09 August 2007

No Soul, No Ideas. American Art at the Pushkin

“I don’t get it. What’s it supposed to be?”
“Is it an advertisement?”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s with the Chinese designs?”

They stood and stared for a good ten minutes, examining the portrait, reading the signage and talking it over, mainly derisively—along the lines of “Americans have a nutty idea of what constitutes art.” It was one of those moments when eavesdropping becomes irresistible. So I parked myself in front of the adjacent painting and pretended to stare at it. What was amazing was that these three Russians really seemed to want some key to unlock the mystery of this painting. Again and again, they read the curators’ words, shook their heads and finally shrugged it off.

Surely, one might harp on their implicit anti-Americanism (as has become the habit of American media, without a thought to possible reasons for anti-Americanism). But really, I find things I see in Russia nutty all the time. Why shouldn’t they feel the same way about America? I was more impressed by what seemed an earnest attempt to “get” a piece of work that wasn’t immediately accessible. I was also completely disappointed in the exhibit's commentary that provided little assistance to frame the art in a relevant social, cultural or political context.

This was a problem throughout the Art in America: Three Hundred Years of Innovation exhibit, currently showing at the Pushkin Museum, as the curators—the show was put together by the Guggenheim Foundation in partnership with the Terra Foundation and sponsored by the US State Department and Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to celebrate two hundred years of diplomatic relations between Russia and the US (a curious claim in and of itself)—eschewed discussion of political and social conflicts in American history.

A more adept art historian could quibble with matters of selection and presentation, but I was satisfied, more or less, with the inclusion of a number of works that dealt with important social and political themes in American life (most notably Joe Jones’ work). I did find it odd that African American art only appeared after World War One, if I remember correctly, and Asian-American art, not at all. Then again, it was a little startling that there was no mention of slavery in the exhibit, only “inhabitants from Africa and Asia” in the colonial period, who, alas, made little contribution to American art of the time.

These peculiar historical framings repeatedly jarred me as I wandered through the exhibit, awkwardly fitted into the second floor of the museum. The history of America and American art were neatly divided by the curators into six periods:

Colonization and Rebellion, 1700-1830
Expansion and Fragmentation, 1830-1880
Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism, 1880-1910
Modernism and Regionalism, 1915-1945 (what happened to 1910-1915—I don’t know)
Prosperity and Disillusionment, 1945-1980
Multiculturalism and Globalization, 1980-present

The bother with “neutral” framings like “fragmentation” (that is, a war over slavery?) or “prosperity and disillusionment” is that they are essentially meaningless references. I actually started to wonder if this curiously empty mode of description was an indication that the exhibit was curated by Russians, especially when I learned that the era of “multiculturalism and globalization” was marked by the elevation of idea and concept over execution. Representative artists? Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. No wonder that Kehinde Wiley’s portrait seemed nutty to the Russians—apparently the curators thought so too! Nice one, Guggenheim and Terra.

At the end of the exhibit, I couldn’t resist a stop to read the visitors’ comment book. (Actually, I sat there so long I lost my companion and a group of Spanish tourists, assuming I must work at the museum, asked me in broken Russian, then broken English, if they could take photographs in the museum. ) Comments in the log included:

“If you thought the only fools lived in Russia, you were wrong.”

“A catastrophe.”

“It’s all good, but where are the surrealists?”

“What a dear little exhibit! Such a rich country and such poor art… The poor souls, I feel bad for them. In a word, happiness is not to be found in money.”

“No soul. No ideas.”

I do feel bad for the artists who didn’t, I think, get a fair shake from this exhibit. But it’s difficult not to agree that this exhibit lacked soul or ideas.


McFly said...

Love the snippets of stolen dialogue. A question: what *is* with the Chinese designs? Am I soulless and idealess because I don't know?

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

Well, I'm no art historian or critic. But I took it to be a commentary on a number of themes: the possibilities of the subaltern figure of the black male (recontextualized as a revolutionary figure a la Maoist propaganda), a commentary on the nature of portraiture, the importance of margin-to-margin conversations as a way to examine the center (i.e., what Afro-Asian conversations might reveal about the European tradition of portraits), and in this particular piece--entitled "To Defend and Develop the Island," that is, Manhattan--it is hard for me not to think about Chinatown and Harlem as the two racialized poles of the city. It's all suggestive, but that's what came to my mind.

None of this was brought up, due to the way that the curators avoided talk of race and presented the piece as an example of multiculturalism in a globalized world (a meaningless framing, if ever I heard one).

I did a little search and found a couple of good reviews of the Wiley exhibit from which this piece was taken: http://www.susceptibletoimages.com/030507/wiley-chinaJMKAC030507.html

There's also a rambling review by Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky at: http://www.realitysandwich.com/kehinde_wileys_new_world_portraiture

The problem with Spooky is that he seems to be so infatuated with his own idea of "mix-o-logy," it's the only way he has of looking at things. And ultimately, it's a trite way of seeing.

Zhal', as they say around here.

W. Shedd said...

only “inhabitants from Africa and Asia” in the colonial period, who, alas, made little contribution to American art of the time.

Art isn't only that which is painted. From what I recall, "inhabitants from Africa and Asia" made other artistic contributions to the United States, most particularly in music and textiles. Isn't jazz in particular the often cited "American art-form"?

I'm curious what the exhibit contained, as I could easily provide paintings that I would consider "soulful" by Andrew Wyeth, Jackson Pollock, and Edward Hopper (that is just off the top of my head, popular artistry).

I've visited a few art museums in Russia and caught an exhibit of Russian paintings at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. in spring 2005. Certainly technically capable, but nothing in their work suggests a deeper "soul".

I had once suggested that Americans also invent some intangible, unmeasurable quality and suggest that we have it in abundance, while noting its absence in other cultures. We would call this distinctly American quality "balls" and then go around telling people in other countries how our balls are bigger, better, rounder, more full ... than any other culture. We could speak of our great American authors and poets, and show how, they too, are full of balls. Movie icons as well, of course.

Anyway, that I think expresses my disdain for the mythical Russian "soul".

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

WS, This suggestion about "American balls" is great. We need only a crazy treatise and a handful of followers to proselytize. I'll leave it in your hands to make sure that the concept is capacious enough to account for ALL elements of American history, to mirror the work of that SOUL.

I'm guest-lecturing at a American Studies class in Moscow later this Fall; maybe I'll introduce the concept then and see how it goes over.

Thanks for this, and other comments!

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

p.s. I just stumbled across a great review of Wiley's work: