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Some Context Regarding Max Hollein

Post #1851 • November 23, 2019, 5:23 PM

Robin Pogrebin, dateline November 20, 2019, "At the Entrenched Met Museum, the New Director Shakes Things Up" at the New York Times:

This week the Metropolitan Museum of Art will announce that it is hiring Dr. [Denise] Murrell, who is African-American, for the newly created full-time position of associate curator for 19th and 20th century art. Her appointment is noteworthy, and not only because the Met has been historically lacking in curators of color. She is also one of the first hires made by the Met’s director, Max Hollein, who is now one year into his tenure — and emblematic of the multi-discipline, multiethnic direction he is steering one of the world’s largest, most entrenched museums.

I quote this with unalloyed approval for the hire. Keep this in mind when reading the remarks below.

Such initiatives speak to Mr. Hollein’s emphasis on manifold ways of looking at art and his determination to break down boundaries between the museum’s traditionally siloed departments. As the Met prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary next year, Mr. Hollein is expanding the definition of contemporary art to include work from all over the world, and activating public areas in the Fifth Avenue building to show it.

Mr. Hollein is engaged in no such expansion. The definition of contemporary art already includes work from all over the world. As far as I know this has been the case for the whole time we've had a category called "contemporary art."

“If you have one of the greatest collections you almost have an obligation to recontextualize it in regard to the narratives it provides,” Mr. Hollein said in an interview. “I want to make sure it’s not only one voice but multiple voices.”

Recontextualization is the motte part of the motte and bailey rhetoric that covers identitarian activism in the museum these days.

“Max and his team want to proactively move toward a more inclusive presentation of art history across all periods,” Dr. Murrell said. “This is a moment of inflection at the Met — a reconsideration of the West that moves away from an exclusively European culture; a deeper presentation of artists of color and a greater breadth of images depicting people of color.”

This is the bailey. The museum is exclusively going to recontextualize the art of Europe and her descendants in America, to the art's discredit. When pointed out, the museum and its defenders will retreat to the motte and claim that they are merely in favor of new ways of looking, inclusivity, and people of color.

Mr. Hollein also said he wants to make sure the Met does not simply celebrate the subjects of its exhibitions but explores the underbelly, contrary views and gray areas. “Not every show needs to be 100 percent laudatory about the art that it shows,” he said. “We need to also show complexity.”

For "show complexity," read "recontextualize." That is the motte. The bailey is to diminish and insult the art of Europe and its descendants.

That complexity is evident in the current show, “The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I.” Previewing the loans — like multiple square sandstone reliefs — before the exhibition opened in October, Mr. Hollein urged the curator in charge, Pierre Terjanian, to make a show about a Renaissance emperor feel modern and nuanced.

“Art cannot solely be perceived in regard to its beauty and craftsmanship,” Mr. Hollein said. “You also have to evaluate it in light of its political messages.”

And this evaluation must be done in comportment with whose politics?

While a regal suit of armor was ostensibly made for Henry VIII’s great campaign to conquer France, for example, Mr. Hollein said, “the truth is, he had gout and could barely walk. There was no way he would ever wear that armor, let alone go into war. It was propaganda. Like George Bush standing on the aircraft carrier, it’s being used for messaging.”

The politics of identitarian progressivism, of course. Bush standing on the aircraft carrier bedecked with a banner reading "Mission Accomplished" was so galling, in hindsight, because troops sustained the majority of their casualties after his appearance there. That said, his successor won the Nobel Peace Prize, and eight years later became the first president in history to spend every single day of his administration entangled in an armed conflict. Along the way he made his own share of aircraft carrier appearances, including one on the carrier that buried Bin Laden at sea. That event featured a basketball game between North Carolina and Michigan State. So it's not necessary to go all the way back to the Bush administration to find examples of performative political messaging, except that identitarian progressivism insists that all criticism of Obama is racist. (In my opinion, there's a case that Bush and Obama should share a jail cell.)

Highlighting the social and political context of exhibitions dovetails with a nationwide effort by institutions — namely the Museum of Modern Art, with its recent rehang of its vast collection — to rethink the presentation of art history.

For "rethink the presentation of," read "recontextualize." Karen Wilkin said this about the MoMA rehang:

[One of the galleries, titled] “Around Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” is an excellent exposition of Picasso’s evolution, from a Rose Period painting of a boy with a horse, to the robust pair of nudes in front of a red curtain, to Les Demoiselles (1907) and some related cubist paintings. But there’s also Faith Ringgold’s enormous 1967 painting of a street riot, American People Series #20: Die, with its zigzagging, bleeding figures. Supposedly influenced by Picasso’s Guernica (1937), which is obviously not on view, Ringgold’s canvas has no formal or conceptual relationship to Les Demoiselles. Even if we avoid the thorny question of the painting’s merits, it seems painfully obvious that it’s there to correct the museum’s presumed undervaluing of women and African-Americans. This tendency is not unique. Elsewhere, in the Matisse gallery, which similarly offers a reassuringly broad selection of works, a 1973 painting by Alma Thomas is made to go toe-to-toe with Red Studio (1911), seemingly for the same reason. The confrontation, alas, is not to Thomas’s benefit. She was a fine, ambitious, and dedicated painter, but placing her Fiery Sunset next to Matisse’s iconic masterpiece is just plain cruel, even if we acknowledge the obvious fact that she combined red and blue with audacity and credit her with exploring the implications of the over-all color expanse announced by Red Studio.

Note, no one will ever think it necessary to recontextualize a show of Ringgold or Thomas with a token inclusion of Picasso or Matisse.

Back at the NYT, further down:

Still unclear, however, is whether [Hollein and Met president Daniel H. Weiss] will succeed where the Met previously failed in raising $600 million for the museum’s new modern and contemporary wing, which was put on hold in 2017 and has since been inching its way back to the front burner.

No lead gift for that project has yet been announced. A person close to the fund-raising process said that the Met is being cautious to ensure that a donor is not vulnerable to political objections.

See my post The End of the Woke-Wealthy Truce.

Mr. Hollein said that shoring up the Met’s modern and contemporary program in the main Fifth Avenue building will be one of his primary aims, but “by no means the only one and not the defining one.”

“We are too important in other areas,” he said. While bringing modern and contemporary art back to Fifth Avenue, he intends to put them “in conversation with other areas,” he said. “I don’t want to see contemporary art confined to a couple of galleries. Putting a piece in context with Greek and Roman can be a contemporary opportunity.”

Recontextualization will take place exclusively regarding the art of Europe and its descendants. The director is not clamoring to do such things to the museum's displays of the historical art of Africa or South America or the Arabic-speaking world. The effort far predates this article. I wrote about it in the summer of 2018:

Where Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier's La Capresse des Colonies (1861) appears in the Met's online catalogue, it reads,

In his unpublished memoirs Charles Cordier cites the law of April 27, 1848 that abolished slavery in France and its colonies, writing: “My art incorporated the reality of a whole new subject, the revolt against slavery and the birth of anthropology.” In pioneering ethnography as a subject for sculpture in the nineteenth century, Cordier aimed to illustrate what he described as “the idea of the universality of beauty.” His busts often paired couples of the opposite sex but of the same race. This rare instance of matched busts of women was desired by the purchaser, a gaming club in Marseilles, that also commissioned the sumptuous Second-Empire pedestals from Cordier.

The busts revel in the period taste for polychromy in sculpture, an international phenomenon sparked by artistic debates about the painting of ancient statuary and inspired by ancient Roman and Renaissance sculpture composed of variously colored marbles. On a trip to Algeria in 1856 Cordier discovered onyx deposits in recently reopened ancient quarries and began to use the stone in busts such as these. He ingeniously fitted enameled bronze heads into the vibrantly patterned stone, creating exciting though costly representations of Africans that appealed to the highest levels of European society.

But when the sculpture appeared in the tendentious exhibition "Life Like" at the Met Breuer, its description was revised to this:

Cordier’s early portraits of black people were intended for France’s new ethnographic museum in Paris, where they would empirically document the “pure” racial types of “other” cultures. These representations are composites of individuals Cordier encountered during his travels to North Africa. Exquisite though they are, and despite his ambitions to expand the Western definition of beauty through his art, Cordier’s generalized portraits contributed to the French colonialist fascination with non-Western cultures through their spectacular racial essentialism.

In fact, before Hollein was so much as a twinkle in the eye of the Met's board of directors, the museum was already working hard to drive progressive agenda into the eyes of museumgoers. Its 2016 exhibition "Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven" set out to present the region at the time as a haven of diversity. "This exhibition is the first to unravel the various cultural traditions and aesthetic strands that enriched and enlivened the medieval city," quoth the Met. It fell to Maureen Mullarkey to point out the obvious:

“Jerusalem 1000 to 1400: Every People Under Heaven” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a sophisticated exercise in historical revision and cultural proselytizing. Between cherry-picked anecdotes, crucial omissions, and the lyrical come-ons of Conde Nast Traveler, the ravishing catalogue conjures an Islam cleansed of imperialism, brutality, absolutism, and institutionalized inequality of non-Muslims. Here instead is an Islam shimmering with benignity and civilized taste, a light to the nations....

Sleight of mind begins at the starting gate. An outsized projection of the Dome of the Rock dominates the wall that meets your eye on entering. It commands high center, overshadowing several smaller images of other sites flanking it. Built in the late seventh century in the appropriated style of a Byzantine martyrium, the Dome is an architectural symbol of Islamic ascendency. Visual arrangement conveys a subtle message: Jerusalem belongs to Islam.

The initial wall text adopts the upbeat tones of a tour guide: “Beginning about the year 1000, Jerusalem captivated the world’s attention as never before.” True. But our guide omits the reason: In 1009-10, Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the destruction of all synagogues and churches throughout Palestine, Egypt, and Syria, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem....

Christians conquer, but Muslims reclaim and retake. The catalogue gives us crusaders who “mercilessly slaughtered,” in contrast to Muslims who “take back Jerusalem” to create a spiritual and scholarly center of rare pluralism: “Venice, Rome, Paris—none of these cities tolerated the same degree of religious diversity.”... No reference to dhimmitude appears in the catalogue’s 333 pages. Typical of mainstream scholarship devoted to the myth of Islamic benevolence, the text ignores the conditions imposed on the masses of Christians and Jews. Sharia-mandated abasement disappears. Rather, the narrative features isolated vignettes of intellectuals, poets, scholars—“the flourishing academic scene”—and fantasies of “fluid religious identity.”

There you have the program in a nutshell: recontextualization for Europe and her fair-skinned progeny, decontextualization for everyone else. The New York Times is praising Hollein as a gutsy reformer because identitarian progressivism has all but completely overtaken the paper, but the newish director is really just carrying out an agenda that was established at the museum a long time ago.

Why object to this? Because, listen to me here, identitarian progressivism is fueling identitarian conservatism. The longtime effort by the progressives to build a more progressive world by shaming non-progressivism out of the non-progressives is producing the opposite effect. How many more characters like Trump, Orban, and Bolsonaro have to get elected before they admit this? Do the identitarian progressives actually want change, or is shaming both their means and their end? Because if it's the former, I think we can work something out. If it's the latter, well, I doubt that catastrophe is just around the corner, but I can't promise you that it isn't.

The acts of tokenism are obvious as such. The identitarian bean-counting is obvious as such. The privileging of politics over art is obvious as such. The anti-white and anti-male animus is obvious as such. This whole charade of "recontextualization" is obvious as such. And they are accomplishing nothing except entertaining the already-convinced by embittering everyone else, who retort in kind.

If this continues to amplify, the resulting mutual distrust is going to make it impossible to function as a society, at least the sort of society that comes together to nurture museums. The identitarian progressives want change, or claim to want change. They accuse the people who don't want change, or don't want that change, or want that change but not in that way, of bigotry or equally serious iniquities. The accused reply by acting against the interests of the accusers, who in turn accuse them of ever greater iniquities, and back and forth it goes until the ditch dividing them becomes a canyon. Shaming people is not effective politics.

What does work? A vision of shared humanity that transcends the categories of identity even as it honors them. You know, the sort of thing, aside from all the beauty and craftsmanship, that we would like to be allowed to enjoy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.




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