Curators of Culture

Joseph Beuys arrivals by stretcher covered in felt for his performance: I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974.

In 1974 Josef Beuys visited New York to do a performance he called ‘I like America and America Likes Me’ at the René Block gallery in Soho. He was dropped off at the gallery in an ambulance; then for the waking hours of 3 days, he shut himself in there, to commune with a coyote. In Native American traditions, the coyote often has the status of a trickster-divinity or oracle. By Beuys’ diagnosis, America had cut itself off from its deeper sources of wisdom and more stable sources of identity, held in its indigenous traditions. His idea was to come to a sick America’s aid by turning its attention around 180 degrees, from its default attitude – Europe-derived, Eurocentric – to contemplate its interior, its indigeneity.

Joseph Beuys arrivals by stretcher covered in felt for his performance: I Like America and America Likes Me, 1974 at the René Block gallery. Image courtesy of the gallery.

Indeed America did choose to interest itself in the greater variety of its cultures, through the 1980s and 90s. New university programs were created in African-American, Hispanic, and Native American studies; grants sponsored exhibitions and artists who were of these cultures, or who worked on intercultural issues. Inevitably and immediately, people got wise and followed the money. It was quickly the mock complaint of every art school graduate that to get a show you would have to do performances of pigmy bushman rituals incanting the songs of endangered whales. Without any noticeable blushing, academics who had obtained tenure for their scholarship in English Lit or Greek and Roman Art became overnight experts on such subjects as the Response to Colonialism in African American Literature, or they set up new departments for themselves in Cultural Studies. People who actually lived within these cultures noticed much less change, other than a small class, of – the ungenerous would note – rather fair-skinned folks, who had learned the ways of the white man, found themselves advantageously placed to accept this new indulgence, and made hay while the sun shone. The results were inevitably lightweight, always awkward, often fraudulent.

But the backlash was on its way, well before 9/11. It washed away Al Gore; funding and hiring drained from those Cultural Studies programs so recently established. Multiculturalism was deserted like any other passing fad, to be derided as ‘multi-culti’. By the evidence of a couple of shows I saw recently, nothing lasting was learned from it. Why had it proven itself so insubstantial and weak-willed? We should ponder that, because the backlash we are going through now, against internationalism and pluralism, against the legacy of Obama, feels like something similar; just that this time the tide has returned as a particularly deafening, disorienting wave.

The Diker Collection of Native American Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Images courtesy of The MET.

I had to think through all this recently, in order to process the deeply depressing experience of the exhibition, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of the Diker Collection of Native American Art. To enter this show is to enter a tomb. Death’s silence greets you; the walls are grey as stone; the exhibits lie bound in their glass caskets. Sparse texts, generalized to eulogy, engrave themselves like epitaphs on tomb walls. For anyone who has experienced the uplifting space of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, this show is like a time-travel back to prior decades. None of the lessons which museology of the last 40 years might have provided, about how to avoid the trap of decontextualizing, objectifying, dehumanizing and embalming the artwork, have been taken on board. The Met has gone to no effort to provide any contextual ambience, such as they have in virtually all the other spaces of the museum: where the Astor Garden transforms the Chinese wing into a Chinese interior; where the French Baroque wing resembles a Versailles interior; where the space for the medieval collection resembles a cathedral transept; where fantastic effort has gone into making the Egyptian Wing into the banks of the Nile; where the Greek and Roman wing looks like a Greco-Roman temple and the Nineteenth-Century Paintings wing looks like, well, a nineteenth-century art museum. Thoroughly trained to read the Met’s spaces narratively, as you seek out this exhibition you wander across the exhilarating project of New Europe that is the American wing’s open court – open to Central Park, open to the great emptied continent of America – and descend into a sepulcher: the whole journey is an argument to reinforce the narrative that Native American culture is dead, gone from contemporary relevance forever; shoved off the American continent down into the museum’s reservation for the impossible-to-place.

The museum should not think it gets off the hook for this lamentable show by pointing out it was correct enough to have acknowledged the local tribe and consulted native American curators and elders. The Met knows better than anyone what the power-structures are between itself and the representatives of Native American culture – if that is what they are. The objectification of the work is so complete, the casket so sealed, there is no way for the attendee to trace a trail from it to the people who brought it into being – certainly not a trail that is warm and promises signs of humanity, language, living culture. The attention of the show – it could not be called focus – instead shifts to the crime of the culture’s extinction, but without any discipline or exactitude. Reading the accompanying texts is like listening to the final stages of a murder trial in which the forensics are no longer under discussion – the description of the work vague, general, desultory – but the proceedings have become a mental maneuvering between prosecutor and defendant about victim-impact and perpetrator-remorse. For all the breast beating, the mea culpas, you get the feeling the presiding judge would just like to get this over with. Each of these sorry labels could, without any change in tone, end in the postscript: sigh, shrug.


The Diker Collection of Native American Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Images courtesy of The MET.

Back in the fall of 2014, I watched the installation at the Cooper-Hewitt of a Maori wood-carved effigy of Tumatauenga, the personification of war, bursting forth on the energy of the separation of earth and sky, the creation of the realm of life from that of death. It is designed to be lashed to the prow of a canoe in preparation for war – thus, in preparation for an encounter with the world of the dead. With this, the canoe becomes strictly tapu, or sacred: rituals for performing that task are lengthy, complicated, undertaken according to strict observance; and thus the effigy itself is highly sacred. Installing this ‘object’ into its glass box, the museum’s conservators handled the carving with Smithsonian kid-gloved care: but by the head and genital area, something you should never do. And for the installation to have been done properly, it would have been preceded by a preparation of the mental space of the gallery with chanted prayer and ritual; the carving would have been brought into the museum through the front entrance as a dignitary of high honor, again accompanied by song, chanted prayer and ritual performance; at every crossing of tribal boundaries between Washington DC and New York City, similar chanted prayer ought to have been performed, to protect the carving from the potential displeasure of the ancestral spirits of those territories, and to ask them permission to cross their boundaries.

It was not hard to imagine the eye-rolling such a request would inspire from the art-handlers, all of them very liberal people with art degrees. But then alongside the Maori carving they placed a Tlingit Raven Rattle from the north pacific coast. I wondered what would happen if the museum required of itself such observance of indigenous protocols – as protocols there would surely be – when handling this object. Immediately it would be necessary for everyone involved to urgently search North America for repositories of that kind of indigenous knowledge, and to study them. We may be comfortable to sigh and shrug, turn away from their inevitable extinction, within our generation, by our neglect; but those repositories do yet exist: in the art if you study it; in the languages if you can be bothered to learn them; in the people, if you can find the skill and wit to navigate all the trenches and minefields that American history has laid between its cultures. Those protocols would be reactivated and revitalized. And the whole point in protocols of respect for ‘the graven image’ is not the reverence it bestows on the object, but the honour it requires of you: honour for the whole ecosystem that was needed to produce that object; honour for the ecosystem it needs for its power and meaning to still function. To look at a Native American art object through half an inch of plexiglass is to consider a tiniest fraction of the ecosystem to which, with some knowledge of the language and culture, it would otherwise provide a portal.

José Luis Vargas, I’m no longer the same, 2014 Mixed media on Haitian painting, 12 x 16 inches.

I was still thinking about this when I visited a show at Shrine gallery, called Garden. I found myself thinking that the main difference between them was that looking at each of most of the pieces and pictures in this show, was to look at 100% of it. The source for the thing you were looking at was not a knowledge system, a cosmogony, a mythology, a language, a culture, an ethical structure, a political action, a universal vision, an overarching cause, a genetic narrative, an enduring discipline; but another image: one, probably, rather similar to the one you are looking at. Some of these artists lived in a time and a space where it was perhaps genuinely possible to seclude yourself from imagistic saturation, and have your work respond to its own needs and thoughts, become its own structure; others look like they make their work from a Pinterest search of Outsider, Self-Taught Art. The look is similar, the ecosystems that made them couldn’t be more different. Artists with a cellphone in their pocket are the ultimate insiders of culture. Jose Luis Vargas holds the door open for this group to raid the recycling shelves. For Donald Baechler, an image is like something you find in the dryer at the laundromat – a fuzzy formless curiosity, a still-human thing thoroughly washed of its past. Source-images are looked over, rather cursorily by artists hoping there must still be something to say therein, and hastily repackaged to forward the job of meaning-making to the viewer.

Donald Baechler, Bird, 2019, plaster model for cast bronze sculpture, 12 x 19 x 5 3/4 inches.

A show is an important thing for an artist, because it is only in the gallery space that you can observe with objectivity and neutrality, as your various pieces send down tendrils to connect to one another, to reveal the ecosystem of the work’s larger vision – something which is otherwise, usually, unconscious to the artist. By the title of this show, the curators are aware of this very special nature of an art space. But in a group show, any tendrils a particular piece sends down are going to be tangled or blocked by its neighboring pieces’ quite different needs and concerns. You can choose to believe there is a common soil, a shared ecosystem to nourish, cross-pollinate, all the work of the group. But is that something we should want, when the shared source is a soup of meaningless images? We can either stir this soup to smoother and smoother paste, or stop; to give contemplative time to what the work needs. Probably it would be salutary to find non-visual sources for this: studying a craft, learning a language, reading your history; and to give attention to maintenance of the conduits from source to work in vital criticality, rigor, and honesty. The great enemy is Disingenuousness; which however offers itself easily to a curator, and to an artist. The disturbing thing about this show is the niggling suspicion the perpetrator is not really being honest with you, but it’s impossible to pin him down because the evidentiary scene has been so thoroughly trampled. The perpetrator knows it, and teases you with shreds of information while simultaneously retreating to the safe bet – the privilege – that it doesn’t really matter. A shrug, and a kind of self-patting consolation: the artist is necessarily a perpetrator, because a victim, of ineffectualness.

Writing in the thick of the 90s, trying to search the reasons for what he saw as a cultural slump, Robert Hughes in The Culture of Complaint attributed blame for multiculturalism’s vanity to the culture of grievance endemic among minority groups; and, for their part, institutions’ indulging them with various flick-off programs of affirmative action. There he mistook a symptom for a cause. The deeper culture of complaint is much harder to localize, because it permeates American society. If you interpret ‘complaint’ in the sense of a chronic medical condition, we can recognize it immediately – seven out of eight ads on TV remind us we must be suffering one or other of them; insurance & pharmaceutical companies hold us hostage addicts by merely hinting this chronic condition. When you suffer this condition, you do a lot of complaining. This is a society of competitiveness; every child learns the tactics of competitiveness to the level of instinct. When everyone’s horizons are expanding, those can be the famously American virtues, optimism, enthusiasm and daring. But in a world that is shrinking, everyone has to protect their gains, and so the tactics turn to tactics of denial – and the best way to wrong-foot your opponent, to keep them on the defense, is to produce a complaint. America is soaked in the culture of complaint: but it comes from the top down, not the bottom up.

If you live panic-stricken about the void that awaits you at the end of your 70- or 80-year term, you have to stand on every advantage you’ve been born to, pop every life-lengthening pill, try to find your relevance in ever-smaller-spinning circles. Ultimately the only way to beat the health insurance companies is to understand your own small life as part of something longer, larger: which continues beyond your time, but needs your contribution to sustain itself. There are different continuities; some you may choose into, some you can’t escape. One most of us of the American condition ignore, but can’t escape, is continuity of place; it is beyond most of us to learn the continuity of the place we are born into and grow up in: the deep contemplation of place, whose understandings have been coded in language, ritual, and artmaking over not 3 or 4 centuries but many thousands of years. That is a very harsh condition to live life under: and stretches an unseen gulf between us and our common ground.


Garden runs through November 10th at Shrine Gallery in NYC.

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Warwick Mcleod

Warwick McLeod studied medieval languages and literature at the University of Toronto and Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, then Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Massachusetts College of Art, and Yale University. A painter, sculptor and printmaker, he also curates shows for other artists, and writes about art. He lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

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