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Every museum enacts a ritual, ranging from the subtle to the overt. Yet, what makes each museum unique is the individual meaning that is created from said ritual. As is the case with the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Weatherspoon Art Museum, while the museum’s presentation of its collection may appear to be objective, it is in fact enacting meanings of its own. Specifically, the Weatherspoon is promoting a subtle progressivism in the realm of art’s social implications, advocating for lessened discrimination on all fronts and promoting changes in the art historical canon.
Altogether, while the Weatherspoon is creating an identity that revolves around the facilitation of positive change in art historical discourse, the verity of this identity is shaky and is enacted in an entirely non-controversial manner, thus leading to a larger underlying issue of insubstantiality lying beneath a facade of progress.
Firstly, analyzing the ways in which an institution such as an art museum constructs its ritualistic aura is necessary to the understanding of the subsequent purpose of this construction.
To begin with, as soon as the museum goer is confronted by a large metal gate at the entrance to the sculpture garden, they are immediately made aware that they are entering an entirely separate realm from the one they just occupied. Walking around the sculpture garden engrosses the visitor in the way they are able to so casually walk amongst the sculptures present. By placing these sculptures at the same level as the visitor, a far more relaxed feeling creates a deeper susceptibility to that which they will view once inside.
Once again, another space is delineated by the immense marble columns the visitor must walk through just prior to entering the Weatherspoon–the museum goer becomes subconsciously aware that they are infiltrating a ritualistic space. The awe that this ritual is intended to produce is most exemplified by the magnetic pull the visitor’s eyes inevitably suscept to so as to marvel at the open, ovular atrium encircled by a small sculptural motif at the museum’s entrance. White walls and immense minimalist marble columns surround the viewer in every direction. Of the scant places there are to sit, all are similarly hyper-modern and created from marble; rather than suggesting comfort they inflect a sense of officiality that requires proper decorum. Not to link this to an unwelcoming or uninviting feeling, it more so emphasizes to the visitor that this is a prestigious institution they are partaking in and that they must follow this example of respectable comportment when observing the Weatherspoon’s collection.
In order to follow this example, it is best for the visitor to comply with the path the museum expects them to follow when observing their exhibits. There is a distinct path the Weatherspoon would like its visitors to take because in following this path each museum goer is in essence enacting the proper ritual. An example of this is clearly found in the less than subtle sign stating “Exhibition Continues” with an arrow pointing out the correct direction to follow. Aside from the intended pilgrimage each visitor is meant to enact, there is an even more distinct ritualism present at the Weatherspoon. While the manner of this museum’s ritual is constantly evolving as the museum is continually cycling through different exhibits, the collection is always anchored by Nick Cave’s Soundsuit and Alison Saar’s Compton Nocturne. These pieces lie at the end of the main hallway on each of the museum’s two floors and are permanently on display, unlike nearly everything else at the Weatherspoon. These works serve as the anchors of the collection in that, while everything else around them may be fluctuating, these pieces provide familiarity. Their immense size and stand alone placement further assert these works as the cornerstones within this ritualistic context. The importance of all this analysis lies in the fact that this is all purposefully designed by the museum with the intent of establishing the Weatherspoon’s role as a prestigious institution. The architecture, interior design, intended circumambulation, and placement of landmark works all serve to inform every visitor of the power and influence this museum possesses. It essentially primes every museum goer to trust the meanings they are being inundated with, and in an incredibly masterful fashion seeing as this message only registers within a visitor’s subconscious.
Moving onto the message that the Weatherspoon is espousing, I was pleasantly surprised by the relatively progressive social messages the museum chooses to highlight. Examples of the social justice the museum is propagating can be found in the anti-discriminatory implications of Nick Cave’s Soundsuit sculpture as well as the critical displays on the female “muse” and the indictment of Primitivism. Another movement for positive change that the museum supported is that of environmental activism, as was clearly advocated for in the collection’s “Art and Sustainability” exhibit. Most prominently however was the immense “Pan American Modernism” exhibit that is the current centerpiece of the museum’s displayed collection. It explicitly states within the exhibit label that, “Rather than perpetuating a discourse centered solely on modern art in the United States–a bias that tends to diminish and polarize works from Latin America–Pan American Modernism… construct[s] a fuller understanding of modernism as an intercontinental phenomenon across the Americas in the twentieth century.” The directness of such a statement clearly shows that the Weatherspoon wants to help alter discourse so as to be more culturally inclusive. Altogether, the Weatherspoon puts forth an image of forward-thinking in the realms of social and environmental activism, yet the question remains as to whether this pioneering characterization is genuine or insubstantial.
Now that it has been established that the canonical structure the Weatherspoon displays to the viewing public is one tending towards inclusivity in the modern art world, the task remains of analyzing the verity and impact of this constructed canon. Two primary examples of the Weatherspoon going against its progressive intentions lie within its treatment of Pan American Modernism and the subject matter of Willem de Kooning. Firstly, in terms of the truthfulness of this progressive message, some issues immediately arise upon deeper analysis of the “Pan American Modernism” exhibit. The intention of this exhibit was made clear by the exhibit label– to move away from a Western centrality in art historical discourse–and while the inclusion of so many Latin American countries is a step in the right direction, the fact still remains that much of this exhibit still exemplifies Eurocentrism in its analysis of Latin American art. This issue that runs through much of the exhibit only becomes apparent when reading the individual labels for some of the displayed works. For instance, I first became aware of this Eurocentric tendency upon reading within the label for Wilfredo Lam’s Untitled (1950) that, “Lam spent the majority of his artistic career in Europe, studying in the 1930s alongside Pablo Picasso and befriending Parisian Surrealists.” The only biographical element deemed worthy to include in the painting’s description was that which revolves around the Parisian elite.
A comparison such as this could be interesting to analyze in an exhibit about the interchange of European and Latin American innovations, yet that is not the stated intent of the Weatherspoon’s “Pan American Modernism” exhibit. Likewise, the Weatherspoon goes on to say that Enrique Grau’s Portrait of a Woman (1955), “…shares certain stylistic affinities with portraits produced by Pablo Picasso in the mid 1950s…” The label then further emphasizes that the artists were independent of each other’s influence, thus creating further confusion in my mind as to why this random detail was necessary. This creation of an “affinity” between the two artists relates back to Clifford’s analysis of the MoMA’s creation of an affinity between the tribal and the modern. Clifford deeply emphasizes that “the tribal and modern artifacts are similar only in that they do not feature the pictorial illusionism or sculptural naturalism that came to dominate Western European art after the Renaissance,” and that the affinity the MoMA created only came about through “careful selection and the maintenance of a specific angle of vision.” Ultimately, modern art museums such as the MoMA, and in this case the Weatherspoon, are attempting to create relationships that don’t exist between Western and non-Western art because the art of the West provides a sense of familiarity and serves as the standard of the main art historical canon. On a similar note, an untitled sketch of a garden by Diego Rivera (1940s) is described within its label as similar to “images of pollard trees painted by Vincent van Gogh in the late nineteenth century…” The blatant randomness of this reference to van Gogh astounds me. Rivera was sketching the dry, cactus-laden landscape of central Mexico while van Gogh was depicting the Dutch countryside. The inclusion of this unseen comparison suggests that the name of a world renowned European artist, van Gogh, was simply included so as to add familiarity for a largely Eurocentric audience who would likely know far more about Vincent van Gogh than Diego Rivera. This list of unnecessary comparisons between Latin American artists and their European counterparts all points to an idea put forth by Partha Mitter when she stated that non-Western art within the Vasarian canon, “owe their presence more to what they mean to the West than for their intrinsic worth.”3 Another issue in the Weatherspoon’s factual presentation lies in the excerpt about Willem de Kooning placed adjacent to de Kooning’s Woman (1950). In focusing on de Kooning’s three “Woman” series, the Weatherspoon solely chooses to document the evolution of de Kooning’s painted form.
This practice goes against that which Carol Duncan advocated for in her article, “The MoMA’s Hot Mamas.” This label within the Weatherspoon reflects the similar practices Duncan criticized about the MoMA. Following the popularity of Abstract Expressionism, art historians and critics, the likes of Clement Greenberg, put a sole emphasis on form with a complete rejection of the meaning to be drawn from content. Duncan acknowledges the importance of form in the interpretation of works, yet she condemns the lack of scholasticism on subject matter.“ Meanings ought to be drawn from both the form and the content which the Weatherspoon, in the case of its analysis of Willem de Kooning, neglects to do. In so doing, the Weatherspoon has ignored the problems of sexism inherent in de Kooning’s work. While the Weatherspoon presents itself as analytical of the meanings behind the female form in its label for “The Female Muse,” this purposeful negligence of de Kooning’s sexism goes against this stated intent. Similar to the Eurocentrism present in the “Pan American Modernism” exhibit, the Weatherspoon is not adhering to its claimed intent in addressing sexism in the art world.
Not only does the Weatherspoon sometimes neglect to follow through with its progressive intentions, it also creates its forward-thinking message in as non-controversial of a manner as possible. Returning to the “Pan-American Modernism” exhibit, there is ample opportunity in this genre to directly confront the social ills and subsequent liberal ideals that arose from the suffering in Latin America at this time. However, instead of discussing the strong Communist beliefs held by the likes of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and the impact this held on their art, there is little to no mention of political ideology. This lack of oppositionality is also easily found in one of the museum’s more potentially inflammatory images, that of Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s Obrero en huelga, aseninado (1934). The image is a graphic close up of an assassinated worker on strike, yet rather than delving into the horror depicted or the overt social activism this image was intended to incite, the label besides the image instead delves solely into the artist’s career. The label finally concludes by stating, “…the image brings material form to the social interests explored by artists working in post-revolution Mexico…” thus equating an assassination to the non-controversial concept of “social interests.” It is no coincidence that of all Bravo’s images present in the exhibit this photograph had the most biographical label entirely unrelated to the image itself. I can sympathize with why the Weatherspoon must keep its ideals subtle and not oppositional, after all its parent organization is the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Seeing as this institution is representative of a much larger university, there is bound to be a degree of censorship in the Weatherspoon’s displays. In spite of this reasoning, the museum’s watered-down progressivism remains problematic. The Weatherspoon’s canonical progressivism is merely a subtle undertone in the displaying of its collection, thus taking away from much of the potential impact the museum could be creating. While the Weatherspoon’s subtle activism is a step in the right direction, it is problematic in that the viewing public is still entirely comfortable when admiring these displays, and when the populace is comfortable they won’t facilitate any form of substantial change. Ultimately, if activism continues to move at this slow of a pace, the issues inherent in canonical tellings of art history will remain uncontested for years and years to come.
In conclusion, the messages a museum promotes may not be the ones it actually conveys. While the Weatherspoon does a fantastic job at establishing prominence and reliability through its creation of a subconscious ritual for every museum goer, it doesn’t excel in maintaining its reformist intentions. Whether this failure arises due to a direct neglect of the museum’s stated ideals or through extensive non-controversiality, the potential impact of activist ideals has largely been lost. Ultimately, the promotion of egalitarian ideals must be overt to catalyze substantial change, and the Weatherspoon’s ineffective progressivism may be doing more harm than good.
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