As usual, I’m behind a bit, so this isn’t exactly breaking news, but the New York Times announced about a week ago the appointment of a new head of the Asian Art department at the Metropolitan Museum. James Watt, who has headed the department for ten years, is retiring, and Maxwell Hearn, currently curator of Chinese art, who has been at the Metropolitan since 1971, will be taking over. Both men are giants in the field, producing some excellent Chinese art exhibitions over the many years they’ve been at the Met.
Photo copyright Ruth Fremson/The New York Times.
In a video attached to the article (no embedding possible, it would seem), Hearn shares with us a Chinese handscroll painting, and how they should be viewed.
As seems fairly typical for this sort of article, we are told how it is that Mr Hearn got interested in Asian art to begin with, and how he secured his job at the Metropolitan. Many of the older generation got their start in ways nearly impossible for one of us today. To take a few examples, Gerald Curtis was hired by Columbia before he even finished his PhD, as one of the only experts in the US on Japanese politics, at a time when, I guess, Columbia was one of the first universities in the US to seek to teach East Asian politics; the late Kenneth Butler, director of the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Yokohama for many many years, claimed to have been one of only a literal handful of American men who spoke Japanese at a certain time in the late 40s or 1950s (excluding Japanese-American native speakers, of course), and so had little difficulty moving up through the ranks to play an important role in the Occupation and in Japanese Studies back home in the US afterwards.
For whatever reason, I had assumed that Hearn’s story would be the same. And perhaps, to some extent, it is. But, reading about how he got his first job at the Met as the result of the networking connections and guidance and help of his Princeton advisor, Wen Fong, who called in favors, or perhaps was asked by the Met to suggest his best students, or something to that effect. Is that really so different from how I expect to get my foot in the door?
In any case, Mr Hearn (Dr Hearn?) has been in the Chinese art department in one capacity or another for 27 years, and has played a part in a great many major exhibitions, and in making the Chinese garden a reality. As the NY Times article relates, the museum had just finished re-doing its A/C ducts or something to that effect, and Thomas Hoving vetoed any idea of undoing that expensive work to install some new section with skylights and such, altering the ceiling and the A/C ducts within it. Still, Brooke Astor, a prominent and super wealthy board member (as board members tend to be), put up the funds to make it financially reasonable and doable, and so the beautiful Chinese garden which stands today at the center of the Chinese galleries was built.
The Times article goes on to discuss some of the major challenges facing Asian art today. Hearn’s story of how he got involved in Asian art, and in working at the Met, may not be that different from what I hope will become my own, but exhibitions simply cannot be held like they used to, and collections cannot be grown like they used to. Asian art has become too expensive for even large museums like the Met to afford (that’s a scary thought!!), and loans from Chinese and Japanese museums are more difficult and more expensive than ever (well, I shouldn’t say that – I don’t know the politics of borrowing objects during the Mao / pre-Nixon era when the US & China weren’t talking to each other and the Cold War was in full swing, but anyway) …. It makes me nervous and worried what things will be like if/when I ever become Curator myself. But it’s great to see it discussed in the paper like this, and to be given some idea what it is that’s actually going on.
My best wishes to both James Watt and Maxwell Hearn, as things change hands and move forward at the Metropolitan. Looking forward to some jump-starting of the Japanese exhibitions. Maybe? Please?
Meanwhile, in France, President Sarkozy has apparently stirred up some controversy by suggesting the establishment of a museum of national history, something I am amazed to hear does not already exist in France.
The controversy is a familiar one. Whose history, which history, is “French” history? It is one we discussed almost to no end in my Museum Studies seminar last term, and is indeed very much a 21st century, post-modern, post-colonial issue that cannot seem to be solved or allowed to rest.
I can appreciate how this issue might be a difficult and touchy one in a place like the United States, especially in Hawaii, and also in places such as Australia. Where do aborigines fit into Australian history, i.e. the history of a former British colony, now white-dominated country?
But, in France, where there is no indigenous population that has been displaced or overthrown, and where there is in fact a singular national ethnic group – the French, as in the white French descended from the Gauls and Franks and Normans and whoever else – it is a very different situation. Now, I don’t presume to be any kind of expert on French society or societal issues, but basically, unlike the United States, France is a nation-state, a state (country) that controls territory roughly co-terminus with the traditional lands of a single nation (ethnic group) – the French. It is not a colonized place like Hawaii or Australia, or a country whose borders and identity has only come into existence in recent decades, such as, oh, I dunno, Ghana. France, like China, has in one form or another, existed for at least 2000 years, ruled by the Gauls or Franks or the French.
When it comes to US history, the history of a country founded and formed by immigrants, I think that to some extent the argument that Chinese-American history is just as much a part of American history as Jewish-American history or Irish-American history has some real validity to it. There is no such thing as US culture, US society, US anything without blacks, East Asians, Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, Latinos…. But there is a such thing as French culture that stands on its own, that others can adopt, can assimilate into, if they choose to. As one of my professors once said, “egalitarianism in France means everyone having equal opportunity to choose to become French,” meaning that the French have their own elite high culture, and you can choose to adopt it and become cultured if you so choose. What I am getting at is the idea that, in theory, ideally (ideologically?), French culture is a monolithic and static thing, that did not form from a mishmash of the cultures of other peoples, like US culture or Hawaiian ‘local’ culture1, but comes from the singular identity of the French people. Now, I do not mean to argue this point too strongly, for fear of coming across as right-wing or something, or worse, racist, but I am simply trying to be clear, from my point of view as a historian.
It is easy for the journalist, the activist, the politician, the social justice blogger, who have their heads firmly, solely, in the present, to look around at a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic France and assume that this current situation defines France, and that any argument otherwise is racist or imperialist or something. Yet, there is a such thing as France that is different from what we see today, different from something which should be subject to the political attitudes and trends in political correctness of today.
We are talking about a museum of history, and there has been a lot of French history without the Vietnamese, the Arabs, the Algerians. It’s called “pre-colonial” or “pre-modern” history. There were no Vietnamese in France during the reign of Charlemagne, and as late as the reign of Louis XVI, long after France first planted its flag in Canada and in many other parts of the world, there was still at that time no such thing as Algeria or Algerians.
Societies and cultures change, and today in the 21st century, French identity may indeed be on the way to becoming, as Wikipedia has it, more a matter of French citizenship, “regardless of ancestry,” than a singular ethnic identity. But that does not mean that we can or should read this back through history – reading current situations back into history is among the worst of the historians’ fallacies, and while historians know to watch out for it, and to be careful not to do it, non-historians commit this error all the time. Just because today’s French society consists of Vietnamese, Arabs, Algerians, and people from any number of other origins does not mean that their stories constitute “French history.” They may constitute some portion of French history, and I do think that any French history museum that purports to relate a relatively full, thorough account of the country’s history needs to address colonialism and imperialism, inter-cultural exchanges and influences, etc.
As the NY Times article relates, Sarkozy has stated that France “has a problem with Islam,” the implication being, though not directly quoted or discussed in the article, that he believes this is a major problem to be addressed and corrected.
It is true that any museum is ideological, and that in creating such a museum, curators will need to tread very carefully to present a version of events that is both accurate and “true” – not sullied by political correctness or conscious intentional efforts to shade or color things are certain way – and at the same time acceptable. The museum must not be too pro-colonialist, of course, but neither should it be too anti-colonialist. It must treat Islam fairly, to combat the issues and difficulties so prominent in French society today, not decrying or disparaging it, which would of course only worsen the problem, but neither should such a museum extol Islam, a totally political move that would have everything to do with political motives of today, whitewashing things and completely failing to put into proper perspective the violence committed on both sides against the other – Muslims and Christians – for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Nicolas Offenstadt, a professor of history at the Sorbonne, argues that “To know about French Algeria you need to know about Algeria before France arrived there … If we need any history museum, it would be a world history museum, not a French history museum, to give us a real perspective on who we are, and what is France today.” But while he accuses “The very idea of a specifically French history museum [as] ideological,” his suggestion seems to me just as ideological, if not more so. To have a museum, or any accounting of history, be as objective, fair, accurate, and balanced as possible, it needs to be organized, not based on anything tied to the present, any idea of better understanding who we are today, but rather, in being tied to understanding who we once were in the past. A museum focusing on the impacts of France around the world and/or on the countries and cultures from which prominent minorities in France come, is a museum that picks and chooses and is very selective in what it addresses and in what manner, for the very ideological purpose of furthering certain political views – certain liberal, anti-imperialist, progressive, pro-multicultural views – which are ultimately, it would seem, opposed to the idea of a distinctly French people or French culture prior to the influx of peoples from around the world.
Some of the words Sarkozy has chosen do in fact make me nervous, and worry that he is politically motivated and ideological – stating that “French people want to reappropriate their history.”
But my point is simply to say that there is a such thing as French history prior to imperialism and multiculturalism, and that this, from Charlemagne down to the 16th century, should be understood on its own merits, and not purely or primarily from a post-modern, post-colonial, point of view that acts to serve 2011 politics. One must of course tread lightly when discussing the Crusades and certain other topics, but the Hundred Years War and countless other aspects of French history should be addressed in a manner that helps us better understand the 13th century, not the 21st. Twisting history to serve purposes of the present is pretty much the definition of ideological, and it is what we should avoid, whether it be twisting history to serve a nationalistic purpose, glorifying the white French ethnic nation and its history (as some are accusing Sarkozy of advocating), or whether it be twisting history to serve a post-colonial, pro-minorities sort of agenda.
I do not follow French news or situations particularly closely, but from what one hears in the news, it seems France is something of an example of the formerly imperial nation-state struggling to find a post-modern identity. It seems to be struggling more than England or Germany, more than China or Japan, and one can predict history books 100 years from now, or for that matter, journal articles which may already be being written, using it as an ideal case study for how societies deal with these issues. How does a nation-state, built on nearly 2000 years of being its own specific, distinct people – the white French people, descended from Gauls and Franks, from Charlemagne and Louis XVI and Napoleon, none of whom were Arab, Algerian, Tahitian, or Vietnamese – refashion itself into the kind of post-modern state that allows people of different ethnic backgrounds to be just as French, just as integrated and accepted, as the ethnic French themselves?
Whatever happens, continued developments should prove quite interesting.
(1) Hawaiian ‘local’ culture, as distinguished from native Hawaiian culture, derives from the interaction of Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Hawaiian, Samoan, and other peoples and their cultures, resulting in a unique ‘local’ culture exemplified by pidgin English, plate lunch and other typical ‘local’ foods, etc.
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