Well, it is paintings of horses and ships with sails, but it’s also many other things. I created this space to drag out the small moments and long-standing traditions that seemed beyond question. We consider and investigate how things that are “how it’s always been” came to be that way. At times it can feel futile to focus on American arts and museums when so many institutions need interrogation. Four days ago, domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol building because the presidential candidate they voted for lost (???). Below the surface of that simple truth, they rioted because the America they were promised is shifting below their feet, and it makes them angry.
Immediately, the floodgates opened for news outlets and lawmakers to talk about how dangerous rhetoric isn’t empty but that words matter and led to this action. The most unthinkable had to happen for that to be an explicit and nearly-universally agreed upon explanation for the events. Of course it doesn’t hurt that it occurred with only two weeks remaining in the imploded administration – making it safer for people to speak out. Think back to 2017. Folks weren’t as open to these facts after the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. People were afraid to condemn the dangerous rhetoric that emboldened white supremacists that day, naming them “a few.” Those of us that recognized it was time to sound the alarm felt like we were taking crazy pills and opted to shout into a cake.
As many have done pointing out the terrible double standard between summer 2020’s BLM protests and the Jan 6, 2021 domestic terror attack on the capital, Fey reminds us that in 2017 the fight was to protect water rights and sacred lands at Standing Rock, and the comparison was the same. Here’s the thing, though – while pointing out the double standard is important progress, there is no comparison between the NoDAPL and BLM protests and others of their kind and the insurrection at the Capitol. Those protests against civil liberties are violently put down because Black and Brown bodies dare to stand up for themselves against a framework that is inherently rooted in white supremacy, paternalism and conservative values. Even the language that we use to define these different groups’ demonstrations tells us – White Americans say they’re “taking their country back.” Do we use that vocabulary to describe women’s marches, Pride marches, rallies for the causes of BIPOC communities? We don’t – because those who aren’t part of the cause of white supremacy are simply rallying for their right to be treated equally and pursue happiness in America. It’s right there in the way words we use to talk about it.
So, how are we bringing this back to art and museums? Again – talking about representation matters is kind of our deal at Museum Drip. I wouldn’t mind living through a few “precedented” months so that I could write about a few other things. But representation in our arts and language empower us in both conscious and unconscious ways. As we know, most of the representation in America until like….literally last year (you could argue until maybe 10 years ago, if we’re being generous) has been largely, overwhelmingly, white and male.
The history of art is a funny thing. Western Art History courses begin situating the history of art in ancient civilizations: Mesopotamia, Babylon, Assyria. We look at material culture, pottery, wall art, and structures and objects that serve functions in daily life.
But then, painting on a two-dimensional surface is invented, and the history of art becomes the history of the art market. The social context of art collapses in on itself as we study how individual artists reacted and responded to other individual artists rather than how art reflects the time of it’s creation in a larger framework. “Fine art” is a capitalist construct – not a qualitative assessment. It means art that meets the requirements to be bought and sold for a sum of money through the representation of a gallery, auction house, or agency. Of course in capitalist, patriarchal Western Civilizations, ascribing monetary value to art makes making art a job, and as we know, jobs were primarily done, up until very recently, by white men.
(Note: this is reductive in order to be succinct but doesn’t tell the whole story – there have always been artists of color and non-male artists, but they have often not been remembered by history. Also, people of color and women have always done jobs, but not in the public-facing sense that white men have always done; as a “profession.”)
As such, when Americans began creating, commissioning and selling art, it was established that this meant bronze and marble sculptures and two-dimensional paintings primarily by and for white men and for a white audience, because that was who held power at the inception of the United States of America. Americans began to believe that art was this one thing mostly created by and for one type of people. Now – replace “art” in this story with – government. Free speech. Business. The stock market. All these things were made out of marble and painting on two dimensional surfaces. Get it? Ok no sorry hi, just making sure you’re still paying attention. Art was just like every other enterprise – controlled by those who held power – and above this, art visually reinforced what was believed to be American. White faces, horses, single-family homes, American flags, nuclear families. I’m not saying anyone who asks why we need to “make it political” would support what happened at the Capitol last week, but I bet that everyone who was there would ask that if they found themselves in one of my museum programs.
But the truth is, American art is much more than what Jack Donaghy thinks it is, or superfans of Norman Rockwell. American art is quilts, Native American material culture and ephemeral dance, Black collage, wall paintings, retablos, participatory actions and gatherings. There are aesthetic traditions that have far deeper roots in America than oil painting. Yet by writing that out of the narrative for so many years, we’ve allowed ourselves to pretend those roots withered and died when the land was colonized. By pretending that those traditions were completely uprooted and replaced by the new settler narrative, we have allowed those who think America is just paintings of horses to feel that something is being taken from them – when they – we – are the only ones who have done the taking. If we don’t see Black and Brown people as integral, intrinsic to American society, white supremacy continues to prevail and those who enact its agenda continue to fear their country being somehow “taken.”
Going forward, I will have a little series zooming in on some of these aesthetic traditions that are older than what we think of as “American art” and how we can draw direct lines to what American art is today. I hope that professors of cultural studies see their responsibility to do the same and remind us not to allow representation to become so narrow that we forget our own history. Likewise, museums can’t give up the fight to diversify collections and make our collective stories visible. Will these endeavors ever reach the type of people who stormed the Capitol? I don’t know – you know what they say –