Heather Mac Donald on two new exhibits at the Met

February 17, 2022 • 1:15 pm

Of course Heather Mac Donald‘s a right-winger, but don’t ignore her writings. How else would you learn about these two new exhibits at the Met?  And she’s a good writer who has interesting things to say. I’ve read her last two books, The War on Cops and The Diversity DelusionEven if you’re on the opposite side politically, she’s the enemy who has the best arguments that you need to know.

Together with the shenanigans at Chicago’s Art Institute, this gives a good idea of what’s going to happen to art museums (and art instruction) in the near future: all art will be made to fit an ideological narrative.  That reminds me of Soviet-style art, which of course was dreadful and deadly, and takes away one of the values of art: to be “heterodox”.  From now on, there will be only two kinds of art: art that supports the oppressor, and art that supports the oppressed. Even the still-life paintings of the Dutch masters fall into one of these classes (the former, of course).

Plus, you would never read this stuff in the New York Times or Washington Post! Click screenshot for an edifying read:

It’s a long but entertaining piece, and deals with the shows “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met”, as well “The African Origin of Civlization.”  I’ll just give a few quotes to show what we art lovers will be facing in the next ten or fifty years.

On the Dutch show:

Thus, the commentary accompanying “In Praise of Painting” wearily notes that “of course” there are “blind spots in the story these particular acquisitions tell. Colonialism, slavery, and war—major themes in seventeenth-century Dutch history—are scarcely visible here.” It is hard to know who is more at fault, in the Met’s view: the artists or the art lovers who collected their work. Few seventeenth-century Dutch paintings treat of “colonialism, slavery, and war,” and fewer still approach the technical mastery of the Dutch canon.

This one, about Dutch still-life paintings, really burns my onions, but Mac Donald describes it with the appropriate snark:

“In Praise of Painting” adopts that strategy as well. “Still life paintings pictured the bounty provided by newly established Dutch trade routes and the Republic’s economic success, while omitting the human cost of colonial warfare and slavery,” the accompanying wall text points out. The curators do not reveal how a still life painter should portray the “human cost of colonial warfare and slavery.” As even the curators admit, a still life by definition focuses on “things without people.” The Dutch masters, who brought the nascent genre to peak gorgeousness, may have delighted in the dragon-fly translucence of grapes and the somber radiance of silver and cut glass; they may have taught us to see beauty in a kitchen’s bounty. Not good enough. They should have anticipated twenty-first-century concerns about racial justice and revised their subject matter accordingly.

and

The museum’s benefactors also receive a feminist whack. “Only one picture painted by an early modern Dutch woman has entered the collection over the course of nearly 150 years,” the curators scold. Which Jacob van Ruisdael or Gerard ter Borch would the curators forego for a painting chosen on identity grounds? There simply weren’t as many females as males painting in the seventeenth century. Today, there are; women have unfettered access to art schools and galleries. The Met’s founders bought its female-painted Dutch Baroque canvas—a towering arrangement of peonies, tulips, roses, and marigolds—in 1871. Sexism did not prevent that addition to the museum’s original holdings, but sexism, we are to believe, prevented follow-up purchases.

Doesn’t the painting below reek with colonialism? All that cheese, fruit, and bread purloined from Dutch colonies!

A banquet still life: Nicolaes Gillis, Laid Table, 1611, oil on wood, 59 x 79 cm, Private collection. https://www.wga.hu/html_m/g/gillis/laidtabl.html

On the African Origin of Civilization exhibit:  This one has the theme that our civilization really began in Sub-Saharan Africa, whose denizens went to Egypt—envisioned as a black civilization—and then left Egypt to go South again. Egypt, rather than Greece and Rome, is seen as the origin of many of the founding and sustaining principles of the West. You can read Mac Donald’s take for yourself; suffice it to say that she’s no fan of Afrocentrism.

What bothers me most about the exhibit are two things. First, it appears to rely heavily on the Afrocentric scholarship of Cheikh Anta Diop (1923-1986), a Senegalese historian and writer whose work has largely been rejected, even by black historians. Mac Donald, for instance, reports such a dismissal by Kwame Anthony Appiah, a scholar of African history:

Contrary to the Met’s designation of Diop as “influential,” outside the mainstream is where his scholarship has remained. His oeuvre is a marginal presence in African or Egyptian studies, except in the most fervent bastions of Afrocentrism, such as Temple University’s Department of Africology and African American Studies (which also offers a course on Ebonics). Frank Snowden, a Howard University classicist, showed definitively in 1989 that Diop, in Snowden’s words, “distorts his classical sources,” including Herodotus. Oxford University Press’s African History (2007) notes that Diop’s theories have been “convincingly rejected by archeologists and historians on empirical grounds.” Kwame Anthony Appiah called Diop an example of “romantic racialism.”

And yet Diop’s ideas are the very nucleus of this exhibit!

Worse, the exhibit dishonestly distorts Diop’s own words to buttress its Afrocentric thesis:

The show is based on the writings of Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop (1923–1986). Diop held that ancient Egypt was black, that ancient Egypt and modern Sub-Saharan Africa are part of a unified black civilization, and that this black African civilization, not Greece or Rome, is the source of Western civilization. The exhibit opens with a covertly doctored quote from Diop: “The history of Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until African historians connect it with the history of Egypt” (more on that doctoring below).

. . . The original Diop quote with which the Met opens its “African Origin” show, before the Met doctored it, was more explicit about Diop’s racial agenda. The actual sentence reads: “The history of Black Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until African historians dare to connect it with the history of Egypt” (emphasis added). The Met removed the words in italics, underplaying the Afrocentric angle and smoothing over Diop’s own acknowledgment of how outside the mainstream his scholarship was.

If Mac Donald isn’t making this up, it stands as an example of arrant dishonesty on the part of the Met, for they didn’t even note that the quote had been changed. And of course the change wasn’t accidental: it was made to support the centrality of his Afrocentric thesis.

Yep, this is what we’re in for. I think the only way for us art fans to deal with this trend is, when you go to a museum, do not read the labels. In fact, don’t read anything at all!

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Socialist realism! Lots of paintings at this site:

9 thoughts on “Heather Mac Donald on two new exhibits at the Met

  1. Heather’s article is distressing indeed, demonstrating that “The Great Awokening” has penetrated into our finest repository of treasures and wonders (last year’s three-part series from PBS entitled Inside the Met having prefigured much of what she discusses). Diop was an Afrocentric crank, whose spurious pseudo-scholarship (and that of his acolytes) was subjected to withering criticism, more than two decades ago, by Stephen Howe (not a conservative) in Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes, published by Britain’s left-of-center Verso books.

  2. To be fair, there is a large dose of realistic socialism in the “Bad Grade” painting: Nine people in a room to accomplish a task that could be reasonably undertaken by two.

  3. Again, the parallels to creationism are striking. How is this gross distortion of history (Afrocentrism) that much different from “Creation Science” and it’s gross distortions of natural history? How is this Diop fellow any different to Henry Morris or Duane Gish?

    Imagine if the Museum of Natural History included the scholarship of Morris, Gish and Michael Behe.
    Would this be acceptable? Not it would not, and it would never be allowed to happen.

    The Creationists know this and have established their own ridiculous museum of natural history in Kentucky. I’m not sure if anyone goes there, but at least I know that I’m not forced to read blatant untruths in the real Museum of Natural History.

    If right-wing distorters of history and science are not allowed to take over cherished institutions, then neither should left-wing distorters. Let them establish their own alternative history museums if they wish.

  4. Mac Donald’s piece is excellent, and the Met’s hypocrisy is repellent:

    None of the ritual objects in the African Origin show was created by a female, or we would have heard about it. Yet the Met condemned its own sexism for failing to collect more female Dutch Baroque painters. Power objects are owned and handled exclusively by Malian males, a privilege which undoubtedly gives those males even more power with respect to females. Nineteenth-century British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton described female genital mutilation in his 1856 travel memoir, The First Footsteps in East Africa. That reality is left out of the show, which adopts the Diopian view of Africa’s matriarchal equality and harmony.

    And I strongly suspect that she is right on the money with her prediction of what the Met’s new wing will have in store for us.

  5. Heather MacDonald’s “The Diversity Delusion” is excellent: well-written, well-informed, and forceful. She has also written on the march of DEI doctrine in classical music, at:
    https://www.city-journal.org/classical-music-under-racial-attack-part-1 and
    https://www.city-journal.org/classical-music-under-racial-attack-part-2 .

    My own favorite example of classical music wokery (which MacDonald doesn’t mention) was the 2020
    pronunciamento by the University of Chicago music department, which called, inter alia, for defunding the police. I was hoping that the Chicago Police Department would respond by demanding the abolition of the viola clef, dotted notes, and the English Horn, but they passed up the opportunity to do so.

    1. I, a classical musician, second your endorsement of MacDonald’s two-part series on classical music’s “suicide pact,” as she calls it.

  6. Heather is on the money here. She’s the most vociferous anti-woke warrior about after James Lindsay (who is a tad bonkers, often).
    Her thoughts (available elsewhere, whenever she opens her mouth) on gender and how the way we handle sexuality should go back to the 1950s where it belongs, but on some issues she’s right.

    I don’t mind some conservatives if they’re not yelling about Jay-sus and fambly vaaalues. Their ideas about morality p** me off though.
    D.A.
    NYC

  7. Honestly I rarely think much of the ‘editorial’ descriptions of art anyway. I go to art museums maybe once every month or two, and I do read the plaques that tell me who made it, when, and what it’s called. I’ll also try to get informed as to the ‘who’ or ‘what scene’ of the art.

    But beyond that, even the artist’s own comments about the social or artistic meaning of their work often just sounds like ill-formed dreck to me. So a museum’s second-hand social commentary about a piece of art made centuries ago is like triple secret bonus dreck.

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