Decontextualized Crab

in Philosophy and Literature 16 (1992): 239-44.

Denis Dutton

Museums, particularly ethnographic museums, have become battlegrounds. Who owns their contents, who should control what’s shown, and how, are hotly disputed issues. In 1988 the International Center of the Smithsonian Institution held a conference entitled “Poetics and Politics of Representation” to thrash it all out and the results have been published as Exhibiting Cultures, a 468-page collection edited by Ivan Karp and Stephen D. Lavine (Smithsonian Institution Press, $42.00 cloth, $15.95 paper). The contributions are strung together by five excellent section introductions by the editors. Besides the introductions, the very fact that contributors often respond to one another gives the anthology an unusual coherence. The answers differ, but these people are at least worried about the same questions.

There are some historical excursions, for example by Curtis M. Hinsley on the 1893 Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Kenneth Hudson suggests that museums incorporate smells in their exhibitions. Well, why not? There is a set of four articles on problems in the exhibit of Hispanic art in the United States. Michael Baxandall presents a clear and sensible outline of the what might be called the logic of museum exhibition, the relationship between the object exhibited and its cultural background, the museum exhibition and its purposes, and finally viewers and their cultural preconceptions. Among his many instructive points is one against critics who have objected to juxtaposing African art alongside early European modernist art (MOMA’s notorious Primitivism show):

An alternative to the culturally mixed exhibition is the exhibition that thematically addresses the relationship between another culture and our own. Thus one could argue that to exhibit the Kota mbulu-ngulu with the 1907 precisely not to appropriate it but to acknowledge and signal cultural difference — any reflective viewer knowing that the circumstances of the Kota craftsperson and Picasso are different. The effect of visual similarity is to accent difference.

I am reminded by Baxandall’s phrase “any reflective viewer” of the extent to which those who denounced the Primitivism exhibition implicitly gave no credit to the average viewer of the show for having any knowledge or perception at all.

Some of the contributions to Exhibiting Cultures mix good empirical data with ill-digested philosophy, most irritatingly Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, whose long article has some useful accounts of cultural festivals in America and elsewhere--for example, the differences that develop between an actual fair in Northern India and the same event reproduced in a partially staged and partially enacted version on the Mall in Washington. There’s a lot of izing going on, e.g., “by aestheticizing folklore...we are in danger of depoliticizing what we present by valorizing an aesthetics of marginalization”. Her theme, not easy to discern in a mass of quotation and this-but-then-thatizing, seems to be that there is something wrong with folk festivals, such as Ukrainian festivals in Saskatchewan, Dutch festivals in Indiana, or pluralistic parades in New York City. Most such civic or government sponsored events are these days multicultural in nature, offering a “unity in diversity”, and in this respect, she says, they are not unlike the “pageants of democracy so popular during the first decades of this century”. Though staged in an effort to counter the “brutal efforts of nativists” to suppress ethnic pluralism in favor of Anglo-Saxon predominance, these earlier festivals had a “neutralizing effect of rendering difference (and conflict) inconsequential”.

Such festivals “tend to coopt the oppositional potential that is so essential to a festival....In the homeland exhibitions and festivals organized during the first half of this century, cooperation between immigrant groups and organizations promoting Americanization, however well intentioned, also involved cooptation”. Exactly what was “coopted”, what’s so deplorable about it, or why we should be unhappy about the neutralizing of conflict is never explained by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett. Should these immigrant groups have continued their traditional feuds in Boston or Baltimore? Should they have demanded schools for their children in their homeland languages, and picketed or firebombed the brutal, nativist “Anglo” city hall if they couldn’t get their way? Would they — or we their grandchildren — have been better off had they been made to feel more alienated from their new country? Anyone interested in seeing the alternatives to the “cooptation” of ethnic groups should think hard about Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Yugoslavia, Nagorno-Karabakh, or closer to my home, Fiji. This last little island paradise is a perfect example of what happens when ethnic groups (Indians and Melanesian Fijians) refuse to be coopted into, for example, intermarriage or racially mixed schools, and insist that their children be taught in the ways of their particular cultural heritage. Fiji is now a fascist dictatorship of one ethnic group over the others. “Cooptation”, though undefined in Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s essay, means at least in part realizing that you cannot have everything your own cultural way, that you have to make allowance for the rights or maybe just the desires of others, and that democratic pluralism requires that we are all to some extent marginalized. Nobody’s grievances are special. As the twentieth century draws to its close, amid world-wide screams of multicultural hate, the melting-pot ideal of mutual ethnic respect of early-century America — ethnic festivals and all — looks better and better. And academics such as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, with her piffling complaints about “cooptation”, just look ridiculous.

In his contribution to Exhibiting Cultures, James Clifford compares the presentation of Native American artifacts in four museums in British Columbia. Northwest Indian art must be understood against the backdrop of a history of suppression of the potlatch, the forced sale (virtual confiscation) of artifacts, and the general decline of Indian culture; the museums respond to this in different ways. The University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology and the Royal British Columbia Museum have striven to acknowledge or include an Indian point of view in their displays, but they are still viewed — disparaged, really — by Clifford as aestheticist and majoritarian. The two other museums, the U’mista Cultural Centre and the Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Centre are themselves Indian institutions, founded in part to display articles confiscated from the last great potlatch in 1921 and only later returned. They more heavily stress the unhappy and contested history of the region and tend to serve up much more cultural information with their exhibits.

Clifford characterizes the difference between the large mainstream museums and these local efforts: majority museums display the most authentic and exemplary objects they can find. They are more interested in what they regard as high as opposed to merely ethnographic art, and they treat their objects as national treasures, or even as treasures for all humanity. The tribal museums, on the other hand are politically “oppositional”, they subvert the art/culture distinction, they stress local, community histories, and they “do not aspire” to be categorized as possessing national treasures. Clifford is impressed by these differences; others might be struck by the overt or subtle continuities between the majority museums and their tribal counterparts. Big, national museums the world over are questioning the high/folk art distinction and in many cases address the political past and present. On the other hand, I don’t know of any museum anywhere that does not value its contents, even if it doesn’t consider them a “national patrimony”. Unquestionably, the artifacts in both of Clifford’s tribal museums are Canadian national treasures, and their Indian managers surely realize this.

The problem with Clifford’s essay — as generally with his 1988 book, The Predicament of Culture — is one of tone. The facts are interesting enough, but they are presented as a sort of dirge. Our white people’s history is,

a history of colonization and exploitation for which we, to the extent we participate in the dominant culture and an ongoing history of inequality, bear responsibility. We encounter an informing and a shaming discourse....To identify an object as ’used in the potlatch’ is not the same as showing it to be a property from a specific potlatch and part of an ongoing cultural struggle....To portray an object as fine art in an ongoing Northwest Coast tradition downplays its role as contested value in a local history of appropriation and reclamation.

But everybody knows that; to identify an object as a “medieval reliquary” is not the same as showing that it belonged to a specific church or local religious tradition, nor does it indicate the significantly contested nature of relics within Catholic history. To treat anything as an aesthetic object or work of fine art is precisely and on purpose to downplay its political or “contested” significance, and each of the cited museums, including the Indian museums, in varying degrees does just that.

Clifford’s essay conveys a sense that he tries too hard to say the acceptable thing. There is very little in his essay that voices a spontaneous reaction; one feels a certain lack of confidence, perhaps, with every word measured against some oppressive moral or ideological standard. In any event, whatever else happened when he visited those museums, there is no evidence that he had any fun. He might have been joined by another gloomy anthropologist, James Boon, whose contribution is entitled, “Why Museums Make Me Sad”. The history of museums, he says, especially ethnographic museums, is one of pillage and plunder. Boon makes it all so complicated by himself pillaging long quotations from Proust and James, as well by practicing a kind of overwriting that features the usual toney locutions: Proust’s narrator “inscribed” Venice, instead of just writing about it. (I continue to balk at the notion that Ruskin, Proust, or James inscribed Venice — that sounds more like something done by a boozed soccer hooligan with a pocket knife.) At one point Boon says, “To ensure a certain resistance toward the powers constricting my viewing habits (and perhaps to postpone madness), whenever I museum-go, I take along a book other than the exhibition catalogue, ready to intervene vagrant reading into the scene of spectacularity. (I employ the same tactic during fieldwork; I learned it from a native.)” Well, lots of us like to take a book with us to a park, a museum, or when we travel — or even, in my case anyhow, when we do ethnographic fieldwork. A bit of escape or distraction is often exactly what’s wanted, but most of us could find a less pretentious way to announce it: intervene vagrant reading into the scene of spectacularity? (Like “inscribe” instead of “describe”, “intervene” as a transitive verb indicates we sit at the feet of a writer at the very frontiers of scholarship.)

Among the twenty-two essays in Exhibiting Cultures are at least three gems, by Svetlana Alpers, Susan Vogel, and Stephen Greenblatt. Alpers begins by describing her fascination as a child with a enormous crab on display in the Peabody Museum. She had no idea of its habitat or habits: for her it was an isolated object of visual fascination; it might as well have been an artifact. The practice of,

attentive looking at crafted objects is as peculiar to our culture as is the museum as the space or institution where the activity takes place....If the crab seems an eccentric example, we might consider instead a Greek statue, removed from its sanctuary or stadium, eyes gone, color worn to an overall pallor. The museum effect — turning objects into works of art — operates here too.

Alpers calls the museum effect “a way of seeing” that ought in many circumstances to be welcomed:

It is very possible that it is only when, or insofar as, an object has been made with conscious attention to crafted visibility that museum exhibition is culturally informing: in short, when the cultural aspects of an object are amenable to what museums are best at encouraging. Romanesque capitals or Renaissance alterpieces are appropriately looked at in museums (pace Malraux) even if not made for them. When objects like these are severed from their ritual site, the invitation to look attentively remains and in certain respects may even be enhanced.

Alpers goes on to discuss the relative merits of arranging exhibitions of Dutch art (“the crustaceans of my grown-up days”). She cites an exhibit of landscapes that she regarded as inappropriately arranged according to chronology: the artists in question had other problems on their minds besides their place in some historical development. Her point is that not every kind of historically accurate arrangement of an exhibit will necessarily be true to the content exhibited. Chronological monographic exhibitions work very well because the development of the work of an individual artist over a lifetime is an important way our culture thinks about and practices art. But an old Dutch exhibition might better be arranged according to how light is represented, or whether maps appear in the paintings, or so forth. I take from this that there is no one generally valid way to exhibit either the works of our own culture or of any other. But that shouldn’t stop us from mounting exhibitions, from turning “cultural materials into art objects”. Though some may find it troubling, Alpers approves: “The mixture of distance, on the one hand, with a sense of human affinity and common capacities, on the other, is as much part of the experience of looking at a Dutch landscape painting of the seventeenth century as it is of looking at a carved Baule heddle pulley of the twentieth”.

Incidentally, Svetlana Alpers does not say whether that spectacular crab is still on display at the Peabody, or if it was returned to the deep as part of Crustacean Awareness Week. Perhaps it’s been removed from view until it can be displayed in a way that sensitively informs the public of its ecology and lifestyle. In a thoroughly modern museum, there can be no place for decontextualized crab.

Susan Vogel, executive director of the Center for African Art, begins her essay, “Always True to the Object, in Our Fashion”, with a shocking but simple truth: “Almost nothing displayed in museums was made to be seen in them. Museums provide an experience of most of the world’s art and artifacts that does not bear even the remotest resemblance to what their makers intended”. Most of the world’s art, we cannot be reminded often enough, includes everything else outside of Western art from the late eighteenth century on — ancient, medieval, oriental, primitive, and so on. Once we understand this, we can stop being so precious about the issue of whether museums dislocate, falsify, or distort objects displayed in them. Of course, they do, and especially in the case of primitive art. With the latter, the cultural distance that separates us from the makers of the objects is so vast that Vogel thinks exhibitions ought to drop the “authoritative voice” museums of Western art and science so commonly assume. Our museums of primitive art want to be true to the nature and intentions of the works they display, but they cannot hope to be so in any absolute sense: “we can be faithful only in the fashion of our time”.

Vogel describes some of the African Art exhibitions she has organized, including a superb show called “Art/artifact”. In a sense, this show set itself against any attempt to provide a final, proper view of African art: it was about how the West has seen African art, the viewing fashions of various times. One installation reproduced a nineteenth-century room with period furniture and glass curiosity cases which mixed ethnographic and zoological specimens. Another was in the style of a more recent natural history museum, replete with dioramas showing Africans at work in a natural setting. Still a third showed how African pieces are turned into purely aesthetic objects in the context of the white walls and dramatic lighting of a modern art museum. Rather than evading the intercultural issues, this exhibition faced them head on, with stunning results. None of these modes of presentation is neutral, Vogel says, as they all subtly or overtly manipulate the viewer and the objects. Her point is not to bewail or apologize for this effect, but to be “self-aware and open” about it. “Art/artifact” was an act of museological genius.

Stephen Greenblatt’s essay, as its title “Resonance and Wonder” indicates, identifies the two elements at the heart of our response to things in museums. On the one hand, museum artifacts are social objects, connected with peoples, societies, and history. Etruscan figurines, Impressionist paintings, primitive spears — all emerge from a cultural background and connect (or resist connection with) our own cultural furniture. This is their resonance, and its effect in museum exhibition is to awaken in the viewer, Greenblatt says, “a sense of the cultural and historically contingent construction of art objects, the negotiations, exchanges, swerves, and exclusions by which certain representational practices come to be set apart from other representational practices that they partially resemble”. Resonant exhibition take the viewer away from the object as aesthetic focus and asks such questions as, How did this object come to be displayed? Why this object and not another? What did the object mean to the people who made and cherished it?, and so on. Greenblatt outlines his reasons why the most resonant museum in his experience is the State Jewish Museum in Prague; for me, a perfect example of another kind of resonance would be Vogel’s “Art/artifact” exhibit.

The complement of resonance is wonder, our sense of awe in the face of a splendid aesthetic object, and to illustrate Greenblatt cites a famous occasion of wonder, Dürer’s reaction to his first encounter with booty brought back from the New World — “a sun all of gold...a moon all of silver”, and various items of armour, cloth, and artifacts. For Dürer these “wonderful works of art” were more beautiful to behold than “prodigies” (it’s my hunch that by this term of comparison Dürer had in mind spectacular celestial events, such as comets or eclipses). The pieces “gladdened his heart” and made him marvel at the “subtle genius of men in foreign lands”. Greenblatt finds much to appreciate in this passage. While it would be misleading, he says, to strip away from Dürer’s writing “relations of power and wealth” encoded in it, “it would be still more misleading, I think, to interpret that response as an unmediated expression of those relations”. Dürer’s response “is at least partly independent of the structures of politics and the marketplace”. It is “centered on a certain kind of looking, the origins of which lie in the cult of the marvelous and hence in the artwork’s capacity to generate in the spectator surprise, delight, admiration, and intimations of genius”.

Resonance and wonder are perfect terms with which to mount the argument, but Greenblatt is quite aware that it’s still about history versus aesthetic form in a fresh vocabulary. That you might expect a founding parent of the New Historicism to be all resonance and no wonder, just makes Greenblatt’s tack that much the more appealing. He alludes to this himself, saying, “for all of my academic affiliations and interests, I am skeptical about the recent attempt to turn our museums from temples of wonder into temples of resonance”. I’d go farther than Greenblatt and say that his (or Dürer’s) sense of wonder just is the response to intrinsic beauty, and it’s a welcome development to see beauty creeping into a context where political posturing has seen it all but banished as a figment of élitist connoiseurship, yet another manifestation of false consciousness. It wasn’t a matter of sublimated class interests that a golden sun and silver moon from the New World took away Dürer’s breath or that Picasso was so enraptured in his encounter with African art. Dürer and Picasso noticed something about these things that quite transcended culture and class: they saw that they were beautiful. A couple of generations ago, it was a cliché to praise art precisely for its power to cut through or speak over the babble of cultural voices, both for the present epoch and though history. Today, hand-wringing “theorists” are so cowed by politics that the notion of universal beauty has become an embarrassment. Afraid of getting the Other wrong, of being somehow ethnocentric, they miss out on the possibility of getting the Other right, and along with it the pleasures of experiencing the art of another culture. This in itself is a peculiarly Western, ethnocentric, worry.

Greenblatt concludes by saying that “almost every exhibition worth viewing” has elements of both resonance and wonder. The strong initial appeal of the latter often leads to a desire to better understand the former: “the poetics and the politics of representation are most completely fulfilled in the experience of wonderful resonance and resonant wonder”. In its scope and wisdom, Greenblatt’s essay manages itself to evoke both of the qualities it is about.


Someone once remarked that at its best psychoanalysis responds to a person, rather than with a theory. To be sure; but then what use is the theory in the first place? If I go to a doctor to be treated for a disease I’m looking for an valid diagnosis based on an accurate theory. Being treated “as an individual” doesn’t come into the picture: I want to know what kind of disease I have and what kind of treatment is effective for it. You can’t have it both ways — to proclaim your own constitutional uniqueness and at the same time accede to a theoretical structure that explains your ills. This problem is bad enough in the field of mental disease, where general theories confront individuals with some claim to uniqueness, but it absolutely bedevils every attempt by psychoanalysis to deepen our understanding of art. One of the many virtues of Ellen Handler Spitz’s Image and Insight: Essays in Psychoanalysis and the Arts (Columbia University Press, $23.50) is that she is acutely sensitive to this difficulty. Though she is a writer quite sold on the value of psychoanalysis, Spitz is never crude in her application of it. Quite the reverse, it almost seems as if she were using her intense and abiding interest in literature and art as a test of psychoanalysis.

The topics of these essays include New York subway graffiti, African art, the paintings of a schizophrenic child, George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, Greek myths and literature, the film version of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Dante, and Otto Rank’s psychology of art. Spitz’s writing is characterized by a rare verve and honesty. For example, she allows that neither she nor psychoanalytic theory can explain the haunting beauty of the paintings (reproduced in color) of the abused and disturbed eleven-year-old, Avi. Spitz does use them, however, to call into question Arthur Danto’s claim that art comes top us embedded in a history. How relevant is this, she asks, to the painting of a schizophrenic child, whose art is apparently without history?

Well may she ask: I suspect there are many “fringe” art phenomena that do not fit aesthetic theories designed to account for contemporary situation of high art and criticism in our culture. Another might be African art, a realm filled, as Spitz puts it, with “charged objects”. Her essay on the topic was occasioned by Susan Vogel’s 1987 Center for African Art show entitled “Perspectives: Angles on African Art”. In recording her response to these objects, Spitz acknowledges her inadequate background in the field of African art but refuses to be intimidated:

if the only persons qualified to speak about such objects are those with detailed knowledge about the cultures in which they are produced, the objects themselves are easily reduced to a species of artifact. Under such circumstances, viewers are made to feel that communication with the objects depends on mediation by expert interpreters. Such a state of things dooms marvelously evocative pieces to a rarefied or dismally diminished status — as ancillary data or as source material for cultural information projects — anthropological, historical, and, certainly, ideological. Meanwhile, their tantalizing presence as works of art may be altogether forsworn.

She also makes the observation that the strong initial, but uninformed, reaction to an unfamiliar art may be in some way even more ‘authentic’ than a later response suffused, “hyperinvested”, as she puts it, with cultural or historical information.

The issue, to adapt Stephen Greenblatt’s vocabulary, is whether we allow the requirement to acknowledge resonance in the presence of these objects to swallow altogether our sense of wonder. It is one of the engaging qualities of Spitz’s book that she never lets theory drown her feeling for the marvelous. Her own insights and enthusiasm pull the reader through some fascinating by-ways of literature and art.

Copyright © 1992 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.