Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Through African Eyes" from a Different Perspective

After the perceived bashing he gave the Detroit Institute of Art's remodeling in 2007, New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Holland Cotter was pretty much Public Enemy #1 among the local cultural community. (Although I thought the review was fairly balanced and that those who didn't were thin skinned.) Cotter redeemed himself with what amounted to a rave review of the Detroit Institutes of Arts exhibition "Through African Eyes: The European in African Art, 1500 to the Present," published on the front page of the Times Weekend Arts section on the eve of the opening. In his conclusion, Cotter notes:
Who would have imagined, even just a few years ago, that such histories and energies could have been found in art that most of us never knew existed? Enough to say that if you get a thrill from seeing things you’ve never seen and thinking thoughts you’ve never thought, Detroit is a good place to be these days.
While I appreciate the kudos as much as anyone, I wonder where Cotter has been?

In 1984 (of all years), the Museum of Modern Art created a furor with its exhibition looking at things through the other end of the telescope, "'Primitivism' in 20th-Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern," which made a stop at the DIA. The show was savaged by both art historians, among them Hal Foster, Thomas McEvilley, and Lucy Lippard, and anthropologists such as James Clifford. The philosopher turned art critic Arthur C. Danto (a Detroiter and Wayne State alum) also weighed in at the time against the show's concept in The Nation.

The groundwork for this critique was set a decade previous by the poststructuralist thinking emanating out of France, which had begun to be translated into English in the 1970s. Mining similar philosophical sources, postcolonialism provided another set of tools, in particular Edward Said's 1978 book Orientalism as well the legacy of African writing, dating back into the 1950s, of authors such as Aime Cesaire, Franz Fanon, and Albert Memmi. Published not long after the dust-up over the MOMA show had sort of settled, Clifford's important book The Predicament of Culture: 20th-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art features on its cover a mirror-image photograph of a male performer wearing a "white man" costume as part of a 1982 Igbo masquerade in southwest Nigeria. (See cover picture detail above.)

I couldn't help but think of all this as I walked through "From African Eyes" the other day.

First, I kept going back to something that came up during a job talk for the Africanist art history search at Wayne State last year. We had listened to an excellent presentation on East African architecture but I kept wondering what made it art history as opposed to say visual anthropology. My colleague at CCS, Michael Stone Richards, apparently had the same thought and beat to me to the punch in posing the question. I don't think it was adequately answered but I think the uncertainty characterizes what goes on in the disciplines these days and is embodied in this show.

To be sure, the installation of "Through African Eyes" could have just as easily been found in a natural history museum. For the most part, the works were installed often in groups in vitrines set against the walls, which were painted in earth tones. Most of the wall labels and the narration of the acoustic guide mainly addressed questions of social context rather than aesthetics. Interestingly, I also recalled the installation of craft in the contemporary galleries of the museum, as if craft artists were similarly "close to the earth," working manually as opposed to photographers, who for the most part still find themselves kept in the basement, regardless of time period.

I was further reminded of another comment MSR made as part of the aforementioned encounter, to wit that "art is an 18-century German philosophical concept whose usefulness may have run its course." (Detroit graphic designer Ed Fella made a similar observation years back in a bumper sticker riffing off the DIA's then slogan: "Art is an ethnocentric cultural construct that you don't gotta have.") Many theorists, again Danto, Regis Debray, and others working in the area now known as visual culture studies, see us as being in a period after the end of art. Indeed, Esther Pasztory in her 2005 book Thinking with Things: Toward a New Vision of Art notes that only a very small amount of what human creativity has produced around the globe and across the millennia is technically "art."

That doesn't make the show less interesting or valid. In fact, that we now may be living under "the regime of the visual" as opposed to "the regime of art," to use Debray's terminology, isn't necessarily a bad thing.

More intriguing perhaps is to think about what else might be going on with this show.

One thing that struck me as odd was that the primary voice on the acoustic guide was that of DIA Director Graham Beal. With his mellifluous British-accented voice, straight out of Masterpiece Theater, Beale was a somewhat incongruous guide to 500 years of colonial exploitation and indigenous resistance as represented in the objects on display.

This led me to another Brit, the sociologist John B. Thompson, whose work on ideology is useful in this regard. One of the primary ways that ideology filters information is through dissimulation, in particular using displacement to move thinking from the present situation to the safely distant, physical and chronological. In the here and now, in Detroit and elsewhere in America, we're shredding the social fabric, rolling back the progress made by the hard-earned efforts of decades of social movements, and clawing back the wealth distributed to the broader levels of society, but in the there and then, we're sorry and, hey, we feel your pain. Our bad! And by the way, don't forget to exit through the gift shop.

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