Getty Conservation Institute


Mortality Immortality” The Legacy of 20th Century Art

Edited by Miguel Angel Corzo

Getty Conservation Institute

Getty Museum, LA, 1999

Preserving Whose Mortality or Immortality?

pp- 161-164

By Keith Morrison

"Posse" oil on canvas 54 X 60" 1994

oil on canvas
54 X 60″

Preserving art of the Twentieth Century is a goal I share as an artist. My own work a painter has gained some success and is represented in some museums. Although I show examples of it her (fig. 1-4), I am not speaking about my own lack of success. Instead, I am considering some of the factors necessary to realize the goal of preserving the best art of all people for mortality or immortality.

It seems to me that our major museums[1] do not have sufficient assets to achieve this goal. Significant among these is the cultural diversity that is needed among museum officials. Better diversity would help museum collections to reflect a comprehensive understanding and appreciation of the varied issues of art in our time. In some way, our major museums have not changed much during the Twentieth century. There is no question that there are many more women employed in every echelon of the best museums today and that more professionals of color are appointed by museums now than a decade ago. Nevertheless, it is also clear that our major museums continue to be dominated by the face and agenda of the male European and Euro-American paradigm, a paradigm that perpetuates the agenda – whether by omission or commission, it matters not – of and for the preservation of Western civilization as defined by Europeans and Euro-Americans.

I do not intend to be hostile, merely to point out what is obvious.[2] It is true that many museum curators and officials study and promote a wide range of art that cuts across cultural and national boundaries. Yet, what is exhibited and collected is, overwhelmingly, art by and about European and Euro-American people that is chosen by those of European and Euro-American heritage. In many symposiums sponsored by major art institutions, one finds arts professionals from Canada, England, France, Germany, Mexico and the United States. But where are those from Africa, India, Asia, Latin America,[3] and other non-European countries? There are more than 100 African-American museums in the United States, for example, but few of them are represented at such gatherings.

Lest one thinks this merely a personal attack, let me shift from acknowledgement of the reality to an examination of the principle – that is, question of who decides which art should or should not be collected and preserved. Why is it important who makes the decision? And how does that affect what may or may not be preserved for mortality or immortality? My thesis is that there needs o be more people of color in the art world who will bring a cultural perspective to the understanding of art, which, based on the evidence, most cultural institutions have not achieved.

Keith Anthony Morrison's Egyptian

“Walk Like an Egyptian”
Oil on canvas 64 X 72″

Does this mean that I think that museum management and staff are inherently racist? No; they are no more so than any other segment of society. Further, there is no evidence that any other cultural group would or could be more objective if they were the ones in power to decide what was art and what was not. However, I think that Europeans and Euro-Americans continue to live with obsolete cultural assumptions that do not serve them well. An art agenda that is decided by one segment of a multicultural society, a multinational civilization, is inherently flawed.

"Zombie Jamboree oil on canvas 62 X 70:" 1988

“Zombie Jamboree
oil on canvas
62 X 70:”

What is the missing perspective of some people of color? A few examples may be found in the recent experiences of some African-American artists.[4] Over the years, many African-American artists have identified issues in art that Euro-Americans have dismissed, believing them to be second-rate or naïve, or even crediting them to other people. A Euro-American art historian, for example, told some African-American artists that painting on velvet would never amount to art. [5]Boston-based artist Napoleon Henderson-Jones was criticized for mixing textiles and broken ceramics because, as one critic said, that was a fatal confusion. An instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago told African-American students that that they should give up “pattern painting” because, he said, patterns appealed only to the senses, whereas painting needs to appeal to the emotions. However, as we, know, by the end of the 1970’s, Julian Schnabel had made pigment on velvet as famous as he did mixing ceramics into painting. As we also know, about that time women artists were credited with creating pattern painting. But there was not one prominent African-American among them. Most of the African-Americans who pioneered these and other methods gave up art in discouragement. In too many case their has been lost or destroyed.

The story rings true, at least in the United States, for other people of color as well. Blockbuster exhibitions that span about five hundred years of Chinese art or that cover the history of Islamic art are wonderful, but they hardly serve to elucidate contemporary issues in the art of China or the Middle East. Where is the preservation of the art of Native Americans that characterize their view of the twentieth century?[6] The same question can be asked of the art of contemporary Egypt or of the art by twentieth-century Japanese-Americans. The presence of more museum professionals of color will redress some of these issues, will serve to put a fairer spin on history, and might help to preserve a more accurate balance of art made all over the world. There is no question that major artists of color have emerged in the art mainstream during the last fifty years, practically all of them, ironically, chosen by European or Euro-Americans in the museum world, commercial galleries or the press. Artists such as Horace Pippin, Rufino Tamayo, Isamu Noguchi, Romare Bearden, Martin Puryear, Nam June Paik, Robert Colescott, Frida Kahlo, and Ana Mendietta are some that come to mind.[7] However, for each name mentioned. There are many more that, by scholarly consensus, have been ignored by arts professionals. True, the same argument could be made for many European or Euro-American artists, but the difference is that their representation in the museum world is markedly disproportionate to their numbers in the worldwide population of artists. By any statistical measure or standard deviation, the underrepresentation of artists of color in museums and major collections is conspicuously clear.

Many people of color believe that unless an artist has the approval and support of the European or Euro-American museum/gallery/press structure, he or she stands practically no chance for success. The point is that most people of color have neither the position nor the power in the art world to effectively promote artists of their choosing or to rewrite art history. Of course, private collectors or commercial galleries do not have an obligation to collect or sell art they do not like, regardless the color of the artist. They are investing their own money, and their choices may fairly be governed by that. However, if museums wish to claim that they represent the entire scope of our culture for its preservation for the future, then they need to recognize their shortcoming, which are major.

Most people of color feel that museums perpetuate and maintain a history and culture of the world that does not represent them. “When are you going to stop writing about black art?’ a friend of mine was asked not long ago. “When you stop writing about white art,” was his reply. Our Euro-American friends tend to think that people of color are out to “Balkanize” the art world. This attitude suggests that the art world is together and its is we who are pulling it apart. But the art world is not now, nor has ever been, “together.” It has always been dominated –0 in its collections and exhibitions – by Europeans and euro-Americans representing their own worldwide history and dreams. The rest of us are occasional guests.

There is no question that the museum world is populated with some wonderful people of all races who are dedicated to cultural change and expansion. But there are not enough of them. And perhaps they do not have sufficient power to make the major changes that need to occur. Even so, it seems to me that no one, no matter how dedicated or well meaning, can have purely objective or culture-free taste, unless we believe that education is sufficient to provide for a cross-cultural aesthetic. It is possible for well-schooled eyes and artistically educated minds to make objective culturally objective choices? Of course. But making culturally diverse choices is not that is necessary to elucidate cultural values. Educated choices can go only so far. Education allows me to us my own base of knowledge to interpret that of other people, it does not necessarily allow me to interpret their culture as they would themselves. Cultural understanding that derives from experience within a culture goes further than education without such experience.

Education is not sufficient to attain cross-cultural objectivity. Museum professionals, with their coterie of scholars and educators, appear too comfortable with the assumption that an educated visual taste cuts across cultures. They believe not only that education is the bridge to cross-cultural understanding but also that it is sufficient to create cross-cultural objectivity. They justify the appointment of euro-American museum officials in the absence of ones of color. Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. If cross-cultural objectivity is possible, why do so man arts professionals who arte people of color with so many of the choices for exhibition and acquisition made by Euro-American museum curators and directors? Is it just sour grapes? If so, then why do so many Euro-American museum officials use people of color as advisors, rather than trust their own education or perception in making cross-cultural decisions themselves?[8] It is not that we are not asked our opinions; it is that our choices are not taken sufficiently. Were we in positions of greater responsibility, our choices would count more, and the face of art exhibitions would change.

"A Night in Tunisia" oil on canvas 60 X 68" 1991

“A Night in Tunisia”
oil on canvas
60 X 68″

Many people of color may have studied more about Western art and civilization than many European or Euro-American arts professionals, but few of us would have the temerity to believe we understand the soul of Western culture. My admiration for the worldview of Western twentieth century art – from Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, and Marcel Duchamp to Jackson Pollock, Joseph Beuys, and Anselm Kiefer – is enormous. However, I know I can never understand the center of their cultural ethos nor experience nor fully appreciate what their place in the art world is like. Yet euro-Americans (perhaps more than Europeans) seem to profess that they have seen all and understand all about the arts of others. This is what people of color call the hubris of Euro-Americans.

Culture, by implication, is a form of prejudice: prejudice of habit, history, environment, and dreams. How can one culture be objective toward another? Some people, by their own definition, are ‘universal” –- “international” people whose ideas are global, objective, and transcend culture. I myself have never met such a person. All people I have met carry some significant amount of cultural baggage with them. The world’s great international art is too largely about the monopoly and baggage of a European and Euro-American culture. It is European and Euro-American people who “Balkanize” the art world. Is there room at the table for the cultural perspectives of others?

I am not arguing for a democratic museum, with equal representation for all, or for art to be selected by some kind of patronage system. Nor am I calling for “Balkanization” which is a Euro-American euphemism for the value of people of color. [9] What I am positing is that until most major museums are governed by people who fully represent the entire spectrum of our society, museums’ efforts to mirror world culture of the twentieth century will remain incomplete.

We do have examples of alternative cultural perspectives. A 1998exhibition of American art, held as the inaugural exhibition of the Museum of Modern art in Monterrey Mexico,[10] provided a refreshing way to think about the Americas. It included art from Chile to Canada, making intracontinental associations, recontextualizing much recent art, and demystifying imagery that is often obscured. How different that exhibition was from the litany of so-called American art exhibitions that annually parade across the United sates and do little, if anything, to challenge the predictable assumptions of the cultural basis of art.

believe this kind of wider cultural inclusion is a necessary first step as we consider the possibility of mortality or immortality. I urge us all to work toward this preliminary goal. In their essays, Judy Chicago and Joyce Scott summarize the issue of mortality/immortality as apolitical one (see “Hope Springs Eternal” and “Immortality/Immortality,” pages 147-152 and 75-78, respectively). I agree. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The art world has always made political choices – for mostly Euro-American artists. How about more intracultural inclusion among the political choices? Think of it as the art world’s answer to being “politically correct.” If we cannot change our cultural values sufficiently, we can augment our shortcomings with a constructive political will. No quotas are necessary. What is necessary is better inclusion of non-Europeans and Euro-Americans who are given positions of authority, not just used as advisors. The principle of the politics should be to create an agenda of conscious inclusion to allow other people to choose the art they believe represents them. Politics rather than culture-free assumptions may be our best common mediator. I urge us to reconsider our political choices, to form common alliances, and to make the world of art a better place for all.

[1] By this I mean international museums inn the class of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National gallery of Art, inn Washington, D.C. the Tate Gallery in London, and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

[2] Though what I think is too unspoken and too largely unchallenged.

[3] There are people of European descent representing ( a few) Latin American museums, a racial situation that typically distresses Latin Americans of color.

[4] I give African-American artists as example because they are the people of color I know best. My experience as a Black person from Jamaica living in the United States for many years and subject to the same treatment as African-Americans has given me cultural insight into the plight of African-American artists.

[5] The art historian (who should remain nameless) was addressing this comment to artists Nelson Stevens, Jeff Donaldson and David Stevens at the College Arts association meeting in 1971.

[6] Mere preservation of Native American traditional or ancestral arts doesn’t cut it.

[7] In spite of their great significance, Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros for years have been presented to American students as examples of how politics can destroy the artist. The recent romance with Kahlo’s work serves as an opiate for the women’s movement, romanticizing with Rivera, while downplaying his enormous achievements.

[8] I am not sure whether this relationship is practiced in Europe.

[9] As if it was people of color who “lowered standards,” collecting detritus in the name of art that most museums would love to de-accession from their basements.

[10] The exhibition was largely curated by Charles Merewether (who is Scottish and Australian), who showed, by example, how a curator can work collaboratively with others who have alternate cultural points of view, when a museum is receptive to such dialogue.