I had not been to the Brooklyn Museum in a long time. I generally tend(ed) to just not think of it; I come into town, and I think, okay, what’s going on at the Met? What’s going on at Asia Society? What’s going on at the Rubin? What’s going on at Japan Society? But for whatever reason, I rarely ever even think about the Brooklyn Museum. But, boy was I wrong. Even with the entire China/Japan/Korea section closed for renovations until (projected) fall 2015, today’s visit was absolutely worth it.
Hearing that they were doing some kind of Ai Weiwei show, I figured I would go to check that out, and then just kind of poke around the rest of the museum. Turns out that Ai Weiwei show is a major retrospective, covering significant portions of two floors of the museum, and including many of his most famous works. But even so, that turned out to not be the stand-out highlight of the visit, since everything else was equally exciting and impressive.
Firstly, an installation by the Brooklyn-based artist Swoon, entitled “Submerged Motherlands.” I’m not even sure what to say about it, except that it took me very much by surprise, at how impressive, beautiful, and intricate it was. I don’t want to take up too much space talking about it, because this post is long enough, and I want you, dear reader, to get to at least some of the other stuff before getting bored and turning away from this tab, so, with sincere apologies for giving it short shrift, let me just link to my photos of the installation, and encourage you, if interested, to go read up about Swoon more, or keep your eyes out for other stuff she does.
Getting into the meat of what I want to say, when I visit large encyclopedic museums, I generally put pretty low priority on the American and contemporary art sections. I know what I’m going to see there. More of the same. Very standard, canonical, mainstream stuff. But the Brooklyn Museum is different. Their modern/contemporary and American galleries highlight works relating to identity politics and different cultural perspectives in a way I don’t think I have ever seen at another museum. To see it here, I think, depicting America as a true, real, mix of cultures, and not through a singular mainstream narrative with everyone else on the peripheries, really throws into sharp relief just how little other museums do the same. Is our nation not, as Walt Whitman is quoted as saying on the walls of the Brooklyn Museum’s American galleries, a nation of nations? You shouldn’t have to be Brooklyn to do this; the Metropolitan represents New York, the United States, and the world, and yet it does not do this. The National Gallery and Museum of American Art, their occasional excellent special exhibits aside, do not, I don’t think, do this. And neither does LACMA, which likewise represents a very diverse, vibrant city, and yet which devotes its American/modern galleries chiefly to the likes of Rauschenburg, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rothko, Calder – the usual suspects. And lord knows, the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Santa Barbara, while they have shown some very different things, including some work by Chicano artists, etc., lord knows they’ve never done anything that excites me.
“Avarice,” by Fernando Mastrangelo. An Aztec calendar stone, remade entirely out of corn, commenting both on the central place of corn in Mexican culture & identity, but also on the exploitation of Mexico by US agribusiness.
By contrast, the Brooklyn Museum shows Isamu Noguchi, Fred Wilson, Kehinde Wiley, Teri Greeves, as American artists, as central members of the body of artists they are showing in their American modern/contemporary galleries, not tokenizing them or showing them off to one side among “minority artists,” or “other stories,” but as central elements of the central, main, story. These are Americans. This is American art. This is American history & culture. This. is. America.
“Blossom,” by Sanford Biggers, a work about the history of lynching in this country. What do Rauschenberg, Warhol, Pollock, and all the rest say about American life, American history, American culture and identity? What political social commentary do they offer?
This attitude is evident more or less throughout the museum, with a Kehinde Wiley painting displayed prominently in the entrance lobby (where I remember seeing it also years ago), and with the main first floor exhibit being one of “A World within Brooklyn / Crossing Cultures,” in which objects from many different cultures/places and time periods are juxtaposed, in order to suggest something about the similarities, comparisons, and differences across all cultures. How do different cultures represent their world (landscapes, maps)? How do different cultures represent the human body, and ideals of beauty? On a more practical level, how do different cultures make chairs, pitchers, and other practical objects, and what similarities and differences are there in the styles, motifs, etc.?
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to say about Crossing Cultures. It’s a great introductory exhibit, as it includes objects from a wide range of cultures/places and time periods, representing the wide variety of the museum’s holdings without over-emphasizing any one period or culture. And it places them all on a more or less equal pedestal, inviting visitors to consider all these cultures merely as a diversity within a shared human experience, and not in a hierarchy of more or less primitive or advanced. The labels here invite the visitor to consider cross-cultural comparisons, but are rather unspecific as to more precisely what questions to ask, what comparisons to make, what conclusions to come to. I would be very curious what visitors get out of this exhibit. Because, on the one hand, it’s great to leave it open to the visitors; studies have shown that the vast majority of the time, the vast majority of museum visitors don’t “get” the message the curators intended anyway, and draw their own comparisons, conclusions, etc. But, then, on the other hand, by leaving it so open and vague, aren’t we just making it that much harder for the message to get through? Then again, maybe what I think is the message here isn’t really the message the curators intended, and maybe it’s not the only message to be gotten from this exhibit. I come to this from a certain perspective, with certain anti-Eurocentric, “rethinking the canon,” art historical and Museum Studies ideas in mind, and so it’s easy for me to see certain themes or messages and think that’s the theme or message the curators are trying to get across. But, then, maybe they’re not.
As I walked through the Crossing Cultures exhibit, I was also concerned about over-emphasizing the aesthetic. There’s a long tradition of museums in the West displaying and describing non-Western objects in a manner that encourages appreciation of them solely for their aesthetic qualities – that is, as attractive, appealing, or otherwise visually interesting to a Western eye specifically – and places value on their ability to inspire, as certain African objects inspired Picasso. The prioritizing of Western attitudes of what is and is not aesthetic, or of Western approaches to form, composition, etc., with the implication or assumption that Western ways of seeing are universal, is a classic element of Orientalist thinking, or so I’ve been taught, and is potentially quite dangerous. At the time, as I walked through the exhibit, I worried about the exhibit encouraging a more purely aesthetic comparison; but, now, as I rethink it and write this post, I think it really is also encouraging thought of comparison of usage and meaning across different cultures, which is a good thing. So, I guess the jury’s out…
In any case, by way of wrapping this up, I definitely need to visit the Brooklyn Museum more, and keep an eye on what they’re up to. I am working on a second post about my visit to the Brooklyn Museum, talking about their exhibit of African art, in comparison to that at the Metropolitan Museum. However, I’m also in Hawaii right now on a very brief stopover on my way to Japan, so, depending on what adventures come up, we shall see how quickly I get around to finishing that African art post. Thanks for reading, and have a great rest of the summer!