Saturday, August 21, 2010

You Want Marx With That Art?

I took myself to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO for short) yesterday. I hadn't been there since its Frank Gehry-wrought rennovation and wanted so see what they've done with the place. I must say that, from an architectural/interior design standpoint, I was most impressed. Inside it's a lot brighter and airier than it used to, and reminded me a bit of the inside of Chicago's Art Institute. Another, less welcome change, though: the intrusion of some dubious--though, I have to say, unintentionally comical--Marxist theory in two of the displays. (It may have been evident in more, but these were the two I came across.)

The first--ENCOUNTERS WITH DIVERSITY (from the title, you already know you're in trouble)--consists of a room full of paintings by some very famous artists, along with a film showing paper cut-out puppets interacting and occasionally simulating boinking. (There was a disclaimer warning of sexual content, but when I entered the room a kid who looked maybe ten-years-old was sitting and watching it with his parents.) The exhibit is described thus:

Our being is shaped in relation to others. In the western world, such relationships frequently develop through oppositions based on gender, class and ethnicity. This process of exclusion, marginalization and stereotyping of the social "other," the sexual "other" and the ethnic "other." These works of art express society's varied attitude to alterity, ranging from curiosity to fear. Yet encounters with diversity can also foster increased awareness and social transformation.
Yikes. Who did they get to write this crap--Barbara Hall?

Anyway, the comedy continues. Here are a few of the paintings in the exhibit and the way their "alterity" is described.

Peter Breughel the Younger; The Peasant's Wedding

Breughel's painting can be seen as a celebration of authentic country life. At the time, however, the new urban middle class would have considered dance as an uncivilized and unproductive pastime of rural society from which they sought to distinguish themselves. This image serves as a visual affirmation of their elevated social standing.
It does? Damn those snooty "elevated" city-dwelling capitalists, always throwing cold water on honest rural revelry! (At least, I'm pretty sure that mimics the thoughts of the person who wrote this silliness.)

Eugene Delacroix; The Fanatics of Tangier, 1857

This painting was inspired by a trip Delacroix took to North Africa in 1832. The image depicts a ritual procession of a fanatical Muslim sect leaving Tangier. According to some experts, Delacroix exploited Muslim subjects in order to satisfy a Parisian market eager for images of exotic people and places, particularly in North Africa. Others claim that he was celebrating Algerian and Moroccan culture and customs. Although Delacroix denounced French imperialism in North Africa, his images depict a romanticized and stereotypical view of Arab culture.
And heaven knows we can't have any of that, right Edward Said? If we must "stereotype" about a fanatical Muslim sect, far better to do it with real live shots--say like these (which would have been far too bloody and unsettling for imperialism-denouncing Delacroix to depict for his exoticism-seeking Parisian clientele).

Cornelius Krieghoff: Midday Rest, 1854
(Image unavailable, but it's not unlike this.)
Medieval European motions of the "wild man"--a mythological untamed, unkempt forest-dweller--may have influenced French and British colonizers' perceptions of North American Aboriginal peoples. Western culture considered the ethnic "other" uncivilized, an empty vessel ready to receive European values. Such attitudes are evident in the paintings of Krieghoff produced for middle class European collectors both in Canada and abroad. This kind of imagery was instrumental in justifying the colonizations and exploitation of Canada's earliest inhabitants
That's kind of a lot to lay at the feet of poor Cornelius, isn't it--responsiblity for the all the "colonization" and "exploitation"? From viewing his work, plenty of which graces the AGO's walls, I'd say he painted with a lot of respect for the Aboriginal "other," all of whom look completely "kempt" and not in the least "wild". Or is the writer trying to say that no type of depiction would have been acceptable because a Westerner was the painter and the "other" was his subject?

And finally (for me, anyway: there are more paintings but this is the last one whose description I cribbed), Gerrit Van Henthorst: Satyr and Nymph (The image is unavailable, so let me take a stab at describing it. It consists of a satyr, nekkid from the waist up and with a ruddy, rather goatish-looking face, gazing lustfully as a beautiful bare-breasted nymph, who's lying down. That's about it.)

This painting depicts two figures from classical mythology. The satyr, a lustful woodland god conventionally portrayed as half man and half horse, leans toward a nymph, a nature goddess usually potrayed as a seductive young woman. In the 1600s, the Dutch middle class had very strict rules about proper social behaviour. Dutch women were traditionally represented as modest homemakers, while their husbands were depicted as successful businessmen. Many must have fantasized about forbidden acts of erotic pleasure such as those depicted in this painting.

If you say so. Seems to me you're assuming a lot about the fantasies of people who, unlike you, did not see things through our era's hyper-sexualized let-it-all-hang-out-pornified lens. In other words, you haven't a clue about what these people you obviously scorn (for being so uptight and repressed and "proper" and, oh yeah, capitalistic) were thinking. But now, courtesy this description, we know quite a bit about your overheated thoughts. Better take a long, cold shower now, 'kay pal?

The second display with the Marxist spin is an exhibit, mostly of sculptures, mostly of busts, by famous artists (including ones by Matisse, Brancusi, Lipchitz, Picasso and others) and more African/aboriginal artists whose names were unfamiliar. It's entitled CROSS-CULTURAL INFLUENCES: CULTURAL INSPIRATION OR CULTURAL APPROPRIATION? Can you guess which one it's supposed to be?
This installation explores how various artists incorporate ideas and images from African and Oceanic art into their work. The adaptation of one culture to another is a common feature in art as it is in music, design fashion and food. This merging of cultures leads to exciting new combinations and can inspire understanding and new ideas. But when two cultures intersect, do they each benefit equally? What are the consequences when one of the cultures has more power than the other?
Well, going out on a limb, I'd say one of the consequences is fabulous artwork, like the kind displayed in this installation. Oh, you mean what are the negative consequences due to the inherent inequities? Darned if I know--the culture with less "power" doesn't get to eat Wonderbread and drink Kool-Aid, maybe, while the powerful ones get to have lots of tasty samosas?


Jim R said...

I hope you hadn't eaten lunch before having all this multi-cult pablum force down your throat scaramouche.

Of course the pablum alone is enough to make most people sick, not to mention watching a modern culture slowly devouring itself in self-hate.

scaramouche said...

Actually, I hadn't eaten. Fortunately, though, most AGO exhibits haven't been freighted with this crap.