Heather Mac Donald reviews more art museums

February 19, 2022 • 12:30 pm

Heather Mac Donald is funny and snarky when she goes after the wokeness that is taking over art. In fact no matter what art you mention: music, paintings, novels, plays, and so on—it’s all being Wokeified. That holds not only for older art, but also for newer art, which is minutely scrutinized for ideological purity (think of Spielberg’s new movie version of West Side Story, which, though he tried mightily to filter out the impurity, was still found wanting by Pecksniffs).

Mac Donald’s collection of writings for the City Journal is here, and you may want to read her two-part series on the Wokifying of Music, “Classical Music’s Suicide Pact”, Part I and Part 2.

And as for older art, well you can just forget about it. If your standards are Progressive Leftist purity rather than aesthetics, your art history is going to have to be revised, redacted, or removed, and that’s happening.  The other day I highlighted Mac Donald’s takedowns of two exhibits at the Met, and she’s continuing on with the article below about an exhibit on Hogarth at Tate Britain as well as a new exhibit at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Click to read:

The circumstances of the Tate exhibit did not bode well:

Tate Britain invited 18 consultants from academic identity studies and the contemporary art world to interpret works by the eighteenth-century social critic and satirist William Hogarth, the subject of its exhibit “Hogarth and Europe.”

What happened is exactly what you might expect: the wall cards are pure insanity: an example of people reading into Hogarth ideological messages that they detest—but aren’t even there. There must be a name for this kind of delusion. Psychosis?

One example:

The wall text by guest curator Sonia E. Barrett, a German–Jamaican installation artist, who, according to her Tate bio, “performs furniture to explore themes of race and gender,” is emblematic of the results. The point of a Hogarth self-portrait, Barrett explains, is the chair in which the artist sits as he works on a cartoon for an oil painting. That chair, in Bennett’s view, represents both Hogarth’s sexism and Western slavery. In a treatise on art, Hogarth had praised the female form as the epitome of beauty. And now here he is sitting on a chair that is as shapely as a woman’s body—just like a male chauvinist! “The curvaceous chair literally supports him,” Barrett notes grimly.

Barrett is not through with the chair. She claims that it is “made from timbers shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people.” The next connection will jump out to anyone even remotely acquainted with postcolonial studies: “Could the chair also stand-in [sic] for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?” Honest answer: No. Hogarth had no intention of representing enslaved people by painting himself in his chair; the chance that he was even aware of the wood’s alleged origins is slight.

Seriously! Here’s the painting. The chair didn’t jump out at me, but apparently Hogarth was well acquainted with postcolonial studies:

Thins didn’t fare much better in Amsterda. (I’m leaving out some of the paintings Mac Donald discusses). Even what many regard as one of Rembrandt’s masterpieces, “The Night Watch”, gets criticized for–surprise!–lack of ethnic diversity

Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum has also entered the revisionism business, rewriting 80 of its wall texts to incorporate anticolonial perspectives. As usual, these texts “read the absences” in a painting (to echo deconstructive rhetoric), rather than the presences. Rembrandt’s monumental canvas, The Night Watch, is the artist’s and the museum’s most famous painting. It is a structural tour de force, assembling 34 individuals associated with Amsterdam’s civil guard in various groupings under contrasting sources of light. To a curator dedicated to racial justice, however, the only noteworthy thing about the massive composition is the pigmentation of the subjects’ skin: “As in most other 17th-century works, only white people are seen in this painting.” Yet a “modest community of African people actually lived nearby,” the curators note, whom Rembrandt should have memorialized in his great civic tableau if he had cared about racial diversity—which of course he should have.

Calling Amsterdam’s African community “modest” is undoubtedly an overstatement. If just one of the 34 individuals in the canvas were black, that would correspond proportionally to a 3 percent black population in Amsterdam. By comparison, California’s current population is 6 percent black. There is no chance that blacks made up 3 percent of Amsterdam’s seventeenth-century population; their presence was likely well below 1 percent.

Well, Mac Donald could have used some statistics here, for you’d need to calculate the probability that there would be no black people in the painting given the proportion of blacks in Amsterdam (not known), coupled with the assumption that the company depicted would have been a random selection of Amsterdam’s inhabitants (ludicrous on the face of it). That none are shown is hardly an indictment of racism.

And of course the Civil Guard would have been all white people. The fact is that Rembrandt was simply painting the identifiable individuals in Captain Banninck Cocq’s company of civil guards, who actually commissioned the painting. Now Cocq may have been bigoted in selecting his men, but we don’t know.

Was Rembrandt, anticipating the critics of four centuries hence, supposed to tell Captain Cocq to “stick in some diversity”? The painting is what it is—i.e., a portrait of its subject—and it’s a masterpiece given the limitations of depicting motion in what’s essentially a vanity painting

There’s one more, and the pivotal feature of this still life turns out to be salt, which isn’t even depicted:

The wall text to Willem Claesz Heda’s Still Life With Gilt Cup faults the artist for not representing events that had not even happened yet. The work is a gorgeous arrangement of creamy linen, jade glass, pewter, a half-eaten roll, oysters, and a peeled lemon, against a velvety taupe background. A useful curatorial gloss might have explained the still life convention of overturned tableware, as seen in this canvas. Instead, the curators focus on only one item: salt. “One year after this picture was painted,” the wall text notes, “the Netherlands conquered Bonaire for its salt pans. The Arawak (the original inhabitants) and enslaved people from West Africa were forced to mine the salt pans. They stood day in and day out barefoot in the stinging salt water and under the blazing sun. In the Netherlands, this salt was used to preserve meat and fish or ended up in luxurious salt cellars, like the one shown here.”

Why did Heda bother to work out the structural relations in his composition? He could have painted a mound of salt and been done with it, had he even anticipated the coming conquest of Bonaire. The resulting loss of beauty that such a switch in subject matter would entail means nothing to the revisionist curator, who is indifferent to everything outside of his political program.

Here’s that lovely painting, and note that NO SALT IS VISIBLE! But that doesn’t stop the Pecksniffs, who just mentally journey into the future from 1635 and lambaste the Dutch conquerers (not Heda) for their odious behavior. But on these grounds, one could criticize virtually any painting a few hundred years old because the nation in which the painter worked happened to do bad stuff. Every nation has done bad stuff.

But what does that have to do with art?

h/t: cesar

29 thoughts on “Heather Mac Donald reviews more art museums

  1. This reminds me of my college Shakespeare class, in which a pecksniff student denounced Romeo as a pedophile for his romantic pursuit of a 12-year-old Juliet, despite the fact that, in 16th-century Verona she was quite marriagable, and that in Shakespeare’s England, the Parliament had yet to raise the age of consent to thirteen. This is all just an indicator of the idiocy of applying current standards to past eras.

  2. It is regrettable Barrett didn’t contribute to the Mary Quant 1960’s fashion designer show at my local art gallery. Sonia E Barrett’s skills are needed to comment on the notorious photo of Christine Keeler posed in a chair, where the chair back, triangular, is entirely exposed and the focal point of the picture.
    More seriously, there’s a particularly beautiful and dignified portrait, not in the Rijksmuseum show, but in Copenhagen : portrait of Don Miguel de Castro, ambassador from Congo.

  3. Sonia E. Barrett’s art will be forgotten within a few years, but Rembrandt and Hogarth will last for a much longer time.

    1. True, and so will Vermeer.
      I wonder how much this Amsterdam show was driven as a reaction to the Dutch ‘Black Peter’ controversies of recent years. The inception of the Black Peter festival tradition I believe stemmed more from the colonial era rather than the medieval period. The majority of Dutch voters want Black Peter traditions to continue, and therefore so do most Dutch politicians. This is despite the negative publicity it engendered in North America and Africa. It seems Dutch children are now told Peter is black because of soot from scooting down chimneys. I presume there was some impetus behind the scenes, via the Dutch cultural bureaucracy, to create this Rijksmuseum revisionism as counter-propaganda. The audience wouldn’t be the standard bourgeois art lovers of the Dutch baroque, so much as for international consumption to show ‘we have a social conscience about colonialism, notwithstanding Black Peter’. The show has been well covered by BBC TV, as well as ‘Art News’.

  4. Words fail me once again – a painting criticised for salt you can’t even see that definitely doesn’t come from a place yet to be conquered. Shoot me now.

    1. I think it was Seth Andrews who famously said, “Religion made me say stupid things.” Wokeism, being a religion, makes people say and write stupid things.

  5. Here is a puzzle. What is behind the tidal wave of statements from innumerable academic departments and professional groups like the Music Library Association and the American Bird Conservancy, tearfully confessing their participation in the murder of George Floyd? Who wrote all those mea culpas? Who set up the innumerable DEI committees? Let me suggest a theory.

    I remembered that back in the days of post-modernism, some lovers of literature in university English departments were puzzled by younger colleagues who seemed instead to hate literature. Gradually, it dawned on the older fogies that their post-modernist colleagues were building an academic structure in which professional advancements depended on showing hostility to literature.

    Similarly, in any field, there are those who drifted into the profession—an English department, or music librarianship, or naming bird species, or art museum curatorship—by accident, and are sick of it. These people have to find something to do which is different from the actual demands of their despised, nominal profession. For these individuals, What could be more exciting than issuing statements of apology for the George Floyd murder, setting up DEI committees, writing museum wall notes that link racism to chairs, and so on? In short, they can busy themselves turning their nominal profession (whatever it is) into an ideological campaign, independent of the profession’s actual subject.

    As this kind of displacement activity gathers force, the alienated pseudo-professionals who do it will gradually force their pseudo-activities into parts of the profession’s career ladder. And there we have
    the origin of that new thing in the world of credentials, the Diversity Statement.

      1. My gut instinct is to question the sincerity of such moves by institutions. Whether a power play or an act of deflection, it’s a very corporate thing to do. Has anyone read Moravia’s book The Conformist? A short read but great for a long trip.

  6. The writer Walter Benjamin famously contrasted the aestheticizing of politics with the politicizing of aesthetics; it is the latter, of course, which lies at the heart of “wokeness” with its totalizing and totalitarian fervor, its zealotry, and its incessant moralizing. No realm of “high culture” (art, music, opera, theater, publishing, etc) has been spared infection from this virus.

  7. Far more morally bereft and insensitive is the domination of The Night Watch by male-presenting humans when, presumably, half of Amsterdam’s population presented as female. When much of the population is violently erased by silence, these critics cannot excuse themselves by pretending an anti-colonial perspective is an adequate perspective.

  8. What is causing these consultants to see racial discrimination where there isn’t any, is their own racial prejudice toward whites, Jews, and East Asians.

    1. Clever move. “Only a true racist denies his racism!”

      Oh, wait. They’ve already taken that.

      “Only a true racist sees racism everywhere!” Better.

      In stage and literature there used to be a stock character of the Comical Boor, a tedious monomaniac, usually upper class, who turned every subject into his own pet subject. Horse racing, ancestry, food — whatever — inquired about or inserted at every opportunity. It’s raining? “ That’s bad for the horses, you know.” An unexpected visitor? “Let us hope he’s well connected.” Someone is ill? “What have they been eating — and what are they eating now? That’s so very important.”

      Ah, the audience thinks — I know someone just like that! Haha!

      If it wasn’t heralding the decline and fall of Civilization As We Know It, these little wall cards would be funny.

      1. If you look hard enough for something outrageous you will find it – whether it exists or not. People trying to demonstrate their depth of character by signalling their (sexist/racist/omni-ist) virtue are just signalling their superficiality instead.

        Not a deep lake of boundless purity, or even remorse, just a puddle.

  9. Wow, talk about ruining art. These Woke curators appear to approach every piece of art as if it’s a Where’s Waldo? game of find the racism/sexism. It must be in there somewhere, you know.

    “Ah, there it is…the ceiling is white and the floor is brown, signifying the artist’s intention to elevate whiteness and literally trod over the black and brown people of the world, who literally support him.”

      1. A summary of Bernard Levin’s work would include ‘Beware the Single Issue Fanatic’. Their fanaticism fuels their drive but blinds them to wider issues. Life is complex, it’s a series of more or less difficult trade offs. There is no one single true and pure answer to most of the questions that afflict us.

        But some people thirst for a one single true and pure answer, no matter what else is sacrificed.

  10. Thanks for that. I don’t know much about art criticism, plain vanilla or po-mo, but I do know classical music. I have sent “Classical Music’s Suicide Pact” to the donor offices of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in case they get any ideas beyond the occasional atonal commissioned Indigenous work (short, mercifully) which at least is not any worse than anyone else’s.

    1. An Indigenous musical work could not be atonal. First of all, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern were all
      white males, thus upholding you-know-what supremacy, not to mention patriarchy. Second, the 12 tone system privileges the white keys: any 12-tone row will include 7 white keys to 5 black keys. QED

    2. Leslie, according to Norman Lebrecht of the Slipped Disc classical music gossip site, Heather Macdonald had great trouble getting musicians to go on record for that article. Strikingly, only the oldest musicians were amenable eg Slatkin, Ax, Mehta. Rumour has it she approached Rattle, half-Japanese Alan Gilbert etc, who agreed with her arguments but didn’t want to be quoted.
      As for unearthing undeservedly-obscure masterpieces from women/Bipoc, they are thin on the ground. However I got Florence Price’s Symphony 3/Ethiopian suite ( Naxos ) last month — superb. Yesterday I got ‘Syncopated Musings’ on the Divine Art label. It’s piano ragtime : performances aren’t rhythmically ‘crunchy’, but still a nice listen. Caroline Shaw’s ‘Orange’ and Arooj Aftab’s ‘Siren Islands’ can be bought on Bandcamp and represent two poles of contemporary classical. For me, Chen Yi is just about the most interesting living female classical composer – her disc(s) on the BMOP label is a good place to start.

  11. I wrote a poem once for a creative writing class in college. Starting with the rhyming scheme of Frost’s “stopping by woods on a snowy evening”, I threw together a mix of (I thought) clever words and images that devolved from musings on nature to something slightly vulgar (I can’t even remember the whole poem now). The teacher who at one time was US poet laureate, apparently loved the poem and set out to critically analyze it’s deeper meanings. I felt pleased, as a college freshman, to have produced such a significant work. I had no idea the depths of subtle meaning and imagery I had produced. Of course I knew it was all bogus, but his analysis flattered my vanity.

    As I understand it, the first three pillars of classical education, the Trivium, were Grammar (knowledge of the language), Logic (how to discriminate valid from invalid arguments), and Rhetoric (how to effectively communicate ideas to others). It looks as though academics and students in the modern era are increasingly skipping Grammar and Logic, and jumping straight to Rhetoric, trying to express educated opinions before they know enough to even have valid opinions. Raised to be sophists, in the modern sense of the word, from the get-go.

    1. Joy Karega, formerly on the Oberlin College faculty, was an anti-semitic zealot airhead who ranted that Israeli agents were behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, the downing of Malaysian Flight 17, ISIS, and the 2015 Charlie Hebdo murders. This was too much even for Oberlin, which finally fired her from her position of assistant professor of—wait for it—Rhetoric. .

Leave a Reply