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Queen Mother Pendant Mask (Iyoba), 16th century, Edo peoples, Court of Benin, Nigeria, ivory, iron, copper, 23.8 x 12.7 x 8.3 c.
Queen Mother Pendant Mask (Iyoba), 16th century, Edo peoples, Court of Benin, Nigeria, ivory, iron, copper, 23.8 x 12.7 x 8.3 c.

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The San Diego multi-million dollar earning weekend, ‘Comic Con 2022’, which has been accepted into art’s canon, just ended. What is happening to Beaux-Arts Classicism? Indigenous art, Tattoos, Graffiti, Outsider/Self-taught, and even Culinary have muscled their way into museums adjacent to masterpieces. While mainly white management still controls art organizations, the mostly non-white working class, who do security and cleaning, are demonstrating outside museums asking for culturally diverse leadership, and bigger employee benefits packages, while seeking unionization (78). The book, ‘Entitled: Discriminating Tastes and the Expansion of the Arts’ by Jennifer C. Lena is a sociological history of American art administration beginning in the early Nineteenth Century when Boston’s aristocracy established the Boston Museum of Art and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, defining a high-culture divide, separate from honky-tonk/bar room entertainment associated with incoming immigrants and the rising middle class (1).
Enter the Thirties Depression, which changed the art scene, leveling the playing fields by funding all ends of the aesthetic spectrum. It was Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) that helped artists and art institutions remain open/working, let alone not starve. Lena writes, “The WPA’s Federal One had freed the arts from their need to please commercial tastes and elite patrons. With the government funding…work had spilled out of Haute temples in big-city theater districts and gallery rows into parks, schools, churches, and community centers. Millions of Americans, many for the first time…thronged to concerts and plays and studied paintings and drawings, much of the time without having to take a penny from their pockets.…WPA projects supported the creation and distribution of folk culture, minority culture, immigrant cultures, women’s cultures….They trained a generation of arts administrators, artists, and audience members (30, 39).”
Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) emerged as the quintessential Depression-era illustrator/painter. His frenetic line-drawing and hen-scratches, a visual metaphor for the harsh realities, described urban and rural Mid-Century America, featuring those out-of-work, overworked, along with the politicking and partying in spite of it all. Pictured here is a black/white illustration from Benton’s memoir, ‘An Artist in America’ (1937) showing a working coal mine — fuel of bygone days? The Depression became a start point for making the art world classless — but is it today?
Enter Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (1908-1979) who acquired an appreciation for collecting primitive art from his mother Abby, founder of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) 1929. Rockefeller became a pioneer for elucidating “how unprimitive primitive art really is (48).” In 1939, he became MoMA’s first president and oversaw the exhibition, ‘Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art’ (1940). Rockefeller offered the Metropolitan Museum (Met) his primitive collection, but they turned him down, insisting it belonged at the American Museum of Natural History. Native anything was considered archeological artifacts at best. In 1957, Rockefeller established The Museum of Primitive Art (MPA) in order to celebrate ‘Form’ and ‘Beauty’ of Indigenous objects exclaiming, “Don’t ask me whether this bowl…is a household implement or a ritual vessel. I could not care less (43-48).”
Rockefeller pushed the idea that primitive objects had design elements overlooked when they were categorized as specimens. In 1976, he persuaded the Met to finally adopt his collection. Having achieved museum status in a post-modern world, Native implements can now be assessed as ‘Formal’ and ‘Contextual’ craftsmanship/fine art for original functionality and cultural aspects (acknowledging makers, if known). In 1982, the Met’s Michael C. Rockefeller Wing (named for Rockefeller’s son who disappeared in New Guinea while on assignment for MPA) opened (62). In the Met’s collection resides this 16th Century Queen Mother Pendant Mask: Iyoba (ivory, iron, and copper) by a Benin artist. The variety of detailed carving is exquisite, but because it was stolen by the British in 1897 as booty, its purpose as a courtly ornament honoring the king’s mother was never considered.
Non-Western art has become so popular it is being copied and sold as knock-offs, usually cheaper than the genuine article. Arguments abound: People of color may borrow from the Western aesthetic timeline while Caucasian artists are suspect if found copying non-Western tropes. The 2015 show at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, ‘Flirting With the Exotic,’ was to celebrate the 125th anniversary of their Asian Art Department. On ‘Kimono Wednesdays’ visitors could try on kimonos and be photographed — protests ensued. A post from Tumblr read, “This exhibit activity reaffirms the notion that Asian-identified folk are the Other, that they do not exist here, and that their cultures’ histories with oppressive imperialist practices are mere entertainment fodder. Rather than interrogating these notions of cultural appropriation and Orientalism, the MFA has allowed visitors to participate in a horrific display of minstrelsy (124).”
Not only was this blog attacking the MFA for allowing visitors to try on kimonos, it was chastising the museum for not acknowledging transgressions of the Imperial past. Japan’s Deputy Consul General for Boston countered, “We actually do not quite understand what their point of protest is.” According to Lena, Boston Japanese language teacher Timothy Nagaoka concluded the kimono is just clothing and has no particular sacred character; rather, “it’s the protestors who placed the kimono up on a pedestal (123-125).”
‘Japonisme’ was all the rage in the late Nineteenth Century. Shown here is an MFA attendee dressed in a kimono, which is a copy of the one worn by Monet’s wife, Camille, in the artist’s painting ‘La Japonaise’ (1876) nearby.
Architect/furniture designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) employed Japanese artistry in the 1903 Glasgow tea room, which continues to be a tourist destination. Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta ‘Mikado’ (1885) reflecting a fascination with the Orient, is still performed. Lena writes, “it mischaracterizes ‘Japonisme’ to report that all such art was inflected with a perverse and harmful obsession with Japan (125).”
Although the art world has deemed the Other’s art appropriate placed next to classical works, much of man’s inhumanity pictured, resulting in present-day angst, has not been resolved. Who has permission to imitate/emulate the Other’s culture is still debated? And would Picasso employ the essence of Africana in his art today?
Mini Sleuth:  ‘Entitled; Discriminating Tastes and the Expansion of the Arts’ by Jennifer C. Lena is available on Amazon. Thank you, Jodi Price at Princeton Univ. Press. Note: Illustrations used are not found in ‘Entitled’.
Jean Bundy, MFA, Ph.D. is a writer/painter living in Anchorage. She is a VP at AICA-Int. and serves on Governance for Pictor Gallery, NYC. Email: 38144@alaska.net
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