Perception of the Art of Minorities
How does the modern art presented in "Magicien de la Terre" exhibition and the Quai Branly Museum depict the change in perception of the art of minorities (African-American art, etc. ... ) within the context of "universal civilization myth?
Magiciens de la Terre
Musee du Quai Branly
Art has always had the ability to influence and shape many of the cultural ideas and norms that have been present throughout the history of humanity. However, at the same time, art is also influenced by the society and the environmental factors that have led the artists to develop their individual interpretations of issues related to life, reality, love, truth, and other such themes that is reflected in an artist's work. Thus a certain type of dialectal relationship is always present in every artist and every artwork that has ever been in existence. Yet, one of the interesting developments on this dialectal relationship has been the introduction and exponential growth of the globalization trend that has effectively made the world a smaller place in the sense that people of all walks of life are more likely to encounter other cultures, either directly or indirectly, at a substantially higher rate. It will be argued that modern art, if portrayed in the correct manner, can facilitate a sense of understanding among cultures in which the differences, at any level, may be harder to reconcile among the populations. This analysis will use two specific examples of modern art, the collection presented in the "Magicien de la Terre" exhibition, as well as the operations of the Quai Branly Museum, to illustrate depictions in perception of the art of minorities within the context of "universal civilization myth" and work to illustrate how these expressions of art can influence multiculturalism and the minds of Western citizens to challenge their own sense of cultural superiority and homogeneity.
Magiciens de la Terre
Although there are many different opinions and interpretations about the Magiciens de la Terre, it stands as one of the most highly cited exhibitions in all of contemporary art and also represents one of the finest examples of the history of African contemporary art to be found anywhere. "Jean-Hubert Martin, the Director of the Georges Pompidou Centre and the Commissioner of the exhibition, in his statement of 1986 describes the exhibition as comprising the following sections (Martin, 2010):
1. Artists from the artistic centres: A representative selection of art today, showing the mature artists of the last twenty years most committed to the avant-garde; artists with links to non-European cultures.
- African and Asian artists living in the West whose work reveals elements of their own cultural roots. Western artists whose work shows a concern for cultures other than their own.
2. Artists who do not belong to these centres but to the 'peripheries'.
- Works of an archaic nature intended for ceremonies and rituals, linked to transcendental religious experience or magic
- Traditional works showing an assimilation of external influences (...)
- Works from the artists' imagination, sometimes marginal, reinventing or re-discovering a cosmogony or interpretation of the world.
- Works of artists who have been trained in Western or Westernized art schools."
Therefore, the collection represents a mix of different artists, over a hundred in total from over five continents, that represent many individual artists who are already established in the trade, as well as many who are hopeful to be "discovered." "
The primary desire of the curator was to exhibit a collection that resembles the complexities of the world today and includes a variety of non-Western artists at different phases in their development and their reception. Another goal was to try to transcend the legacy of the colonial influences on the art world in general by including a consciousness avoidance of any relevant ethnographic categories The official opening of "Magiciens de la Terre" was consequently referred to as the first attempt to present a truly international-global-art exhibition. The various artists included in the exhibit from major art centers as well as such normally peripheral locations as Haiti, India, Madagascar and Panama, were selected for the show by a curatorial team in consultation with a group of international advisors, that represented a major undertaking to collect such a range of different artists from both Western and non-Western peripheries (Heartney, 1989). The team's leadership and the members seemed to be fully aware of the potential reactionary criticisms that would almost inevitably make the ethnocentrism charge in their reviews.
For example, one of the defining attributes of the Western world in the state of its modern development is the fact that much of its economic growth and development has only been possible due to the fact that it was able to colonize different regions around the world. The effects of colonization are still felt today and the fact that many of these movements were based upon some of the most oppressive and exploitive relationships in history has left a bitter taste in the contemporary generations of populations in the former colonies. The expansion of the Atlantic system in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries depended on the slave trade and New World slavery and it is common knowledge that production in the New World in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries depended on slave labor which produced the cash crops for their owners and fueled the development of the First World and have led to the vast global inequalities that are still felt today (Inikori, 1987).
In fact, well over 60% of the more than 6 million individuals who migrated to the New World from 1500 through the end of the eighteenth century were Africans brought over involuntarily as slaves and there were no serious national or cultural barriers to owning or using them; slaves were welcomed in the colonies of all the major European powers and the fraction of migrants who were slaves grew continuously, from roughly 20% prior to 1580 to nearly 75% between 1700 and 1760 (Sokoloff & Engerman, 2000). The colonizers from all the major Western powers were known to exploit all available natural resources that were available and used slave labor to grow vast quantities of cash crops that were directly responsible for the rapid growth of the Western nations.
It was not only the slaves that suffered during these periods, the mistreatment of the indigenous populations in the geographies that were suited for colonization were also horrific in nature. Europeans adopted very different colonization policies in different colonies, with different associated institutions, and much of this strategy was dependent upon whether or not Europeans could settle without experiencing high-mortality rates; in places where Europeans faced high mortality rates, they could not settle and they were more likely to set up worse (extractive) institutions that often have persisted to today and still foster inequality and income disadvantages in the former colonies (Acemoglu, Johnson, & Robinson, 2000). This legacy is widely known among the populations in the former colonies, and most likely, many of the practices are actually better understood by these peoples that in the contemporary Western nations who still feel a sense of cultural domination over less powerful nations.
With such a context in mind, the efforts of the exhibit to minimize the perceptions of Western ethnocentrism were virtually immediately challenged. In a review in the New York Times published several days after the opening, Michael Brenson asked a series of questions to this effect such as (Heartney, 1989):
"What happens when many of the artists who make nonmarketable religious art go home and no Western art official calls again?
Will they feel they have been exploited by a French curatorial vision?"
And indeed, the questions the exhibition raises go to the heart of Western culture's proprietary attitude toward the developing world and other issues that were raised also included (Heartney, 1989):
Can there really, one wonders, be any continuum between a Kiefer painting and a Benin ceremonial mask?
How does one make judgments of "quality" about objects completely foreign to our culture and experience?
Is there any "politically correct" way to present artifacts from another culture, or does the museological enterprise inevitably smack of cultural exploitation?
The exhibit created quite a stir among its visitors as well as a wide range of criticisms about the values of the Western-led exhibitor's efforts. However, despite all of the different criticisms that were generated by this exercise in artisanship, it did work to elevate an international conversation about the role of multiculturalism in the world today and many of the biases held by the Western populations were publically brought to light for millions.
Musee du Quai Branly
The Musee du Quai Branly is a huge, impressive, and opulent curving structure that was shaped by a world class architect, Jean Nouvel, using an abundance of resources including such materials as colored steel, wood, and glass, which are elevated above a lush garden tucked behind high glass walls and the whole museum is located on the Left Bank of…