February 7, 2019

Minority Representation In Mainstream Art Museums, Part 2 (Heather Stivison)

The following is the second of a three-part series.  The first can be found here.

Cultural Perspectives & Inequities

The history of colonialism in the English-speaking world is such that, to this day, the white majority culture dominates that of indigenous peoples. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States all have sizable populations of Native peoples, but very few art museums present and interpret their works. For generations, art museums in the English-speaking world have collected and exhibited artworks by Italian, French, German, Russian, and Spanish artists. Schooled only in the stylistic history of European art, curators were unequipped to interpret Native art.

Therefore, they presented Native art as “curiosities” alongside ethnographic objects such as leatherwork or spears. While some of these objects themselves can be artistic expressions, the displays and interpretations were anthropologically focused. Even cultural artifacts were often misunderstood. For instance, a Hopi katsina mask, seen through white culture’s lens, was a beautiful, quaint, handcrafted, “Halloween” mask from a “long-ago” culture.

Whites respected Catholic beliefs that consecration of the Eucharistic elements made ordinary wafers and wine sacred — so scared that they must locked away in a special cabinet. However, the Eurocentric lens made them oblivious to the Hopi belief that the mask was so sacred it should never be on view. The result was inequity because the stories and rich heritage of an entire culture were minimized as interesting or exotic oddities. 

In a study of 25 years of Native activism, Kathleen Ash-Milby and Ruth B. Phillips have observed an increased inclusion of Native art in prestigious white venues such as the Venice Biennale, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Whitney Museum, as well as overall increases in of Native exhibitions, venues, and works by indigenous artists.  However, most museums still ignore the role of white colonial history, the conquest of Native lands, and the methodical destruction of indigenous culture. 

The extent to which the dominant white culture ignores the pain from that reprehensible history became apparent with the installation of a sculpture by white artist Sam Durant at the Walker Art Center (WAC) in Minneapolis. Native protestors called for the immediate removal and destruction of Durant’s sculpture, Scaffold. 

Sheila Dickinson’s explains the background behind the response to Durant’s 50-foot high wooden sculpture. Scaffold’s seven staircases represented gallows used for seven executions including the mass execution of “the Dakota 38.” Dickinson writes that in 1862, the Dakota ceded lands equal to one-third of Minnesota, which forced approximately 7,000 Dakota to live a ten-mile strip of largely non-arable land.

When the starving Dakota pleaded, unsuccessfully, for help, one white trader cruelly responded, “…let them eat grass” (Dickinson, 2017). A Dakota uprising ensued, the trader was killed, and his mouth stuffed with grass.

At the end of the three-month war, whites petitioned the U.S. government to execute 300 captured Dakota. The whites received permission to execute 38, in what became the largest mass execution in U.S. history. One of the gallows in Scaffold commemorated that tragedy. Native protesters were deeply offended that a white artist took ownership of the story of the atrocity. 

Scaffold demonstrated an extraordinary failure to comprehend Native culture. Lindsay Redpath and Marianne O. Nielsen argue that Native cultures score high on “collectivism” in Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory. Their self-identity is defined by their relationship to extended family, community, and even ancestors, who remain part of their extended family beyond death. The authors note that Native culture’s “spiritual core” is one where “all things are interconnected” in a sense of “universal wholeness”.

The interconnectedness relates to the Native “sense of place,” and the belief that objects imbue places with meaning and emotion. The Natives’ deep connections to lost ancestral lands and to the spirits of murdered ancestors differ greatly from the values of the dominant, individualistic, white culture. Native cultures also tend towards the feminine end of Hofstede’s spectrum, and emphasize “helping others” and sharing. This is strikingly different from the values of the whites who refused to help the starving Dakotas.

Unaware of the spiritual dimensions of Native culture WAC installed Scaffold on former Dakota land. In her article “After protests from Native American community, Walker Art Center will remove public sculpture” Sheila Regan observes that Scaffold’s playground appearance and climbable staircases invited children to play on it.

The idea of children scrambling over a tribute to ancestors’ murders was sickening. Regan quoted natives who “broke down in tears” and “trembled from head to toe” at the sight. One Dakota artist explained the extreme disrespect in terms she thought the whites could understand, suggesting that the museum’s next park sculpture might be a based on the holocaust ovens (Regan, 2017). 

For his part, Durant had been creating artwork in his End White Supremacy series for over a decade. Believing he was actively protesting evils, he described Scaffold as a commentary on the death penalty. Durant later admitted he should have consulted the Dakota. After meeting with the elders, WAC and Durant dismantled the work and gave its pieces to the Dakota, who buried it in the ground.

African Americans also faced inequities from museums. Throughout the 20th century, African Americans fought for equal rights and justice. Black activism against museum bias began in 1968 with the artist-activist group, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC).

According to Caroline Wallace, the BECC started with a protest against New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art for mounting an exhibition that claimed to be a survey of an entire decade of American art. The exhibit, 1930s: Painting and Sculpture in America, failed to include a single Black artist because the white curators saw art only through their in-group white lens. The following year BECC protested the exhibition, Harlem on My Mind, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition was curated by white professionals and had not included any Black art. Susan E. Cahan describes the exhibitions as whites “controlling the narrative” of Black art. 

Activists’ demands for social justice in art museums were somewhat effective. Prior to the protests, the Whitney had never presented a solo show by a Black artist. After the protests, the museum mounted ten in six years. However, the exhibitions were presented in a little ground floor gallery, near the lobby and gift shops, segregated from the main museum where the “high art” was presented. It was progress, but Black culture was still marginalized.

Cross-cultural appreciation of African American culture has improved since then. In 2015, former First Lady Michele Obama presented the opening remarks at the new Whitney Museum building. She celebrated the Whitney for embracing inclusivity and multicultural “sensibilities”. Obama recalled her own childhood, when her skin color made her feel unwelcome in museums. Today, she observed, the Whitney encouraged all youth to dream bigger and reach higher. 

Despite this progress, the Whitney soon faced new criticism from activists. James Panero’s article in the New Criterion, “The Whitney’s identity problem,” examined a recent protest of “cultural appropriation.” At the opening of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, a single work of art, Open Casket, became a cultural appropriation lightening-rod.

The painting, by white artist Dana Schutz, was an abstracted representation of the body of Emmett Till – a young black victim of a horrific white lynching in 1955.  African American protesters locked arms to block visitors from entering the museum while others stood in front of the painting to block visitors’ view. Protesters called for censorship and demanded the painting be removed and destroyed. 

African American fury spread widely. Images of Schutz circulated on Twitter with the words “Burn this s**t bitch” scrawled in red across her face. Months after the exhibition closed, the Art Newspaper described new protests against a retrospective exhibition of Schutz’s work at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston). The exhibit required three years of preparation and never included Open Casket, and yet protesters wanted it shut down. Despite these protests, the ICA refused to close the exhibition. Members of the National Academy of Art published a letter supporting the ICA’s stance against censorship.

African Americans and Natives react with anger in response to years of social injustice. Their marginalization was due to the remnants of white colonialism, which established framework for measuring artistic merit. The framework was based on the unspoken belief in the superiority of white culture and values. This has led to unequal representation of minority artwork and culture in the continuum of art history. The perception that any cultural groups’ artwork is inferior disrespects and devalues an entire ethnicity and disrespects their heritage and values.

Ethical Implications

Underrepresentation and misrepresentation of minority cultures run counter to the acknowledged goals of museums. The industry guide, National Standards & Best Practice for U.S. Museums, stated that art museums exist to collect and interpret the finest artworks that humankind has created.

Museums study artworks and maintain archival records for the benefit of scholars. They have a social responsibility to uphold high standards of excellence in exhibitions, educational programs, reference materials, lectures, exhibition catalogues, and web-based searchable databases. Museums offer windows into the span of human creativity over centuries of civilizations. However, when museums omit minority art, present it unequally, or interpret it poorly, they fail in their raison d’être.

According to the Delini Fernando and Barbara Herlihy, social justice requires “equal opportunities” to all regardless of race or gender. When the “yardstick” used for determining the value and quality of artwork is that of one dominant culture, the result is not social justice. This unequal approach devalues minority cultures and cheats all who seek to learn about art and culture. 

Some situations of social injustice in arts are clear-cut, such as the pre-1960s, when minority art was rarely shown in museums. Issues of cultural appropriation are much more complex and nuanced. Weighing the ethical considerations of artists’ rights to free expression versus ethnic groups’ claims of ownership of stories creates a frustratingly complex problem.

Scottish philosopher Sir William David Ross wrote about such ethical and moral challenges in his “duty theory approach” to normative ethics.  Ross recognized that situations may force people to choose between conflicting duties. The relationship between minority artists and art museums is fraught with those conflicting “duties.”

In the case of the Schutz painting, Open Casket, the Whitney chose to keep the painting on view throughout the exhibit, defending their important ethical responsibility to protect artists’ rights to free expression. Even though the art made people uncomfortable, there was an ethical case to be made for vigilance in protecting art from censorship. Young, as noted earlier, makes the cause that causing offense does not automatically make appropriation ethically wrong. Despite sympathy for those who have been offended, Young concludes that even greater dangers exists in creating laws that determine the boundary between reasonable freedom of expression and art that has a negative impact on society. 

Different ethnic groups responded to the Open Casket controversy in remarkably different ways. Those from my own white cultural perspective found the uproar difficult to swallow. Schutz was already known for news-inspired paintings such as Poisoned Man, based on the attempted assassination of Ukrainian president Yushchenko. Writing in The New Yorker, Calvin Tomkins included excerpts of Tomkins’ interviews with Schutz, who said the inspiration for Open Casket was news about murders of innocent young Black men like Trayvon Martin.

Schutz added that she wanted her painting to be “tender.” She created an abstracted gold pillow beneath Till’s head to suggest a halo, and angled the coffin to feel like an intimate moment at a family wake. Till’s mother had insisted on an open coffin to show what white bigots had done to her son. She encouraged newspapers to print gruesome photographs of his body to reinforce her message. Whites wondered why anyone would object to a white artist’s empathy stretching across a cultural divide.

The view from the African American side was quite different. The painting crossed an invisible boundary and touched a painfully raw nerve. Siddhartha Mitter of the Village Voice sheds a light on that view in “After “Open Casket”: What Emmett Till Teaches Us Today.”

Mitter quotes part of a 1994 essay by the Black poet Elizabeth Alexander, “Black bodies in pain for public consumption have been…(a) spectacle for centuries.” Alexander referenced a long history of traumatic events including the 1991 beating of Rodney King, saying these have become a “traumatized collective historical memory” made ever more painful by their use as a public spectacle. The cross-cultural differences uncovered in this single painting reveal huge gaps in cultural understanding and communication between races. 

Although the Whitney made the difficult ethical decision to keep the painting on view, the museum did not ignore the protesters. They invited the public to participate a series of weekend dialogues on the topic. They also collaborated with the Racial Imaginary Institute to present a free public program, called “Perspectives on Race and Representation.” The program included scholars, critics, and artists, of various ethnicities sharing perspectives on the ethics of the Whitney’s decision, ethnic and cultural differences, racial violence, the current state of minority inclusion, and the limits of empathy. 

Such discussions force society to consider the distinction between free expression that may be offensive but are not inherently wrong, and free expression that actually harms society. In his study, “Profound offense and cultural appropriation,” James Young compared culturally offensive art to an atheist speaking out in a conservative Christian setting. The atheist’s actions would be profoundly offensive but not morally wrong. Young believes that right to freely express one’s opinion has “a special moral status”, according to Young.

However, when the free expression is angrily voicing cultural abhorrence or political slogans based in hate and malice, the acts are morally wrong. He reiterates that they are wrong despite the fact that they are legal. In cases of perceived cultural appropriation, Young asks viewers to consider if the intent of the artist is to engage in inquiry and investigation of an uncomfortable topic or issue, or if the intent is to be hurtful.  

Ethical issues rising to the level of malice have colored the relationship between Native Peoples and whites throughout the entire English-speaking world. There was no confusion about “intent” in the earlier years of that relationship. Indigenous people have suffered unspeakable pain at the hands of white colonialists. Today’s museums recognize that reprehensible history and seek new ways to atone for past cruelty. 

Heather Stivison is the former executive director of the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms in New Jersey. She is now working as an interdisciplinary artist with watercolor, acrylics, oils, or fiber.

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