The new Walters Art Museum show, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, is worth a trip to Baltimore. It isn’t a huge exhibition, and much of what is on display offers more intellectual interest than pure aesthetic delight. But the history is fascinating, the detective work engaging, and you get the sense that there’s a more-than-ample kernel here for a major show sometime in the future. I recommend it in today’s Washington Post.
Image Courtesy the Walters Art Museum, Annibale Carracci, attrib., ca. 1580s, oil on canvas, 60 x 39 x 2 cm (fragment of a larger painting), Tomasso Brothers, Leeds, England
While in Philadelphia to see the Barnes collection a few weeks ago, I popped over to the Penn Museum to take in a new exhibition devoted to the Maya. The exhibition is billed as an examination of the supposed Maya doomsday prediction, which is all the rage in the darker corners of the Internet. That’s a bit pop-culty for my taste, a strawman that the curators indulge only to repeatedly knock down. But the museum does a good job with something more fundamental, immersing visitors in the complicated visual world of Maya carving, and the even more dizzying calendar systems that underpinned their political and philosophical world. It’s worth visiting, and may have particular appeal to younger audiences.
This story got lost in the Sunday mix (even I had a hard time finding it and I know how to search). But I reviewed the new building and installation of the Barnes Foundation collection in today’s Sunday Post. I think the new facility is beautifully done, even with the pall of controversy that hangs over the entire project. Here.
I took a brief vacation earlier this month, a chance to drive from L.A. to Las Vegas, visiting my alma mater on the way. In Las Vegas, I spent an afternoon at the new Mob Museum. It’s better than I expected. But why are Americans so interested in museums devoted to violence, aggression and death? In this weekend’s tranche of stories I wrote about the museum, and a very good exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, devoted to art by French women painters from 1750 t0 1850.
When the creators of the original main exhibition of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum were gathering artifacts in Eastern Europe, much of the material was acquired on a long-term loan basis. Several of those involved in the negotiations say they believed those loans were essentially permanent. But in the case of material gathered in Poland, it turns out the loans were for twenty years and the museum must now renegotiate them. In many cases, that means material must be returned to Poland, and sometimes replaced with similar or equivalent pieces. But what to do about the barracks from Auschwitz, which is a major part of the museum’s “experience”-based exhibition? How can it be returned? And replaced with what? The problem is now vexing the museum, as I report in a piece in today’s The Washington Post. Near the end, I ask the obvious question: Why are the Poles enforcing the legal details? Is it a symptom of yet more Polish discomfort with their awkward historical relationship to the Holocaust? Or, perhaps, something else:
The Polish insistence on the return may also reflect an evolution of its relationship to the past. Museum officials say that Polish conservation and stewardship of Holocaust sites and material have never been better.
The Poles may simply be adhering to what they view as their legitimate conservation obligations.
Warren Rosenblum, a professor of history at Webster University who studies the Holocaust, said there has been “a cultural awakening” in regard to the Holocaust in Poland, including more openness and professionalism in how the country deals with the subject and the material remnants of the genocide. But with that comes “a new kind of self-assertion and pride,” he said, and the sense that Poles want to “be in charge of this history, take ownership of it, be true to this legacy.”
I think the damage done by celebrity photography is much more grave than the mere pollution of magazines, newspapers and other media that favor this form of entertainment. Fetishizing the celebrity class overemphasizes the role meritocracy plays in creating and sustaining wealth and privilege. The traces of genuine humanity, humility and intelligence are almost always leached out of the celebrity photograph, replaced by self-satisfaction and a vacant sense of entitlement. Not all, but most. No surprise then that I’m not a fan of Annie Leibovitz’s work. Her most recent show, “Pilgrimage,” is no exception, even though it doesn’t focus on living celebrities. It begins this way (and can be found in its entirety here):
Annie Leibovitz photographs the 1 percent, the rich, beautiful and famous, conspiring with the apparatus of celebrity and capitalism to make the lives of successful people feel even more glamorous and alluring. The Library of Congress has officially declared her a “Living Legend,” and despite a few financial problems awhile back – a massive home-renovation project in Greenwich Village contributed to the setback – she has joined the same rarefied ranks of privilege that she has so diligently served throughout her career.
I was asked by the U.K.-based Index on Censorship to contribute an article about the Smithsonian Hide/Seek controversy to the Art issue they published in September (Volume 40, Issue 3, September 2011). They don’t post the entire contents of the journal on line, but kindly gave me permission to link to a pdf of it here. It’s a longish read but lays out in greater depth and with more historical background why I think G. Wayne Clough’s decision to censor his own curators was so disastrous for the Institution and for American culture. And some links to previous Hide/Seek coverage including this one from when the flap was at its most contentious and another post from New York when the curators address an audience at the New York Public Library.
I was in Cairo for a week, reporting on the cultural scene there. The first of the stories, a look at the trials, tribulations and general absurdities of all things Zahi Hawass ran today. Hawass, the longtime head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and now the Minister of State for Antiquities, resigned after Mubarak left, then returned to power about a month latter. During the interregnum, you started to hear some of the ice crack: Finally people could talk a little more candidly about the strengths and weaknesses of a man who holds life and death power over the careers of many an archaeologist. But as soon as this supreme showman was back in power, most critics in the West became reticent again. He’s simply a very powerful man and there’s no upside in being on his bad side. But they’re talking in Egypt. The problem is, whom can you trust?
There was an idea I wasn’t able to make fit into today’s piece on the art and life of David Wojnarowicz. When the controversy began last week, spurred by the Catholic League, there was considerable comment on the seemingly odd juxtaposition of the The Hide/Seek show of gay and lesbian portraiture (at the National Portrait Gallery) from which the Wojnarowicz video “A Fire in my Belly” was removed and the Norman Rockwell show (at the adjacent Smithsonian Museum of American Art) which has been so popular over the past few months. What two artists could be more in opposition, Rockwell who glorified the simplicity and goodness of American life, and Wojnarowicz who attacked the pieties of traditional culture?
But this does injustice both to Rockwell, who occasionally took stands contrary to popular sentiment, and Wojnarowicz, who deploys some of the same symbols Rockwell uses (the house and home) and is more ambiguous about his relationship to American culture than his detractors will acknowledge.
Looking at Wojnarowicz, and reading his texts, it’s obvious that so-called victim art is premised on a fairly essential assumption of goodness in the audience. It operates by rules similar to non-violent protest: It presumes that people are capable of reforming their prejudices and hatreds. If the audience is not in some way flexible and open, then why make appeal to it? Too many people love Rockwell because he represents a gold standard of American values from which we have supposedly fallen away; but not enough people recognize the essential Americanness in the works of artists such as Wojnarowicz, who is issuing a challenge to some of the same ideals celebrated so facilely by Rockwell.