fifteen years ago, a group of middle-aged, middle-class white people like us might have felt unsafe standing at the intersection of Malcolm X Boulevard and 125th Street. But in 2005, this crowded street corner was packed with business people, street vendors, baby strollers, and so on: in other words, it was, perhaps not so different from other busy street corners in the city, except a few of the vendors were selling incense and daishikis, rather than the mundane hats, scarves, and sunglasses sold at the vendors midtown and below. Some of the vendors wore beards and knitted cotton Kufi caps that identified their Muslim faith. Perhaps the only difference that I noted between this and other Manhattan neighborhoods I visited was the fact that ours were the only white faces—a fact, I note with embarrassment, that should not have made me nervous. We were treated more kindly here, if anything, than on the Upper East Side. The only tension we experienced, we deserved—and that was because as tourists, we dallied at the intersection when we should have walked with the green light. One woman said, “GOD! Why don’t they HURRY UP!” which sounds a lot like something I would say about Washington, D.C. tourists.
After lunch in the Harlem Starbucks (which is, as one might imagine, identical to every other Starbucks in the world), we went to the Studio Museum, where we were looking forward to seeing both the Chris Ofili Watercolors (Ofili is famous for his portrait of the Madonna made with dung—censored by Rudy Guiliani in a previous exhibit) and the Bill Traylor, William Edmondson, and the Modernist Impulse exhibits. After paying a very reasonable $3 entrance fee, we entered the museum and began looking at the Ofili Watercolors. Leslie and Lila went ahead, eager to see the Traylor/Edmondson Modernist exhibit, only to be told by the guard that the exhibit, due to be closed on July 3rd, had been closed early, without explanation (or apology, apparently), so we would only be able to see Ofili and the museum’s permanent collection, which consists of about twelve pieces. Leslie, a Museum Studies learner, was incensed that the museum could close an exhibit early—particularly without posting due notice to the public before they paid their entrance fee. It is this sort of shoddy management, she explained, that often prevents museums like the Studio in Harlem from developing a good reputation. While we enjoyed the Ofili exhibit such as it was, we observed that the only other museum visitors were a tour group from a local school; the message to them (and us as well) seemed to be that the museum didn’t have its act together. I wondered, then, if it was the teachers’ purpose to develop the students’ love of attending museums for the future whether the mediocre experience they had on the 28th of June had in fact the opposite effect; it certainly didn’t overwhelm me with the urge to return.
I should mention, though, that the Studio Museum in Harlem is in transition; June 30th, the day we were there, was the last day for the director. A new director was to start on July 1st. So perhaps new and better exhibits and planning is to come there. The museum itself is a beautiful facility, so the new director has a great place to work with.
A great museum director is clearly more important than a beautiful facility—el Museo del barrio is proof. While this renovated school may not be the most beautiful place, I found that its exhibit of Photographs by Agustin Victor Casasola (1900-1940) was fascinating. Casasola was a reporter in Mexico City who founded a photography agency where he and members of his extended family worked to assemble an archive of photographs about Mexico’s history.
Curated by a Mexican-American, Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, the exhibit shows 92 photographs of scenes such as the Mexican revolutionary war, the post-war rebuilding of the Mexican infrastructure, Aztec mythic imagery, Mexican nightlife, and scenes from the Mexican criminal justice system. The diversity of the subject matter of the photos is stunning. Some of the photos showed early in the show are political (war photos), and one thinks the entire show will be political figures like Pancho Villa and Presidente Madero. However, later, we see the curiosity of images of Diego Rivera and the nightlife of dance hall performers and variety theater performers, as well as the horror of dead bodies on slabs of marble in the morgue. The range of subjects and the sometimes sensitive, sometimes objective, and often voyeuristic portrayal is intoxicating. The show, with its fascinating bilingual commentary, is well worth seeing. In this case (aside from the Mexican music playing in the background), I realize I have ever so subtly been told a story about Mexican history. It’s a great story, well told—but it would be at home at any of the finest museums in the country, to my mind.
In the end, visiting the two museums was a good experience, and debating the question about whether exclusivity or segregation into museums by culture or racial group was a worthy exercise. I don’t know that I have fully answered the question for myself. I began the peer day leaning against the practice, but having visited these museums and considered some of the issues, I wonder whether I—a white woman of considerable privilege (being in a Ph.D. program at a private university)—should have a say in the matter at all. I’m really not a member of the “Other” group.According to de Zengotita, “instead of treating the Other as an alien something [… ] recognize in the other an autonomy and agency equal to your own and place yourself in a reciprocal relationship of dialogue with the Other, etc. This is the most visible, the positive aspect of the otherness trope. The cardinal rule is to acknowledge the Other as other; that is as categorically different from you” (223) I believe what he’s saying here is not that we can never be equal or never have inter-racial dialogue—but rather that it doesn’t make sense for one group to presume to speak for the other. Thus, I take his advice. I found this, my last peer day to be a worthy one, for which I did some profound thinking.