History, Bonaparte once observed, is a set of lies agreed upon. Thus when art-world eggheads bemoan "the end of art history," or mourn the passing of the progressive historical narrative, or invoke unreadable dead German philosophers, they are really just misty for the not-so-old days when everyone agreed.
Until the '60s there really was a canon, an agreed story of art that began roughly with the Pyramids and, under the influence of Clement Greenberg, ran through Abstract Expressionism. And then came the Barbarians: upstarts, newcomers, women, minorities, a surfeit of newly minted MFAs, all equipped with sharp elbows, all bent on staking their claim to a corner of the art world. Armed with the outsider's weapon of choice, the query "what is art?", they changed the rules to include themselves and their pet enthusiasms. Minimalism, conceptualism, pop art, op art, body art, performance art, site-specific art, neoexpressionism, photorealism--all had their 15 seconds and, more to the point, their art-world support system of galleries and collectors and advocates. Even folk art, that most ghettoized of artistic genres, was no longer relegated to the netherworld of the so-so sciences, forced to slum with ethnography and anthropology and dusty mummies. As of three years ago, one academic counted no fewer than 135 U.S. galleries devoted to peddling "folk" or "outsider" art.
But the most important advocates--and beneficiaries--of this expanded definition of "art" have been building-rich, collection-poor regional museums. Museums like the Dallas Museum of Art, which has virtually dedicated itself to the proposition that art can be anything: candy on the floor, or little piles of pollen, or even, as in the current Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art exhibit, tourist-trade tchotchkes. The result is a Neiman Marcus fortnight masquerading as a major museum show, a corporate PR job that raises the commodification of folk art to new heights, and last but probably not least, a cynical, cheap, politically correct bid to raise the DMA's profile and membership in the Hispanic community.
To ward off anthrax-laden billets, let me be clear. I do not mourn the passing of the dead White Males' monopoly. Anyone nostalgic for the days of Greenbergian hegemony should wander by the Meadows Museum's Bold Strokes show and see the sterile, one-dimensional art that the establishment once uniformly championed. "Naïve" or "outsider" or "folk" art is not only legitimate art, it is one of the brighter spots of 20th-century art history. The trick with folk art, however, is to apply a rigid connoisseurship to the task. Applying Goethe's marvelously snotty definition, since the "common run of people are satisfied with ornament," it is up to the connoisseur to "appreciate what is simply beautiful." The curator of folk art must separate the very best from all the rest, ruthlessly pruning material that is of chiefly sociological or commercial interest.
Alas, Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art doesn't even try to go connoshing. For every masterpiece of the potter's art--and there are a few on display--there are two or three faux-naif efforts. Some artisans seem little more than craftsmen endlessly repeating themselves. Others seem a virtual case study in the commodification of arts and crafts, churning out efforts less to satisfy some inner compulsion than to meet market demand.
In her marvelous study of the marketing of American folk artist Edgar Tolson, The Temptation, author Julia S. Ardery relates the tale of how Appalachian women were induced to make and market folk quilts in the 1960s. It seems that one of the organizing do-gooders, a Congressman's wife, copied a quilt in the collection of the Smithsonian and showed it to the Appalachian women, who soon incorporated that design into their repertoire although they had never used it before. Thus are artisans not only invited to revive history--an ethically gray area--but even to "act out a palatable and prefabricated version of traditionality."
Many of the artisans in Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art seem to be similarly acting out tradition for the export market. Indeed, the notion of "tradition" is sufficiently flexible to embrace old men decorating clay pots with non-indigenous designs, colors and materials, young women faithfully reproducing ancient designs through the ancient technique of black pottery, and young men using black pottery techniques and papier-mâché to produce strikingly modern day-of-the-dead figurines. Worse, the exhibition makes no distinctions among crafts, suggesting remarkable feats of clay are no more valuable than the anonymous embroidered shifts favored by generations of University of Texas sorority girls.
The installation leaves no cliché unemployed. Objects are presented alongside selected portraits of peasants, mostly aged, toiling outside Third World shanties. (You'd never guess from the presentation that the show contains work by artisans such as the wealthy Castillo clan, whose wares can be purchased for small fortunes by those willing to brave the wilds of Neiman Marcus.) The message is clear: Artisans are simple people, guardians and repositories of wisdom, immune from what Todd Gitlin once called "the corruptions of modern urban life." Badly edited wall text, full of grammatical errors and misspellings, goes on about the sponsor's efforts to retrieve and record these indigenous art forms, to teach them to new generations through workshops and to raise the artists' standard of living through helping them market their wares. And so we are left with a portrait of Banamex, Mexico's largest and most powerful banking empire, as a sort of Mexican Peace Corps, busily organizing workshops and collectives and a virtual cottage industry of folk-art exporters. The puffing is so relentless that the ethnographic impulse is stripped of all romantic glamour, leaving in its place only social work. The viewer is left asking not, "Is this art?" but, "Is this even anthropology?"
The DMA apparently recognized the show's shortcomings. According to museum insiders, the DMA originally turned down this exhibition but reversed itself after being leaned on by community leaders.
Next time, it should stand firm.
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