Holland Cotter over Niet-Westerse kunst

April 14, 2011

Under Threat: The Shock of the Old


“WHAT happened to Africa?” an art-world friend asked. “It disappeared.”
She was right. Do a quick scan of major exhibitions in big American museums in the past few years and Africa’s barely there. The same with India. Even China, usually an easier sell, is seen only discreetly. Wasn’t the multicultural surge of yesteryear supposed to produce the opposite effect?

Another thing. A lot of new non-Western acquisitions by museums are of contemporary art. Classical African sculptures still turn up. But they’re outnumbered by dynamic, straight-from-the-studio work, like the glowing wall hangings made of bottle caps by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, and the masks pieced together from gasoline jugs and junked hardware by Romuald Hazoume of Benin.

Where the pull toward the new is particularly strong, though, is in university art history programs, the training grounds of future museum personnel. An overwhelming number of applicants now declare contemporary art their field of choice: 80 percent was a figure I heard repeatedly — but unofficially — in conversations during the annual College Art Association conference this winter.

So the situation is that our encyclopedic museums — the ones that most people visit, and look to as repositories of what we most value in art — are rarely doing ambitiously scaled, big-idea shows of older non-Western art, and American art historians of the rising generation aren’t studying it these days. (Europe is doing somewhat better on both counts.) In the craze for the new, certain areas of Western art are being neglected too. But it’s non-Western art, chronically marginalized, that is especially vulnerable.

Lack of visibility tends to lead to lack of financing, which translates into slow, halting research, leaving vast amounts of foundational field work barely started. All the while, time is taking its toll. Cultures are vanishing and changing form in urbanizing Africa. Ancient monuments are crumbling in India. Vital aesthetic traditions in China are fading fast. As an additional handicap, again, contrary to multiculturalist expectations, the numbers of new graduate students in most non-Western fields have not grown significantly in decades.

The bottom line is plain: unless some of those few scholars stay on the case, we risk losing both the art and the history in “art history,” particularly where conservational safeguards are fragile or difficult to maintain.

That said, the reasons people pursue careers in newer art are understandable. Money is one. To an unprecedented degree, contemporary art, no matter what its geographic or cultural source, is now thoroughly tied to and buoyed by the global economy. This phenomenon is fairly recent. Not long ago the contemporary market meant Europe and America. Now it also means New Delhi, Beijing and Dubai. New art has become a worldwide industry. Industries generate jobs.

Holders of degrees in contemporary art history don’t have to limit their career prospects to the low-paying teaching gigs that remain the fate of their colleagues in more traditional studies. They can, in greater numbers than ever, become curators, corporate advisers, auction house experts and dealers in a luxury business that has, so far, floated above the prevailing economic turbulence. Sticklers for academic orthodoxy are prone to hint at corner-cutting features of a contemporary-art major. Language requirements are often minimal, English being the global art world lingua franca. And with only the history of today and yesterday to deal with, primary research can be done, over a Starbucks latte, via Google.

Such skeptics might be persuaded to acknowledge that modern and contemporary studies offer perception-altering images of an art long-filtered through Western stereotypes. At the same time, these skeptics would have serious problems with other scholars in the contemporary field who hold traditional — “tribal” — art partly responsible for perpetuating those stereotypes, and who, for that reason, avoid it.

And avoidance is easy. The market has made it so.

Starting in the 1950s, traditional objects came in a great wave to the United States from Africa, where they were bought, in quantity and at modest prices, by groups of avid amateur collectors. This influx of art, much of it excitingly unfamiliar, coincided with and encouraged a boom in scholarship by young art historians, many of them recent Peace Corps veterans who were doing extensive field work in Africa.

To simplify a complicated story, the flow stopped in the 1980s. The supply of objects that met Western requirements of value — age, evidence of ritual use, beauty of a kind that fit modernist criteria — came to an end. Art-wise, Africa was farmed out. With the new scarcity, prices soared; the days of buying and discovery more or less ended. Private collections went to museums, where they were — and are — occasionally refreshed by new additions. Meanwhile scholars were beginning to examine other, more accessible African genres: photography, film, sign painting, fashion, much of it being created in the present.

Major collecting of traditional — meaning premodern — Asian art ended around the same time, for different reasons. India and China placed their cultural patrimonies in lockdown, where they have stayed, with China now aggressively buying back art from abroad. Even borrowing it has become difficult to impossible.

Recent exhibitions of Chinese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art required virtuosic diplomacy, with loans being negotiated up to the 11th hour. A show of ancient Indian sculpture that was scheduled to open at Asia Society in February has yet to materialize; the objects from museums in Pakistan, which make up most of the show, have not been sent.

Small wonder that the Met and other museums have begun to supplement their non-Western holdings with contemporary work, available and affordable, while the Asia Society has for over a decade devoted much of its energy to new art from Asia and its diasporas.

The shift to new from old in academia has occurred within roughly the same time frame. Young scholars of African art began focusing on present-day urban material culture rather than on an object-intensive study of rural traditions. Research in Indian art began to start where it once stopped: at the modern era. Chinese art history, which long doggedly clung to an age-old practice of connoisseurship, has absorbed Western social and political theory.

The attempt to unite traditional and contemporary remains a source of tension, like an identity crisis unresolved. Some scholars continue to decry present-mindedness. They hear a clock ticking, and see only the preservative work not being done. Others take a more positive view: African and Asian cultures, they say, by their volatile and multifarious natures, are in states of perpetual transformation. This present is always, instantaneously, the new past. We document that instant.

As for museums, they haven’t figured out what to do. Blockbuster-consciousness has them thinking ancient, rare, monumental, expensive, never-seen-before. All of this is now harder and harder to come up with, but institutions won’t risk trying alternative models, though there are some out there. (Just look at exhibition catalogs published by the Museum for African Art in New York in the 1980s and ’90s.)

But the big question is, why does the direction taken by museums, or by art history as a discipline, have to be an either-or? Traditional or contemporary, old-style or new style, in-the-field or online. That’s the rhythm of fashion: something always has to be out so that something else can be in. But writing the history of art shouldn’t work that way. Good artists don’t work that way. Why not take lessons from them?

Check out, for example, the Indian artist Pushpamala N. who, in one photograph, poses as the Hindu goddess Lakshmi as depicted in an early 20th-century painting by Raja Ravi Varma, which was turned into a popular devotional print. In the photograph (taken by Clare Arni) Pushpamala N. is a deity, a Bollywood film star and a contemporary performance artist.

Or consider the Chinese conceptualist Ai Weiwei, who is now in police custody in Beijing. He updates museum-quality Neolithic vases by dipping them in candy-colored industrial paint. Or Wangechi Mutu, born in Kenya, now living New York, whose collages combine, among other things, images of classical African carving and clippings from porn and fashion magazines.

These artists combine old and new in ways that look like nothing seen before.

Nothing seen before was what a generation of art historians of Africa found and responded to 40 years ago, both on the ground in Africa and in American private collections: a stream of dazzling raw data that delivered sensual shocks and inspired new ideas. Young scholars, many of them students of those historians, are finding the same stimulation in contemporary work.

And now, as the field changes generational hands, it’s crucial to bring both streams into alignment, to start looking again for the new in the traditional (it’s there), and to start locating links to the past in the new (also there). How and at what pace these navigations will proceed remains an open question, but there’s some evidence that movement is underway. The many dozens of research papers presented last month at the Triennial Symposium of African Art in Los Angeles indicated shifts of balance in the field. Amid reports on Somali cinema, Ghanaian haute couture and South African World Cup paraphernalia, there were presentations on ancient Malian terra cottas and Songye power figures. Three panels on the art of African iron-working, from ancient times to the present, represented hands-on field work of a kind that has been on the decline, and promised an exhibition to boot. And there was the vitalizing presence of 18 historians who were born in Africa and now work there, true stakeholders in how it is perceived and preserved.

A small show now at the Met points a way for museums to go with their increasingly hybrid, category-crossing non-Western collections. Titled “Reconfiguring an African Icon: Odes to the Mask by Modern and Contemporary Artists from Three Continents,” it unites sublime early-20th-century Baule carved wood portrait masks from Ivory Coast with recent African and African-American mask sculptures, including some of Mr. Hazoume’s zany industrial concoctions, which are both tributes to traditional and send-ups of the West’s infatuation with African art.

Adventurous as the show is for this institution, it has also been installed in a very non-Western location: that is to say, in an odd space, a pedestrian-mall hallway between galleries of modern art and the Michael C. Rockefeller wing of what was once called primitive art. So it’s far from center stage, hard to find, and because of the traffic, a little tough to focus on once you have found it.

But the point isn’t where it is placed, but that it’s there (and will be through Aug. 21). And once you stop to look, and give it your full attention, and glimpse its implications for the future of a great art and a perpetually lost-and-found art history, it’s there in a very big way.