The Basement

I never need a map

Yayoi Kusama, born 1929 Large White Net, 1958.

Japanese, Showa Period, 1926–1989, and Heisei Period, 1989–present
Yayoi Kusama, born 1929
Large White Net, 1958.

Maria Martinez, Jar decorated with Avanyu (water serpent), 1919–20

Made by Maria Montoya Martinez, Native American, 1886–1980
Painted by Julian Martinez, Native American, 1879–1943
Place made: Rio Grande, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, United States
Jar decorated with Avanyu (water serpent), 1919–20

PU Dogon

Dogon artist
Place made: Mali
Ladder, 20th century

The art created by people of color were only represented in the “ancient” and “pre-columbian” sections of the museum — as if our stories only existed a long time ago and there was nothing notable happening in our communities since then.

Sabiha Basrai

I touched on this in an earlier post but haven’t really gone off on a proper rant. I like the Princeton Museum a lot, but whenever I go I’m always steeling myself against getting too upset at how it treats art made by non-white people. I wish it were just that the Asian, African, and Pre-Columbian American galleries are in the basement. But it’s not. There’s so much more.

There’s the way that the Pre-Columbian gallery lumps everything from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego together in the same way that the African gallery (minus ancient Egypt) treats Africa as a single homogenous concept.

There’s the way that the galleries are labeled as “ancient” despite many of their contents being from the 20th century. And those modern pieces are described in craft terms whether by erasing the artist, placing the artwork in an imperial period, or just mixing it in with centuries-old pieces.

There’s the way that even artists working in, or in conversation with, the Western Art World upstairs get pigeonholed as ethnic craftsmen. Yayoi Kusama? In the basement. Toshiko Takaezu? In the basement. The art world is already extremely white. Taking the non-white artists out of the art galleries and putting them in the craft galleries makes it appear even whiter.

And I wish this were just a rant about the Princeton Museum. But it’s not. This kind of thing occurs all over the place—to the point where not needing a museum map is a joke I’ve made with fellow non-white museumgoers. We’re used to heading downstairs to see our cultural heritage. We’re used to seeing it lumped together with every other culture on the continent. We’re used to seeing it portrayed as an ancient tradition that no longer exists.

We joke about it because it comes with the price of admission and because it’s easier to laugh than to get mad.

On design

I’ve covered art and function as well as design before but never really tied together my issues about how many museums display art with how I’d love for them to treat more art as Design.

One of the wonderful things about design* is that it’s about how people interact with items. This is hugely important when discussing any art. Just looking at something is interactive—where you look, how long, how it makes you feel, what information it conveys. Understanding who the audience of a piece is and the artistic context it’s part of are also elements of the design.

*Full disclosure, as someone with a design background, I have to admit that there’s an element of “when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” going on too.

As much as we like to conceive of art as being about the artist only—to the point where considering an audience makes us think about “selling out”—once something gets pulled into a museum, it’s inherently in conversation with the museum audience and the other pieces in the collection. Sadly, museums only really present things this way with design-specific exhibitions.

In design exhibitions you have displays which explain the context. We need to know what the products are and what makes their particular designs interesting. Maybe they allow for use in a particularly elegant way. Maybe they’re using materials in a new and novel method. Maybe they’re moving a previously-utilitarian concept into a luxury space. Maybe they’re doing the opposite and bring a product to the masses. We have to understand what else is going on in the world which is informing the designs.

In an art setting, asking and answering the same design questions will help us better understand things. What is this piece in conversation with? How is it intended to be used? How have people actually used it? What has it influenced or changed? This allows you to call out how the West has mined the rest of the world for cultural inspiration,* point out how technologies have travelled,** and recognize that art and artists—especially in the 20th century, especially in continents that have been colonized by the West—are very much aware of the general track of western art.

*Something that Princeton did do a wonderful job with for a brief while when they had a Japanese print paired with a Toulouse-Lautrec print and carved figure from Côte d’Ivoire paired with a Modigliani painting in the Modern Europe galleries upstairs.

**Also something Princeton did wonderfully, the Itinerant Languages of Photography show treated photography and photographic images as design elements that get constantly repurposed and reused in Latin America.

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6 responses to “The Basement

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