An aspirational goal for teaching (more music)

Andy Narell frequently plays and teaches with young people. Here he is visiting with the UNT steel band, playing with their admirable jazz ensemble. Everyone here is making music at a high level, but compare the affect-expressions, body language, everything-of the kids on the left side of the screen (who are actually wearing uniforms, symbols of identity suppression and servility) with those on the right (who are not). Which would you like your students to display?

How do we make this happen in, say, a statistics class?

The third King

Balthasar is black, and it’s a good thing

Ravenna mosaic of the Magi

Today is Twelfth Night, Epiphany, the Christian feast commemorating an uncorroborated legend in one of the Gospels (Matthew 2, vv 1-9) of a visit by a group of Magi to the infant Jesus. By AD 500 the unnumbered Persian astrologers had become three kings. These mosaics from imperial Ravenna still depict them in Persian dress, but that knowledge was lost in the Dark Ages. Nobody in Western Europe in say 1100 AD had any idea what a Zoroastrian astrologer might have been like, so the shift is understandable.

What is far more puzzling is why one of the kings – usually Balthasar, sometimes Caspar – should be often painted as black. Continue reading “The third King”

Museum outreach and accueil

Art museums all over are much concerned to broaden their audiences across racial, ethnic, and age cohorts, with innovative programming, better labels and signs, docent tours, more seating in the galleries, and other ways to make visitors, but especially new visitors, feel qualified to attend and welcome.  They have a long way to go, but the trend is in the right direction.

One interface important to a good visit experience is a café or restaurant. This is a little tricky, because food preferences differ across income and education strata, and between kids and grownups. But it’s not that tricky, and not an excuse for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s highlight-reel own goal, the new In Situ restaurant. Continue reading “Museum outreach and accueil”

The art bubble

A David Hockney painting has sold for $90m , and it couldn’t happen* to a nicer guy. Actually I have no idea whether Hockney is nice, but he’s certainly an endlessly interesting, provocative artist with whose work I never tire of engaging.

*In fact it didn’t happen to him: I think he’s doing OK, but this sale was by a speculator/collector and it didn’t put this awesome sum into the artist’s pocket.

What, though, does this event mean? Philip Kennicott reflects on the event in WaPo. He explores two questions, one right and interesting (how can a painting be worth so much money?) and the other partly wrong (is it right to spend so much on a painting when there are homeless and all the other real needs?). Continue reading “The art bubble”

Museums behaving badly

I love museums. Science museums, history museums, art museums; there’s nothing like looking at real stuff in person. Whether it’s an antique automobile, a big old beetle in a case, or the Ardabil carpet in the V&A, being able to walk around it, get close, and engage on my own time is one of my top-level pleasures.  I’m sure I learned as much natural science in the American Museum of Natural History as a child as I did in school; whenever I’m traveling, I make a beeline for local museums.

The affection is not entirely requited in art museums, mainly  because so many of them transparently disrespect me (and all the other visitors) by pointless, insouciant, arrogant stinginess with the information that makes the art accessible.  This weekend I was at the Huntington, the Getty Villa, and LACMA in LA. The Huntington and the Getty do a pretty good job with long, informative labels that provide context, history, and some guidance about what to attend to in the works on display, but LACMA left me really steamed.

A featured exhibition was several galleries full of contemporary political art by Iranians that reached back to the Shahnameh for analogies and references, a show with appropriate local interest (there are lots of Persians in LA, including refugees from before and after the shah’s overthrow) and in any case an interesting and fruitful concept.   You should go and see it, but unfortunately you will miss a lot unless you’re already hip to recent (and ancient) Iranian history, and can read Farsi. The labels were tiny and short and one after another very political work full of incriptions, signs, and text in Farsi was untranslated. One faceplant in particular seemed to sum up art museums’ worst instincts to make not only the typical visitor, but almost any visitor, feel unqualified and inadequate.

The work, by Koushna Navabi, is a couple of dozen rings in different metallic finishes with the same portrait, a little over an inch each way:

This is the entire label we were offered:

Know whose portrait this is? Only because I’m old enough to almost remember the period, and spent some time in Iran after the coup that overthrew him, I recognized Mohammed Mosaddegh, about whom Wikipedia says “Many Iranians regard Mosaddegh as the leading champion of secular democracy and resistance to foreign domination in Iran’s modern history. Mosaddegh was removed from power in a coup on 19 August 1953, organised and carried out by the CIA at the request of MI6.” In  the oppressive regime of the shah and his SAVAK secret police that followed, Iran’s oil remained in the hands of western oil companies and their US and British protectors. Of course by 1979 this arrangement went off the rails because the Iranians had had enough of it.

Any of that useful in engaging with this work? Or is the (I presume) affectionate but rather obscure pun in the title all you needed? I hung around and asked at least a half-dozen visitors if they knew whose portrait was on the rings; none had any idea. Here’s what the curator thought she was doing with this show; I’m sure her middle-east specialist colleagues were impressed, but an exhibition like this is a lot of work: I guess she just didn’t have a minute to actually think about the visitors who would walk in the door.

Two iconic portraits

An exploited girl and a goddess-queen.

My reaction to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague surprised me. I was expecting to admire this famous work by a great master, the favourite painting of the Dutch. It is indeed technically marvellous. Vermeer was one of the greatest technicians of oil painting ever. My problem with the picture is as a portrait. It’s formally a tronje, a painting of an unidentified and representative human figure. But it’s plainly not a stylised ideal but a portrait of a real girl. She has no name, perhaps (as in the film) a servant paid a few ducats to sit. I find it unflattering, and not by any lack of skill. Newspapers rightly get criticised for printing photos of politicians with their mouths open: everybody looks stupid when caught like this. Vermeer went to enormous trouble, over multiple sittings, to make his subject look dimwitted. She was exophthalmic anyway, and he faithfully reproduced or exaggerated this. The combined effect is disrespectful and exploitative. And to what purpose? Possibly to make a trite contrast with the perfection of the enormous pearl earring lent her for the occasion. Pshaw.

My second portrait is an extreme contrast: Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt for almost 20 years, in Berlin. Again, the extraordinary technical skill of the bust (about two-thirds life size) is indisputable. The effect is remarkable. She is not just beautiful but glamorous: beauty weaponized. (The origins of the word lie in Scottish witchcraft.) For what purpose? The classic glamour photos of Hollywood studio stars were designed to transform their exploited and vulnerable subjects into unattainable objects of sexual desire, in order to sell film tickets. Nefertiti didn’t need that; she was a Pharaoh’s queen already.

The Hollywood stars were metaphorical sex goddesses. Nefertiti was the real thing.

First, the sex part. There is no reason to doubt her depicted beauty. Her husband Amenhotep was portrayed as ugly, with distended belly and elongated limbs, possibly as a result of a congenital condition. So the burden of regal show, and quite likely of day-to-day rule, fell disproportionately on the queen. She rose to the challenge; she even had herself sculpted naked, a radical step in any culture that you can only get away with if you have a great body and total self-confidence.

Second, the goddess. Pharaohs and their consorts were semi-divine personages anyway, on speaking terms with the gods. But Amenhotep IV – Akhenaten – was determined on a religious revolution. He swept away the pantheon, and replaced it by a proto-monotheistic cult of Aten, represented only as the solar disc. The worship of Aten was carried out in courtyard temples open to the sky, not dark labyrinths. The Pharaoh and queen became the unique intermediaries between the people and Aten, and the priests were out of a job. They did not appreciate this, and after Akhenaten’s death staged a successful counter-revolution. His son Tutankhamun (by another wife) was buried surrounded by images of the old pantheon. The Aten cult was forgotten, the new capital at Amarna abandoned. While it lasted Queen Nefertiti was a sacred priest-empress, as near to a goddess as monotheism allows.

Did the cult die? Sigmund Freud for one thought not. He suggested that the Aten religion influenced Jewish monotheism. Archaeologists pooh-pooh this. The Egyptian captivity is generally considered unhistorical; all the evidence points to a Canaanite origin for Judaism. But in that case, where did the story of the Exodus come from? Canaan was often a frontier province of the Egyptian empire. Metropolitan political and cultural upheavals would have filtered there during Akhenaten’s quite long reign (ca. 1350 BCE) . A contribution to early Jewish developments is certainly possible – it’s more believable than the bloodthirsty fantasies of the unread Book of Joshua. Once you ask “Why not one?” the question is hard to put away.

Maybe Nefertiti is still our Queen.

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PS: If you enjoyed my offbeat art history, you might take a look at some older posts on women subjects and great artists: Bernini, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo.

Reasons to carry a decent camera in Chicago, part 43

I love carrying a camera around Chicago for those random moments worth capturing. I rarely do video. But my Lumix FZ300 does a pretty nice job. And Chicago street musicians can sometimes really rock it. If anyone knows this band, please note it in the comments. And yeah, I dropped some bucks into their bin.

Putting museum collections to work

Art museums keep almost all their art in storage and out of view, and then pretend they don’t have it, while charging an arm and a leg to get in to see what they actually show. Tim Schneider, whose weekly column on the business of art in ArtNet is worth following, joins the deaccession debate that has now linked two current controversies: the Metropolitan Museum’s decision to demand out-of-town visitors to pay the full $25 to get in, and the Berkshire Museum’s plan to sell most of its collection to start on a substantially changed mission.

Schneider reports a commonly quoted 10% of major museum collections as being on view, but it’s worse than that: a decade ago at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts it was about 5%,  and at the Met more like 1%.  To be fair, these are object counts, and the artistic (and money) value of what is shown is a much higher fraction of the total, but there is still a Golconda of treasure that isn’t on view and will never be. An important enabler of the rampant misallocation of so much of the world’s plastic arts patrimony into storage vaults is museum accounting rules that permits them to leave the entire collection off the balance sheet, effectively pretending it just isn’t there and in particular, isn’t available to fund programs (and physical expansion) that could put more art in front of more eyes; Schneider admirably concludes “let’s at least seriously consider [emphasis added] how billions of dollars in stored art might be able to help solve some of the crises afflicting art museums around the world.” Indeed.