Tag Archives: Smithsonian

BIG transforms the National Building Museum

NBM Interior_Great HallI was skeptical of some of what the Smithsonian proposes to do to its campus near the Castle on the National Mall. Over the fifteen years I’ve lived in Washington, I’ve watched gardens grow along the Mall, and watched how people flock to those gardens. The Mall is good for framing views of the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, and it is an historically and symbolically powerful place to gather and address the seat of national power. But it is an oppressively rationalized landscape, and the emergence of small gardens at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Botanical Garden and the Bartholdi Fountain has begun to humanize the Mall. That’s why I so strongly support the Frank Gehry design for the Eisenhower Memorial, the core of which is another park-like space with a human scale, yet another possible escape from the barren reaches of the Mall. And that’s why I’m skeptical of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) design unveiled by the Smithsonian last November. It would disrupt this trend toward smaller, secluded and contemplative spaces along the Mall for something more connected, “vibrant,” and open.

But the exhibition designed by BIG that opened at the National Building Museum on Saturday offers encouraging insight into the firm’s thinking. For the first time, an installation has been designed that actually engages with the monumental architecture of the Pension Building. And it also makes a strong case for the intellectual seriousness and adaptability of the firm’s design process. I recommend it highly in tomorrow’s Washington Post. And I feel a little better about how the Smithsonian project may turn out.

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Index on Censorship

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.

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The American Art of Norman Rockwell…and David Wojnarowicz

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 Bellywas 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.

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Afro-Mexican History

I have a special fondness for the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, a small outpost of the big brand located a short drive from where I live. The museum used to have a running loop of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as part of their main display, and it was there that I was first impressed by the remarkably capitalist rhetoric of that text:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

I visited the museum during the inauguration week festivities for Barack Obama and listened to the speech once more in the midst of the growing financial crisis with new ears. I wondered, at the time, if King really thought in the terms of this metaphor, or if he chose it because it rationalized his cause in the eyes of a pragmatic, essentially conservative society.

I also love the museum because you can almost always have it pretty much to yourself, it’s so far removed from the main paths of the Washington tourist circuit. But they now have an exhibition that should change that. “The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present” is a traveling show, first seen at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago in 2006, but it’s not to be missed. It documents, methodically and with historical detail, the presence and absence of people of African descent in Mexico over the past 500 years. The disappearance of Africans as a “third root” of Mexican identity was a complicated and ambiguous project, which the exhibition explains with nuance and precision. I wrote about the show for the Post, and I recommend it to anyone within striking distance of Washington, DC. And don’t forget to pay a visit to Frederick Douglass’s house, nearby, which at this time of year, with the leaves down, has one of the best views of the city.

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New Deal for Artists

            I missed the opening of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “1934: A New Deal for Artists,” which displays art made with the first tranche of money directed at artists under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s short-lived Public Works of Art Project. When I finally made it to the show last month, I was struck by comments in the visitor’s log book, many of them evincing a powerful nostalgia for government supported art. After reading Morris Dickstein’s book on art during the Great Depression, and looking through another volume, “When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy” by Roger Kennedy, I ruminated on some of the issues involved with public funding for the arts then and now. The story appeared in last Sunday’s Post.

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Live Chat Today

I’ll be joining my Washington Post colleagues Blake Gopnik and Jacqueline Trescott for a live online chat about the Post‘s annual Museums section. It’s a free for all discussion. I’ll be taking questions on the profile I wrote of architect David Adjaye, who will design the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Please join us.

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Cantemir: Western Mind, Eastern Music

CantemirDimitrie Cantemir was born in Moldavia in 1673, just twelve years before Bach was born in Germany. At the age of 15, the young Moldavian prince was hustled off to Istanbul, where he spent 22 years as a “guest” of the Ottoman Sultan. This was a euphemism. Cantemir was an elegantly appointed diplomatic hostage, flesh-and-blood assurance that his home province, now a part of Romania, wouldn’t undertake plans for independence.

He used his time wisely. In Romania, he is known as a polymath, a linguist who mastered Latin, Turkish and Arabic, and an historian who was amazingly accomplished, prolific and erudite. Cantemir’s History of the Growth and Decay of the Ottoman Empire is seen as a source and perhaps inspiration for Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Among his talents was music. Cantemir learned the court music style of the Ottomans, how to play the long-necked lute known as the tanbur, and the intricacies of the modal and rhythmic patterns that defined their improvisatory musical style. He also developed his own notation system for Turkish music, a system that remained in use well into the 19th century. He used it to document hundreds of musical works, and to set down his own original compositions in the Turkish style.

It was a natural to program music of Cantemir as part of the public programs inspired by the Freer and Sackler Galleries exhibition, “The Tsars and the East.” After mastering all things Ottoman, Cantemir went home in 1710 and proceeded to do exactly what the Sultan feared: he took up arms (in alliance with the Russians) against the Turks. Things went badly and Cantemir was obliged to flee to Russia, where he was welcomed and eventually became an advisor to Peter the Great. And so the axis of Cantemir’s life is perfect for this exhibition: A thick slice through the heart of the contested, vibrant, trade-rich region that connects European Russia with the Black Sea and Balkans.

What does the music sound like? The Smithsonian brought in a mixed ensemble of Western baroque players and Turkish instrumentalists to explore Cantemir’s legacy on June 11. The concert, titled “Composer between Worlds: Dimitrie Cantemir,” seemed to promise some kind of fusion of Eastern and Western styles (Cantemir’s daughter became proficient on the harpsichord while her father cooled his heels in Russia). The instrumentalists on the roster certainly suggested interesting possibilities: Harpsichord, baroque violin, viol and flute, tanbur, guitar, percussion and kemenche (a nasal fiddle held in the lap and played with an almost vocal vibrato and voluptuous sliding tones and trills).

I suppose I was imagining there would be ground bass lines with Turkish melodies atop, but no. The music was Turkish through and through, with the Western instruments providing static harmonic grounding, or playing in parallel with the Eastern ones. Not surprisingly, the Eastern instruments were better at specifically Eastern musical gestures, including microtonal hints and distinctive ornamentation.

Why was it so disappointing? In part, it was because the players were uneven, and the ensemble wasn’t tight. But mostly, the concert failed to deliver on the “between worlds” promise. Cantemir certainly lived between worlds, and without his determination to apply a Cartesian sensibility to Eastern music we’d lack a fascinating record of what Turkish music in the late 17th century may have sounded like. But this music is not between worlds. It is Turkish music haphazardly re-orchestrated to include some Western instruments.

The promise of cultural fusion is infinitely enticing. It’s almost utopian to imagine that two very different forms of music could reach a productive amalgamation during an era when there was no particular fetish for crossing cultural boundaries. Even the few examples of Western music with “Eastern” flavor included on the program (“Turkish” pieces by Lully, Marais and lesser figures) demonstrate the deeply superficial hearing of Eastern music in the Western world. It is fashionable and comforting to talk about the universalizing aspects of music, its cross cultural language, its ability to bring people together. But true musical fusion, music that doesn’t simply co-opt the “other” within a dominant style, is extraordinarily rare. Cantemir was a fascinating man, but throwing a few baroque players into the mix doesn’t make his music cross cultural.

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