A Meditation on Beauty

      We ran across a fascinating exhibition in Berlin last year called “Beauty” (more exactly, “Schonheit”), in which an Italian diplomat selected 100 objects from the various German national collections. My favorite display lined up three female busts: the famous one of Queen Nefertiti, a Florentine Renaissance marble, and a 13th-century terra cotta from the African kingdom we call Ife. The point, for me, being that vastly different cultures can produce works of art that strike our modern eye as equally beautiful. 

     The Metropolitan Museum’s current big exhibition honors Philippe de Montebello’s 30 years as Director by displaying, in roughly chronological order, “masterpieces” that were acquired during his tenure. All departments are represented (although I couldn’t find any prints) and there was clearly a master hand making sure that no area or no period was over-represented. Musical instruments and costume, therefore, consumed more of my attention than on a normal visit to this institution. This hodgepodge approach to displaying, and viewing, art was less than satisfying, but what was fun, for a change, was the audiotour, in which Philippe often commented on the process of acquisition. (Unlike at the MIA, the curators are not present while the trustees discuss and vote on the objects.) A recurring comment was how “beautiful” or “exquisite” he found an object, even when it was a field not his own. (A Tibetan thangka, an American quilt, and paintings by Lucien Freud and Otto Dix were among the works that curators supposed him to disfavor, only to discover how open-minded he actually was.) 

      Near the end of the show the viewer is confronted by a particularly ugly nkisi nkondi from the Congo, and Philippe comments that this is not likely to strike us as beautiful, as in fact its purpose is to be terrifying. (In short, it houses a potent spirit that will harm, or even kill, wrongdoers.) Surely, such a piece would not have made the Berlin exhibition on Beauty. So what is it doing at the Met, and in the show for Philippe? 

      When I trained as an MIA Docent a dozen years ago, I raised a similar question. After studying Western and Asian art, in which curators openly applied a standard of beauty (and occasionally technical merit) to works they collected and in ranking artists within their fields, we began to learn about African art and were told, in essence, to abandon ranking, not to value the art of one people over another. This is Chokwe art, this is Senufo art, this is Yoruba art, this is what their symbols mean, this is what they believe, this is all you need to know. In this context, an nkisi nkondi is a key piece in the collection, both because of the important role it plays in village life and because it is such a signature piece for Kongo culture. And in that context, its aesthetic (and technical) merits are irrelevant.

      Perhaps the argument then is, we are being colonial if we insist on applying Western standards of beauty to another, African, culture. We must learn to look at these objects as their own culture does, and value what they value. But at the same time we are told that most African languages do not even have a word for “art.” So the value they ascribe to an nkisi nkondi is not an artistic value. It is more likely a functional value: the best nkisi is one that works. Should the Met, or the MIA or any Western art museum, seek to acquire the most powerful nkisi, and ignore all visual standards? If it does so, how is it different from an ethnographic museum, or is there no distinction anymore? If it applies that standard to African art, why not to Western religious art? Should it seek to display the statue of the Virgin that has healed or comforted the most believers, rather than the one that looks the most beautiful?

      The only African art currently on display at the High Museum in Atlanta is a collection of Bwa masks that are indistinguishable, to my eye, from the Bwa masks at the MIA that were collected 50-100 years ago in what is now Burkina Faso. The High masks were all made in the last five years and were produced, as best I can tell, for American collectors. How does the High distinguish them from “tourist art” that is traditionally scorned by Western art museums? The labels proclaim they were made by Yacoube Bonde, the official artist of the village [or state, I couldn’t recognize the name] who makes masks for use as well as the international market and who “restricts production to Bwa art forms, maintaining a high level of artistic integrity.” Does that mean if he made posters for Nike on the side, his Bwa masks would no longer be collectible?

      Also about to open at the High is an enormously popular exhibition of terra cotta warriors and other artifacts from Xian. When the first such  traveling exhibition went to Europe a decade ago, there was a minor scandal because it was discovered that the Chinese had sent many modern replicas in place of the 2,200-year-old originals. Rather than an attempt to deceive, it turned out that the misunderstanding was caused by the disparate views of the Chinese and the West: for us, a reproduction is worthless as art; the Chinese, by contrast, have a long tradition of emulating – i.e., copying – old masters, even down to the signature. (Examples of this abound in the Wang Hui retrospective currently at the Met.) If art is measured by aesthetic values, why should a museum care that something is a copy? Why should we reject a modern version, or a heavily restored terra cotta warrior, or a Bwa mask made “for the international market,” when we proudly display Thomas Sully’s copy of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington?

      In discussing his aversion to Tibetan art, Philippe de Montebello cited its formulaic nature: all the gods are posed in prescribed fashion, all the compositions are the same, etc., etc. When the curator presented the 10th-century work in the current show, however, Philippe was duly impressed by the originality of the poses. This work is from a period before everything has been reduced to formula, when Tibetan art was still exploring how to portray the Buddhist deities, even if the difference is no more than a slight turn of the foot. Indeed, when I visited Bhutan, we were taken to the Royal Art Academy, where training consisted of how to exactly copy the standard religious images one saw everywhere. Originality was deviation. If we were to accept Bhutanese or Tibetan values in collecting and judging their art, we would not look for originality, as Philippe did.

      The point I think I am trying to make is that there clearly is not a single, uniform standard that the Met or any art museum applies in collecting art. Sometimes we respect and apply local values; sometimes we don’t. We may collect an African piece based on its importance to the culture that created it, or we may collect it based on its appeal to Western eyes. If Western art is derivative, there is little chance it will be displayed in the museum. If Chinese art is derivative, that probably won’t be an issue, especially since the original will not be available to collect in any case.

      Beyond making this point, which is perhaps an obvious one, not a major discovery, I have a personal proposal, which I will confine to the one museum I know best, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The MIA should collect and display works of art based primarily, but not exclusively, on a single standard: beauty. Is the object stunning to look at? After looking at it once, do you want to look at it again? The MIA is not a textbook of the world’s history, or the world’s religions, although the education it provides on those subjects is a wonderful byproduct of its mission. Although research can be done there, it rarely is. What the MIA provides, and what its audience expects, is displays of objects to look at, and that is how the objects it collects should primarily be judged.

      This week I visited a few small exhibitions, in addition to the Met. The National Academy of Design was showing a retrospective of paintings by the 20th-century American artist George Tooker. Tooker described his goal as “painting reality so hard that it recurs as a dream; not painting dreams as such.” Painting after painting took my breath away, searing the artist’s vision into my mind. Another day I toured a show of Islamic calligraphy at the Asia Society and couldn’t take my eyes off a Qur’an bookbinding made in Iran in the [early?] 1800s, a floral still life on a deep red background sparkling with mother-of-pearl. Beauty comes in different forms. A museum can focus on beauty and still be encyclopedic.

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