by Allyn Gaestel
In New York, briefly at the beginning of the year, I stayed at the home of friends: a documentary filmmaker and a photographer, both from Italy. Another friend, a former farmer turned urbanist and dancer came by the house for tea. She marveled at the space, which had an aesthetic completely distinct from her own. “There are so many ways to be in the world,” she said. She had an energy of admiration, and also liberation, tinged with a small sense of why didn’t anyone tell me? “The more I see other ways of being, the more free I feel to live however I choose,” she said.
I spent a long time photographing interiors, in which I intermingled portraits with spaces as I pondered what Deleuze and Guattari considered the interchangeability of interiors and exteriors. The spaces we fill, the spaces we create, the spaces we choose, what we see, reflects our interiors. But sometimes we are unconscious of what we are creating. Sometimes we are simply recreating what was handed to us, modeled for us when we were young.
Over dinner with friends we discussed the concept of our aesthetic inheritance: how we find ourselves tussling with the life we were born into, the frameworks for reality our parents lived within that were then passed on to us as reality. This is blatantly illustrated in the interiors of my friends’ apartments; one who grew up in a Tara-inspired mansion in West Hollywood hung replicas of the ornate, ruffled curtains in her Brooklyn flat. Another who grew up in a Tribeca loft lives in what she considers a neurotic replication of the space, a Fort Greene loft she moved into just as her childhood home was sold. It was, though, her modernist credenza that first prompted my pondering of genealogies of taste and our aesthetic inheritance. It was so specific. Just like how my liturgical black turtlenecks mirror my father’s quotidian uniform, and I wrote once on how I rented a home with toxic paint on the walls, only later realizing I was replicating the seeping poison of the family environment I grew up in. Until we awaken to the subjectivity of what was handed to us, we tend to carry it forward.
Imagining the worlds we might have filled if we had only known they existed, we wondered why weren’t we schooled from the beginning in our beautiful multiplicity. Why don’t we tell children: The Tao is like a well: used but never used up. It is like the eternal void: filled with infinite possibilities, in the words of Lao-Tzu. Which is to say, our way of being is always chosen. We are constantly arranging the world for ourselves. And there are infinite ways to do it.
Outside of our domesticity, aesthetic inheritance is one way I have been thinking about the canon. And the present articulation and expression of our heritage — how we are living, what we have been exposed to — is one of the ways I think about orality in the sense of a positive definition of oral history (rather than one defined in opposition to what is written). We are the living embodiment of everything we have consumed. So the work that the art world is doing now to decolonize institutions is in a deep interplay with our interiority. If we have been raised with the western art historical canon, and museums that are built to convey it, there are assumptions that underly the ways we think about art and art history. Much more than simply who is in the canon — which is of course an important question — is also the shape of the canon itself.
Vera Lutter, The Museum of Modern Art, I: April 14, 2014. © Vera Lutter 2021
The new MoMA, which I visited in my New York City daytimes, plays with this, upends this, in ways so refreshing, the first notes I took were: The new MoMA feels alive. Wandering the galleries felt like a breath of fresh air after having spent a year (the year before the year we stilled) in museums that felt both rapacious and lifeless, as if the model was simply a butterfly cut through with a pin. Dead. Collected. To be parsed and studied.
The encyclopedic museum model, the historic way of organizing these spaces, pretends or presumes that knowledge can be contained. The 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, took as its starting point, and its name, the failed dreamscape of an Italian-American artist, Marino Auriti, titled The Encyclopedic Palace. Auriti filed a patent for the concept which was, as Gioni described, “an imaginary museum that was meant to house all worldly knowledge, bringing together the greatest discoveries of the human race, from the wheel to the satellite.” The building was meant to fill 16 blocks in Washington DC and tower 136 stories, 700 meters high. The fact that Auriti patented the design shows the framework for knowledge he was working with: one that is based on ownership, based on claiming, categorizing, labeling.
Yasiin Bey called himself the museum of injury in his gorgeous poem “A Soldier’s Dream.”
You’re staring and looking too closely, he rapped.
Collecting it all arranging it all;
Surgically, robotically, exactly.
the longer that
I don’t return your gaze,
The harder that your gaze
Starts to run across my back
Like a nervous policeman’s hands:
Brisk, intent, anxious for discovery.
I am the new landmark. He said, I am the Museum of Injury.
Gioni’s biennale consciously examined the futility of the project of containing all of the world’s knowledge and interspersed the Encyclopedic Palace with artists engaging reality and trying, “often in vain, to fashion an image of the world that will capture its infinite variety and richness.” The show brought together a multiplicitous bouquet of modalities from mysticism to psychoanalysis to explore the simultaneous endless hunger to coalesce knowledge, and the impossibility of this task.
And yet, this is what museums often aim to do. They are physical sites of knowledge; and often they do so with less humility than Gioni who embedded within his exploration of ways of “capturing” knowledge the multiplicity and ultimate impossibility of this goal. His exhibition, interested in exploring ways of seeing, had at its core the understanding that there are endless ways to see. This is a framework, then, that is at peace with the endless expansion of knowledge, that seeks not to contain it all, that is in love with the vastness.
Museums, by contrast, typically competitively collect, as if it were possible to have a complete collection. They scramble to fill perceived “holes” in an already defined chronology and trajectory. The bland repetitiveness of the permanent collections on display in many of the world’s major museums attests to the inertia of normative agreements and arrangements of these collections: The canon.
In the time I spent wandering marble halls over the past few years I was looking at the materiality of ways of organizing the world, architecturally, and particularly how the canon is presented: the tone of exhibitions, their embedded underlying beliefs, the frameworks for reality built into the structure of exhibitions and museums. I saw how the apparent solidity of these spaces permeates the soft mindscapes of visitors who encounter a place that conveys information, so they consume this information, without considering the vehicle of its presentation or the subjective beliefs about what constitutes knowing, about what has value, about truth. My pondering started with archives but morphed into the question of the restitution of stolen colonial artworks, which led me then to the nature of the canon itself and museums as sites where we encounter the physicalization of how we narrate the world.
In the villa where I began writing this, I described briefly what I was working on to another guest passing through, a yogi in the same lineage as I. Together we parsed and interrogated figures, stars, schools, egos, beauty and wisdom in our particular type of yoga. When I told her I was writing on museums and the canon, she asked: What’s the canon? Is that one of the rooms in the museum? I stumbled a bit, as I started to answer, and when I referenced the construct of Art History, she laughed. She was right to.
The dictionary definition of the canon is: “the list of works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality.” In a talk at Columbia University, novelist Rachel Cusk referred to the “crushing objectivity of the canon.” It is of course deeply hypocritical to define something as subjective as taste as permanent. Even beyond the ridiculousness of a definition of permanent taste, the notion of permanence is itself a comforting or discomfiting myth; depending on where one stands in the global order. Yet the myth of permanence is built into the very architecture of museums with their so-called permanent collections. Even though collections are constantly shifting: expanding and contracting, with works being bought, sold, and lent. While temporary exhibitions tend to be more essayistic, the repetitiveness of the permanent collections in the world’s major museums (as well as their displays) points to the simultaneous truth and falsity of the canon.
It is in part the solidity, the static-ness of the Western Art Historical Canon that makes it feel so false. It is simultaneously dense and false: dense because it has been repeated and replicated over and over, enough that people take it to be true, and then build spaces — in marble, in stone — based upon these stories that continue to replicate them. Like orality: that which lives in our mouths; that which lives by our mouths; it’s a mutually creative relationship. The words we say create the world we experience; and, we narrate the world that we know. The canon exists, but it is not what it claims to be: it is not The History of Art. Nonetheless the constructed, normative history of art has been physicalized in museums that gluttonously collect, then bury treasures in vaults and float to the surface a single story, and call it the story.
“A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Baldwin wrote in his essay The Creative Process. “Society must accept some things as real; but he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our actions and achievement rest on things unseen.”
Something else we inherit — until we surface it in our consciousness at which point we can choose — is how we approach that which is outside of our framework for reality, how we encounter difference. The white imperialist tradition has embedded within it judgement and a profound lack of imagination. Anything it encounters that is different is termed other, and the default narration is pejorative. If another way of being is not denigrated, the white imperialist tradition consumes or isolates or tokenizes it. Often, it does both. Dead butterflies, or, stolen sacred objects, are proudly displayed with plaques that tiptoe around, or sometimes blatantly say: we stole this. We killed this. Aren’t they crazy. Isn’t this pretty.
The danger is that children, and the rest of us, are continually exposed to spaces built on specific, violent frameworks for reality before we learn to interrogate and recognize frameworks. So these underlying, unspoken judgements and values become embedded into our psyches as normativities. That which lives in our minds is that which lives by our minds; it’s a mutually creative relationship. The exclusion we have been living in is replicated and perpetuated by us, by the unconscious programming we’ve inherited, that we build into our structures, which invade future mindscapes, ad infinitum. Unless we disrupt it.
I am talking about stories, about words, but I am also speaking about the limits to reality that we believe in and so live within. Shifting this can feel at times like trying to physically push the Louvre itself: carved in marble and buried in the ground. “It is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it,” Baldwin wrote. “They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is suggested that they can or that they must, is panic.”
Recent work on canon correcting has centered in bringing in voices that have long been overlooked. At Marian Goodman gallery in London this fall there was a show by Tavares Strachan called “In Plain Site” which included a work titled: The Encyclopedia of Invisibility. It was housed in a room lined with wallpaper printed with text in the form of an encyclopedia detailing historic heroes and feats of greatness that are largely brushed over in white discourses of history. There is an immense amount of work currently being made to address this historic white washing, which is important but at times feels limited in its depth. It is based on the belief that the encyclopedia is an accurate manner of engaging with knowledge. Collecting it all arranging it all, surgically, robotically.
I, like the mystics, perhaps, am interested in engaging the canon as a construct — one with white supremacy and racism embedded in its structure — and questioning its very form.
Because while canon correcting is a noble goal; it feels Sisyphean to continually work to bring in those who are excluded from a way of organizing knowledge that is based on exclusivity. “The very serious function of racism … is distraction,” Toni Morrison said in 1975. “It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do.” I think it also grants the exclusive bearers of normativity too much grace; as if it’s possible they just didn’t know that everywhere in the world, everyone in the world, has a powerful and profound personal canon. But while it is often unconscious, it is a framework for reality to invisibilize everyone but oneself. It is in the canon’s very structure and form to be so limiting, so self-absorbed and so problematic.
And so, canon correcting that doesn’t question the nature and form of the canon itself feels like it misses the whole point. It’s a bit like charity on the outskirts of capitalism, which is at heart a contradiction of forms: based on a way of organizing materiality and vitality — what is needed for life — based on exclusion, ownership and limitation, and then within that broken hierarchy continuing patterns of dependence and lack, rather than reconfiguring our relationship to food and wellness, resources and nourishment to be based on abundance and harmony and enough. Which is simply a critique of capitalism that is deeper than socialism; it’s not just sharing resources but changing our relationship to and conception of resources all together. The revolution is always post counter narrative. To make visible one aspect that is continually invisibilized without adjusting and addressing that tendency to render invisible is a band-aid rather than deep healing.
Furthermore, there is nothing invisible. Everything is available if we know how to see, if we choose to look, if we train our eyes. But the canon, and encyclopedic museums, are based on Enlightenment era definitions of seeing, which are, like everything, subjective, yet often blinding in their myth of objectivity.
In the British Museum in London there is a room like a library: staid, wooded, silent, heavy with plaques and glass cases — like for butterflies, but here containing figurines and vases, models of slave ships. It houses an exhibition called “Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century,” which commemorates and celebrates the history of the massive museum. With over eight million objects — collecting it all, arranging it all, surgically, robotically — mostly aggregated under the British Empire, both the institution and the colonial era itself were deeply influenced by so-called “Enlightenment” beliefs. The central section of the exhibition was titled “Classifying the World.”
“The Enlightenment is the name given to the age of reason, discovery and learning that flourished from about 1680 to 1820 and changed the way that people viewed the world.” A plaque read, Which people? I wondered. Discovery? The era referenced was also the dawn of rapacious capitalism; and there are obvious links between extractive and acquisition-based frameworks for knowledge and the gluttonous theft and destruction of the era, the remnants of which were encased in the vast halls surrounding this library. The Benin Bronzes, The Elgin Marbles, The Rosetta Stone, countless family heirlooms and sacred, living objects, many of which were brutally stolen and have been demanded repatriated for years, are proudly, unselfconsciously displayed across the museum. At the Victoria and Albert Museum across town a guide told me, the collection is basically the attic of the British Empire. Flourish felt like a hypocritical descriptor for an era rife with such violence.
“Enlightened men and women believed that the key to unlocking the past and the mysteries of the universe lay in directly observing and studying the natural and man-made world. Their passion for collecting objects, from fossils and flints to Greek vases and ancient scripts, was matched by their desire to impose order on them, to catalogue and to classify.”
“During the Enlightenment, many people believed that lack of social and moral progress stemmed from ignorance about the world, its natural phenomena and its human history. As a result, they developed new systems of classification, which they used to organize and explain the world around them. Some systems depended on establishing likenesses between objects and giving them names which reflected these similarities. Others were founded on beliefs of progress and decline. By adapting these systems to classify the artifacts of contemporary and ancient cultures, people were better able to interpret their vast collections and share their findings.”
It is a colonial gluttonous mindset toward reality that we can collect all the knowledge, bring it in. (And monetize it.) The period of the birth of the British Museum and the Louvre — museum models that were later replicated across the world in spaces like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and countless other encyclopedic museums — (Dem dey follow follow, Fela sang) was the age of empire and competition. “Around the year 1800, a revolutionary and imperial France dreamed of transforming Paris into the “capital of the universe” and to centralize the artistic treasures acquired by its armies throughout all of Europe” Felwin Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy wrote in their 2018 report The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics.
“The jurist and German philosopher, Carl Heinrich Heydenreich denounced what he called a “crime against humanity” (“Verbrechen gegen die Menschheit”). He deconstructs the rhetoric of the conqueror, who, in pretending to be guided by “the most precious values” in interesting himself in the culture of the conquered, ends up actually transforming his victim into a “thing” (“Ding”), depriving him of the spiritual nourishment that is the foundation of his humanity.”
In the case there’s rarely just one butterfly. There are rows and rows of bodies and painted wings, stilled and spliced, silenced. How else, in the enlightened framework, could you understand or appreciate the butterfly? If you don’t see all its relatives, all its genealogies splayed out, silent, next to it? Dead butterflies of every species imaginable.
Tally Beaty bends and extends limbs arms legs in conversation with tree trunks and branches, sinews, tendons, bark; then spins in front of a Buddha in a museum gallery, their faces intermingling — Dancer/God/Dancer/Buddha/Dancer/Breathe/Dancer/Stone — as he whips his neck around. He leaps lightly across the marble and then through the sky to a cliffside overlooking the ocean. He is all in and out of earth and marble, embodied, vital, alive, culture, in Maya Deren’s film A Study in Choreography for Camera. I watched the film in the new MoMA, and the space I filled felt like this. Breathing, thumping, spinning, leaping, the intertwine of a body with the worlds of the world, an institution rendered breath-full. I liked what filtered into my consciousness as I wandered and climbed the Museum’s rearranged halls.
“An ongoing program of frequent reinstallation will feature a wide range of artworks in new combinations — a reminder that the Museum’s collection enables countless ideas and histories to be explored,” is written on the signs outside the galleries of the permanent collection. The post-encyclopedic museum, which, MoMA is not, yet, but at least toys with, is based on the fundamental belief in ways of knowing beyond the didactic. This explicit dedication to multiplicities of knowing, and also multiplicities of association, ways of relating, ways of grouping and connecting works of art: it need not be simply chronological (what is time?) or based on identity or linearity or politics. Instead, there is a kaleidoscope of potential ways of grouping artworks, from rooms dedicated to a single artist to rooms based on concepts like Touching the Void. Others, such as Out of War bring together artists of a certain period working through trauma and dislocation through myriad techniques like surrealism and externalizing inner psychic states.
This feels new. It feels alive and it feels a bit radical, though it doesn’t really need to. In a way, this is just an expression of life with the internet. We don’t just learn in the linearity of books, anymore — if we ever did. We stumble across things through association, find a thread and pull and pull and pull. Knowledge is endless, and we can approach it anyway we like. We live a rhizomatic existence, and the internet is theorized by many, including novelist Namwali Serpell, as a matriarchal space: anti-hierarchical, vast, and infinitely expanding. “It’s like the world is writing a giant poem to itself,” She quoted in her essay in The New York Review of Books.
At MoMA there was a temporary exhibition on Félix Fénéon, the French art critic, writer, collector, editor and publisher, which celebrated his anarchy and shared his vision of a classless utopia. I had seen another exhibition on Fénéon the year before at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, a space that perhaps epitomizes the dead butterfly museum model. Built only in 2006, The Quai Branly does not have the excuse of history; perhaps conversely it demonstrates the obviousness of contemporary coloniality. It is a museum centered on “The Other” that brings together art and culture from Indigenous people in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas in some sort of fusion between an ethnographic and an art museum. Living statues are encased in glass.
When I visited the Quai Branly the Fénéon show was one of two temporary exhibitions in the space, both dedicated to white gatekeepers who had somehow promoted African art. The other was titled “Madame’s Collection” and featured a woman named Helena Rubinstein who was photographed in her flat full of nameless African masks. According to the museum’s website it was an exhibition “Examining non-Western art through the collection of Helena Rubinstein. The exhibition reveals the fascination that African art held for this pioneer of cosmetics, an avant-garde patron and collector in the early 20th century.”
“For those interested in the history of art collectors in the 20th century, Helena Rubinstein imposes as an essential figure,” an essay in the catalogue begins. “For her, as for the magnets of American industry and finance of the 19th century — Corcoran, Frick, Morgan, Vanderbilt, and Rockefeller — collecting was a manner to signify socially her economic success and to mark her place among the elites.” She was remarkable, the essay continued, because she was a financially successful woman and for her “eclectic and unconventional taste” which included “poorly legitimized objects” like dolls, and “in a rupture with the norms of occidental aesthetics, African statuettes.” Fénéon was narrated similarly as a tastemaker for African artists and placed in the false narrative of Africa as relevant solely as inspiration for cubists and expressionists. On my way to the Musée du Quai Branly that day I had passed a billboard advertising Dior’s new perfume: Sauvage.
In France, the Fénéon exhibition was divided between the Quai Branly, where his advocacy for African art was isolated and emphasized, and the Musée D’Orsay, which explored his broader work.
At MoMA, there was only one exhibition, and it was not bifurcated by region. It felt much more vital in how it graced across his wide-ranging influences: parts of his collections of African art were interspersed with how he entered the art world from various avenues; his work on Italian futurism; anarchy and the state; anarchic utopias; how in the end he sank into dust: “I aspire to silence,” he said, and sold all he had collected. The traversing curiosity in the MoMA show felt much more honest than an exhibition that split his interests along racial lines.
Ashraf Jamal, the esteemed South African art critic wrote on the “petrification” that our education perpetuates. “In 1872, the ever-prescient Nietzsche observed how ‘the current system reduces scholars to being mere slaves of academic disciplines, making it a matter of chance, and increasingly unlikely, for any scholar to turn out truly educated.’ It is because of the limit built in to how we look, to what we value, that we fail to advance.” Disciplines are constructs. They started perhaps as descriptors, but they’ve morphed into unnecessarily discreet bifurcations of reality, and these ways of thinking have become entrenched into samskaras in the mind — scars of repetitive thinking along pre-determined routes and lines. The canon is something similar: a way of organizing the history of art that was chosen but now feels solidified, and breaking free or breaking it open feels like crumbling concrete.
Kandice Chuh theorized trans-disciplinary work as a way of undermining the violent constructs of categorization. “We — those who are committed to the twofold project of critiquing normativities and the violence of the status quo, and working toward and for alternatives — need to activate ways of going beyond the sometimes strenuous demands of disciplinarity and professionalization, ways that are not so much interdisciplinary but are instead deliberately promiscuous,” she wrote in her book The Difference Aesthetics Makes, on the Humanities After Man.
“A twenty-first century museum will utilise calculated uncertainty and conscious incompleteness to produce a catalyst for invigorating change whilst always producing the harvest of the quiet eye.” The now late architect Cedric Price said, as he wandered the Tate, a museum that has long embodied these alternate manners of organizing knowledge through exhibitions grounded in conceptualism rather than chronology.
“I imagine the museum as an archipelago. It is not a continent, but an archipelago. It is not a recapitulation of something which existed in an obvious way. It is the quest for something we don’t know yet,” wrote Édouard Glissant, the Martinican writer, poet, philosopher and critic, who theorized transdisciplinarity and liberating creolization for the world of museums.
There is a beautiful presumption of depth in a framework for knowledge grounded in the unknown. The seeker leans into the void, and finds it voluptuous, welcoming, stimulating, and infinite.
The Tao is called the Great Mother:
Empty yet inexhaustible,
It gives birth to infinite worlds.
It is always present within you.
You can use it any way you want.
The Tate and the MoMA are contemporary art museums; the British museum and the Quai Branly are decidedly not. But the experiments taking place in contemporary art spaces hold massive relevance for all institutions, and also for our own lives. MoMA’s collection is grounded in the infinite, in our multiplicity. The British Museum’s is grounded in containment; in the desire to collect everything so that we can hold and have and claim and control it. Expanding the British museum’s framework for knowledge feels like prying open a clenched fist. MoMA offers the freedom of dance.
What if every butterfly that came before was already in the butterfly? What if by looking deeply at the butterfly we could see every flower it had ever eaten, all its ancestors, the breath, the sky, ourselves?
As we coexist, our stories unfurl and everyone we’ve ever been, everyone we’ve ever read and loved, every artwork that has expanded our consciousness slowly reveals itself. Why kill the butterfly in an attempt to understand it? Might we be killing its multiplicity when we take its life? Depriving it of layers of knowledge when we pin it down? In our obsession to contain, control, know everything, in our descriptions of the canon, aren’t we missing everything that infuses art? Can we let art writing live like art lives? Can it be fluid, like our reality and our selves? Can our canon dance like we do? Can we let museums breathe like art gives us breath?
We go to art to understand our selves; we make art to understand our selves. Contemporary art, then, simply has to learn from itself, and allow the structures within the field to spread outward into the organizational structures of the field.
After visiting all the museums, I determined that contemporary art is where the answers lie to the issues that plague our shifting societies. This is because contemporary art is the field in which trans disciplinary thinking is deeply embedded into its framework for making, for engaging and probing reality; it has fluidity, bending, fractures, and multiplicity embedded into its forms. It has the answers for questions much broader than the museum and it always has. And I believe that when the museum transforms and begins to embody broader ways of being it cascades into and through the consciousness of museum visitors. For the same reason that the encyclopedic museum is violent far beyond its walls for the way it embodies and perpetuates imperialistic thinking patterns, so can a liberated museum liberate, just in its very way of being. We can consider, embody, experiment with, design, build and live within alternate frameworks for our world in our houses of knowledge, in our museums.
Relieved and energized, I wandered through MoMA’s immersive, multi-dimensional rooms. I dove deep into a gallery dedicated to Gordon Parks, squealing with saxophones, and appreciated how this specificity was interspersed with other galleries organized more conceptually, pairing unexpected artists. I blinked into the white light of Touching the Void. On the landings were shouts from Kinshasa: vibrant cityscapes by Moké. Glissant was here too, embedded in the macro-scale Jack Whitten paint-as-collage Atopolis, glinting, fractured and imposing.
The trueness of the kaleidoscopic multiplicity, the anti-hierarchical dance of knowledges, opened multiple streams of connectivity, granting limitless entry points into an ever-expanding constellation of curiosity and taste.
I lingered in landings dotted with Brancusi’s and galleries of glowing silver pill-shaped balloons. The latter, General Idea’s Magic Bullet, an installation meditating on mass death in the AIDS crisis was poignantly pertinent in the pandemic period. Balloons that deflate and tumble to the ground represent casualties, and the whole installation “functions as a metaphor for seeking a temporary remedy for an illness — physical or social — rather than examining its root causes,” according to the wall text. This felt apt also for the complexity of the question of the canon and the shape of the museum that I was pondering as I wandered.
When I finally sat down after marveling the transitions, I slowed and then wondered: wait, is this the museum of modern American Art? Of course, it isn’t. But while there are smatterings of international artists, most of them lived in New York, and, most of them were one of a kind, the only one representing their entire canon, their location, their history. International works shown were mostly decontextualized; mostly diasporic; the collection is deeply self-referential. When we see Cuba it is because Europeans or Americans went there, and then we engage with the country as a primordial and timeless space, ahistorical, instead of engaging with it as a place with a history as deep as the one of the people who just arrived. While we see the evolution of European and American art-making, no other place is granted this space for transformation.
It makes sense that I wondered this. It is in the aesthetic heritage of the space where I sat. Alfred Barr, the first president of the museum designed the canon of modern art —”distilling an aesthetic pedigree” in the words of the museum — with a pencil drawing. Something sketched became the basis of this and many other permanent collections. The original proposal for the museum included a plan for a series of exhibitions of “as complete a representation as may be possible of the great modern masters — American and European — from Cézanne to the present day.”
I searched for “Africa” on the MoMA site. The first listing was The Short Century, a 2002 exhibition by the late, great curator Okwui Enwezor. It was an exhibition, now nearly twenty years old that was based precisely upon addressing this aspect of the western canon that I, two decades later, was puzzling. The Short Century was a sprawling exhibition on modern art in Africa from the era of independence that contextualized the few stars that had burst into the international scene in their respective communities, contexts, art and political histories.
It was essential, as all his work was, not just for his unselfconsciously global center, his unselfconsciously global canon, but for how it upended the very structures of the canon. “Okwui already wanted to challenge the western gaze in its own field; to deconstruct the discourse about art, not solely in Africa, but internationally,” Simon Njami, the gifted curator, writer, and publisher of Revue Noire wrote.
“In Okwui’s vision of the post-colonial, we must move beyond mere inclusion, expanding the matrix of culture and identity beyond any single line of thought” Naomi Beckwith, newly named curator at the Guggenheim wrote following his death. “Many museological and art-historical narratives have been thrown into crisis over the past several decades, but Okwui’s post-colonial critique discounted the superficial need for a few new ones. What we need, in his estimation, is a restructuring of our conceptions of history and culture. Where some championed taste, he championed concepts; where others championed inclusivity, he championed alternative criteria.”
And this is what we see in the building of the MoMA: this alternate way of engaging with art history and the collection. There is so much farther to go, but this reconfiguration of a museum to be less linear, to not simply replicate the step by step, always repeated, white-washed history of centralized art is important.
Enwezor’s Short Century exhibition had traveled from Germany to Chicago and to MoMA. But it was exhibited not at the central MoMA on Fifth Avenue where I sat googling, but at MoMA PS1, the contemporary art incubator in Queens. There are major, notable, and visible differences between the two spaces.
The following day I went to MoMA PS1. The building is a converted school-house and it maintains the traces of it. The building is smaller. The staff wear sweatshirts and scruffier, funkier haircuts. When I visited, the museum in Queens had a deep dive exhibition on incarceration, it had exhibitions from the Studio Museum in Harlem fellows. It tends to have more political exhibitions than the MoMA on Fifth Avenue, many of which, like last year’s Theater of Operations on the Iraq war have been mired in controversy.
Like you, like me, both MoMA and MoMA PS1 embody their aesthetic and institutional genealogies: a series of happenings over decades that led to what I encountered in their physicalization, in their presence. MoMA was started by three wealthy white women in 1929, among them Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. The intentions were “to challenge the conservative policies of traditional museums” and to grant New York “the greatest museum of modern art in the world.” You can feel this — the ambition, the desire for newness, the dependence and intertwine with old money, and the canon, which until recent years was decidedly white and male. From its floor to ceiling windows overlooking high-rises, its expensive real estate, the bright white lights in sprawling, spacious, cavernous gallery spaces, the MoMA on Fifth Avenue is decidedly elite in every way. This is a contemporary cathedral of culture; with a board made up of billionaires. The Museum’s sculpture garden stands now where one of the Rockefeller homes once stood, at the time it was one of the most ornate mansions in New York.
MoMA PS1, on the other hand, housed in a schoolhouse, was the dream child of Alanna Heiss, the daughter of school teachers. She was an activist for experimental art exhibitions in the 1970s, turning disused spaces in the city into impromptu galleries. PS1 only merged with MoMA in 2000, when PS1 had financial issues and MoMA wished to tap into the avant-garde. At the end of a seven year transitional period, Heiss was pushed to retire. The tensions I felt between the monolithic central, the power of the MoMA, and the question of innovation, are in fact embedded into the structure and history of these museums. (History is always tangible, we can parse the details later, but the traces of the relationships linger in spaces.)
It felt noteworthy, the continuing division of the types of exhibitions held at the central MoMA and the “edgier” PS1. It felt noteworthy that Enwezor’s prescient and somewhat clairvoyant critique of the canon was housed not in the central MoMA but in the somewhat peripheral, or, perhaps, the avant-garde, more forward thinking, contemporary art space at PS1.
It felt a bit like the simultaneous truth and falsity of the center-periphery model. The “center” is the center perhaps mostly because it says it is, and so it acts like it. See the arrogance of the Louvre and the British Museum aiming to contain all the world’s knowledge, and the blindness of the canon of Modern art at MoMA centered on only two continents.
In fact, the center of the world is everywhere (it’s a sphere). Anywhere can be one’s own center. And Stuart Hall theorized on the demise of the center-periphery model when he wrote that the art world was already, rather, a set of interlocking centers. Yet, marginalization is real. That is why the MoMA is upending itself, because the truth of the repression and exclusion of certain voices has finally broken through. And MoMA PS1 feels like a lingering manifestation of that. It felt like the people can say whatever they want, as long as they are only talking to themselves. I learned later though, of many complaints by artists at the suppression of their dissent, so, even here the people cannot in fact say whatever they want.
The work of decolonizing these institutions is achingly slow because it is foundational. The museums are literally built on and of and for these ideas of centrality, exclusivity, the canon, elitism, segregation. Breaking open these frameworks will feel like awakening: pressing at the edges of the world as we know it, until they crumble and we realize reality is infinite, and the only limitations were in our mind. It can be dizzying, and frightening, before we finally feel the freedom.
Because this is the era of the internet, it is reasonable to question how important esteemed, canonical institutions are. They are fascinating in their simultaneous centrality and also their peripherality. Are museums still relevant as purveyors of culture? Of prestige? So much that is relevant is said elsewhere, and yet the museums still stand, in the center of town, gilded, golden, marble. Perhaps they are simply conversing amongst themselves, just like every other canon and community is conversing amongst themselves. And in time they render themselves irrelevant, if they don’t keep up. I sometimes wonder if there is a point anymore of speaking of the canon at all. What does it mean to be canonical today? As my conversation with my yogi friend with whom I share one canon, but no other, showed.
Imperialism is based on the myth of centrality. The Louvre saw itself as the “Center of the Universe.” When I was in Paris, I was staying with a photographer who runs a collective of immigrant artists in France. She asked me why I was even going to the Louvre; she hadn’t been there in years.
I went searching for Decolonisons les Arts, an essay collection bringing together renowned voices including Kader Attia and Agnes Varga on this question. I stopped in a bookshop on Rue de Rivoli, across from the Tuileries with its Ferris wheel and expansive gardens, and the sprawling marble palace that houses the Louvre. They didn’t have the book in stock and when I asked if they could order it, the cashier scoffed a bit, and told me: only if I paid in advance. What would we do with such a book if you didn’t come to collect it? She asked. But then she offered to search if the book was available anywhere else in town. Dozens and dozens of bookshops were carrying it, including one around the block from the flat where I was staying overlooking the Buttes-Chaumont. If this knowledge is everywhere, but not in the center, is the center even the center anymore? Do museums with their stagnant, redundant collections matter?
If you are part of a group that is called other, a group that does not get the chance to be center stage, build your own stage, and make them see you, Beyoncé said in her graduation address last year, and I hear this all the time. I don’t want a seat at the table, your table has always been oppressive, give me a cushion by the seashore and I will lay down and rest is a tweet I read once.
But still, art institutions are bastions of knowledge and any space that presents knowledge is informing how visitors and viewers will see and think and adjust their brain and their way of seeing the world; it’s why representation matters, deeply. Why exposure matters. Even in the internet age; in the time of covid, tangibility matters profoundly. None of the shows I thought I would like did I resonate with when I came into contact with them physically; and things off my radar were what moved me when I encountered them. The world is much vaster than our screens. The art world is much vaster than the canon. Can we build a canon of this vastness?
We all have a personal canon. We all have an aesthetic genealogy, a history of consumption that led to us here, now, looking like we do, thinking how we do, valuing what we do, speaking as we do. Everything we are in conversation with, consciously or not, whether we remember it or not is in us, is here. We create our selves, we change our selves when we change our consumption.
Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks eloquently on and advocates for the personal canon of the artist. Obscure poets who change the rhythm of our thoughts are as relevant as the dead white guys we also sometimes read.
I think of orality and Thich Nhat Hanh who wrote: “at one time you were a mountain, you were a cloud. This is not poetry. This is science.” And, “A flower, like everything else, is made entirely of non-flower elements. The whole cosmos has come together in order to help the flower manifest herself. The flower is full of everything except one thing: a separate self, a separate identity.”
Knowledge sharing can be based on the understanding that we all have our own beautiful mosaic of influences. And it’s not just information; it’s epistemologies, it’s ways of knowing.
Can our global canon embrace this?
Just as I was beginning to write this essay, I was reading a collection of Borges’ writings On Mysticism, something else I picked up in my brief trip to New York.
I stumbled across his piece The Library of Babel. It begins: “The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries… From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below — one after another, endlessly.”
“When it was announced that the library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy,” he begins. But delight turned soon to overwhelm. “Like all the men of the Library, in my younger days I traveled; I have journeyed in quest of a book, perhaps the catalog of catalogs.” Or perhaps the canon, which will tell us what to consider amongst this vastness, I mused. “This much is known: for every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense and incoherency,” he wrote, which feels familiar in the information age.
He then explores all the various ways of engaging with this infinite, and the madness of each of them. Some wander the library looking for a single truth; some lose their mind and commit suicide; some try to purge the library of the nonsense; none of which seem to realize that this is the thing itself:
The library is infinite, and we can engage with it however we want.
A museum built and oriented around this may teach the babies therefore to engage with reality with the same incredible vastness; the same endlessness. Not to approach it with the failed attempt to contain it all; but with the generative and expansive way of knowing: fueled by curiosity, proceeding up and down; through reason, yes, but also intuition; emotion and logic, chronology and kairos. There’s no wrong way to go. Glissant, who wrote on the archipelagic museum, also spoke of utopia as continuing dialogue. And in a life that is alive, we are perpetually transforming, so, we can learn in the same way: through permeability, orality, acknowledging we are each walking libraries: endlessly vast, perpetually shifting and transmuting and becoming, and we can build spaces as transitional and continuous. As we do, the museum of injury can become the museum of healing and eventually, as tends to follow: the museum of liberation, full of butterflies, and our selves, floating, flying, becoming, and all the way alive.
Allyn Gaestel is a writer and artist. She has written for the New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Guernica, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Berlin Quarterly, Intense Art Magazine, Very Vary Veri of the Harvard School of Design, among many others. She is at work on her first book, a lyric novel. Her website has a full portfolio: AllynGaestel.com
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