The Metropolitan Museum of Art has mounted an exhibit whose curatorial philosophy, were it widely adopted, would spell the end of art and of art museums. The art press greeted the show ecstatically, as a sign of the Met’s new direction. This prognosis is undoubtedly correct.
Fictions of Emancipation (on view through March 5, 2023) is built around an 1873 sculpture by the brilliant French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. The marble bust, titled Why Born Enslaved!, portrays a black woman, bound by a rope, looking over her left shoulder with a piercing expression of defiance, incredulity, and contempt.
Why Born Enslaved! has been understood since its creation as an antislavery work. The Met, however, knows better, now that it has been reborn as an “antiracist” institution. Fictions of Emancipation argues that the Carpeaux bust furthers whites’ ongoing “domination over Black people’s bodies,” in the words of the exhibit’s curators. And Carpeaux was not the only artist to give an aesthetic gloss to racial oppression, while seeming to oppose it—Fictions of Emancipation portrays abolitionist art more widely as a fig leaf for Western colonialism and white supremacy.
Arriving at this reading of the Carpeaux statue and of similarly themed works requires the deconstruction of virtually every aspect of artistic creation. An artist’s use of live models, the representation of the nude, the selling and buying of art—all are revealed by the Met as ploys used by a white European power structure to oppress nonwhite people.
The Met’s first engagements with Why Born Enslaved! provided no hint of the revisionist readings to come. In 1997, a donor gave the museum a terra-cotta version of the bust, dating from 1872. In announcing the gift, the Met described Carpeaux as a “liberal romantic” whose “humanitarian sentiments” were manifest in the museum’s new sculpture. The museum was still in the business of stylistic explication rather than ideological denunciation, so it noted the influence of Carpeaux’s most important master in the bust’s “Michelangelesque sideward turn.”
In 2014, the Met assembled a magisterial Carpeaux retrospective, introducing many Americans to this stunningly gifted artist for the first time. The show, The Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, included some of Carpeaux’s most psychologically acute busts, along with his tormented self-portraits and flamboyantly kinetic paintings. It traced the artist’s hard-fought rise, from son of a stonemason in provincial northern France to premier sculptor of the Second Empire. Carpeaux’s fountains, pediments, and bas-reliefs contributed exuberant beauty to the public-works projects then transforming Paris. (Why Born Enslaved! was an offshoot of one of those commissions, for the Fountain of the Observatory in the Luxembourg Gardens.) The exhibit also marked Carpeaux’s harrowing end, dying in agony at 48 after a botched cancer operation pierced his bladder.
The 2014 show displayed the Met’s terra-cotta version of Why Born Enslaved! Even in 2014, the museum could still discuss the work in sympathetic terms. The bust’s early success was due to the “beauty of the woman’s expression and the powerful emotion to which it gives rise,” the catalog suggested. Art historian Laure de Margerie wrote in a catalog essay that the bust “partook of the prolonged enthusiasm generated by the abolition of slavery in France in 1848 and in the United States in 1865.”
In 2019, the Met bought the marble version of Why Born Enslaved!. The acquisition announcement revealed how much had changed in the museum’s curatorial philosophy. The announcement warned future viewers about patriarchy and white privilege: “It is critical to reckon with the power imbalance enacted when a white male artist transposes the body of a black woman into an emblem of enslavement.” Though the statue had heretofore been interpreted (including by the Met) as “an expression of Carpeaux’s stance against slavery,” the museum was no longer taken in. In fact, the bust was a “disturbing fantasy of aestheticized bondage—the transformation of human carnage into erotically-charged drama,” the acquisition announcement explained.
The new guard at the Met—Sarah Lawrence (recently named curator in charge of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts), Elyse Nelson (a new assistant curator in the same department), and director Max Hollein—was just warming up.
The museum immediately started planning an exhibit around the marble Why Born Enslaved! that would serve as a corrective to what the staff now viewed as the impossibly mystified Passions of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. The new show would “critically engage with issues of imperialism and colonialism that are present in that bust that were not addressed in that [earlier Carpeaux] exhibition,” Nelson told ARTNews. Then the George Floyd race riots erupted in the summer of 2020. It became even more important to insulate the Met against any possible charge of curatorial white privilege. So the museum belatedly engaged an associate professor of writing at Columbia University, Wendy Walters, to serve as cocurator with Nelson. Walters’s closest involvement with art museums at that point had been limited to an obsession with white paint. White paint irritates Walters, especially on the “walls of educational spaces,” so she is writing a book on its “social and cultural implications,” as she put it in an interview.
Qualification enough, since Fictions of Emancipation is all about whiteness—white supremacy, white colonialism, white subjugation, and white scientific ignorance. What it is not about is art—about seeing what makes Why Born Enslaved! great and what makes Carpeaux’s style singular. Had Carpeaux anticipated and acted upon the Met’s objections to Why Born Enslaved!, he never would have created the bust in the first place. Sadly, however, the work does exist. The Met’s antiracist curators have thus adopted a second-best solution to its damaging effects: cancel the work symbolically.
The first of Carpeaux’s many sins is to have portrayed the inhumanity of slavery. It turns out that if a white artist depicts a black slave, he participates in subjugation himself. Such a depiction suggests, according to the Met, that slavery is the primordial condition of blacks. Elyse Nelson and Wendy Walters explain in their catalog introduction: the “enduring visual culture of abolition and emancipation” posits that “Black persons must first have been enslaved in order to be free.” A wall label in Fictions of Emancipation notes disapprovingly that Carpeaux’s interpretation of the “injustice of enslavement remains embodied in a bound woman.”
But portraying a black slave by no means implies that blacks can be free only if they are first enslaved. To arouse people to act against a wrong, a wise rhetorician portrays that wrong in as heart-wrenching a way as possible. To raise money for hunger relief, Oxfam does not show chubby, smiling children; it shows dull-eyed semi-corpses. Resettlement charities display desperate refugees. The medical-school movement White Coats for Black Lives stages die-ins, in which medical students lie on the ground in sympathy with the black victims of fatal police shootings. Those protesters are not saying that all blacks are dead or that being dead is a necessary component of being black.
Fictions of Emancipation is equally scathing toward other abolitionist works. British porcelain entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood was a fierce antislavery campaigner. His firm created an iconic medallion in the 1780s that depicted a black man kneeling on one knee, shackled hands raised in supplication. The inscription reads: “Am I not a man and a brother?” The Fictions curators see in the cameo only triumphant white supremacy. A catalog essay by Iris Moon, an assistant curator in the Met’s European sculpture department, complains that the “paternalistic” Wedgwood medallion made it “impossible to picture the liberation of Blackness without seeing simultaneous scenes of subjection.” This charge against the Wedgwood medallion is as nonsensical as the charge against the Carpeaux bust. While liberation from slavery does presuppose that there is something—i.e., slavery—from which the slave is to be liberated from, it does not presuppose that the slave’s natural condition is slavery.
The Met’s anti–white supremacy theorists have a further problem. Black artists have portrayed enslaved blacks, and white artists have portrayed enslaved whites. White artists have also created gorgeous portraits of unchained blacks.
In 2022, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., ran a show called Afro-Atlantic Histories. That exhibit shared the Met’s revisionist agenda, aiming to unmask art history and art museums as an “enduring apparatus of imperialism and colonization,” in the words of the exhibit’s main organizer. Yet it contained a canvas by a black artist that, under the Met’s new rules, would also suggest that blacks’ natural condition is slavery. Into Bondage, by Aaron Douglas, a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, shows shackled figures walking through palm leaves to an ocean shore, their heads hung low, while two boats wait on the horizon. A female raises her chained hands to the sky; a shackled male lifts his eyes to a shining star. Douglas gets away with this iconography because the acceptability of imagery now depends on the skin color of the person deploying it.
Western art portrayed white slaves before and after the transatlantic slave trade got under way. Ancient Greek columns incorporated images of white slaves captured at war. Michelangelo sculpted a series of captive white figures, including a bound, nearly nude white male subsequently named The Rebellious Slave. The Palazzo Pitti in Florence and the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, among other Renaissance and Baroque palaces, contain sculpted white slaves in their ceiling friezes. Neoclassical American sculptor Hiram Powers created a life-size Greek Slave in 1843, inspired by the Greek Revolution against the Turks. These works no more suggest that the natural condition of whites is slavery than the portrayal of black slaves suggests that the natural condition of blacks is slavery.
The Met’s next critique of Why Born Enslaved! erases in one stroke a foundational component of Western art: the nude. The garment of Carpeaux’s captive has fallen below one of her breasts. This partial nudity turns the work into racist soft porn, according to the Met. Assistant curator Nelson describes Why Born Enslaved! as “an eroticized object for visual consumption” that gives form to “colonialist fantasies about the physical possession and containment of black women’s bodies.” A wall text echoes Nelson’s outrage at what she calls “so much flesh.” Carpeaux’s bust allows us to accept that the “Black female body can still be collected and consumed, be gazed at, desired, despised, dissected, and distorted by all.”
The curators’ willful ignorance is breathtaking. Since ancient Greece, the West’s greatest artists have portrayed the unclothed human body. This artistic lineage includes Lucas Cranach the Elder, Dürer, Mantegna, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Titian, Raphael, Giorgione, Rembrandt, Rubens, Velázquez, Watteau, Boucher, Ingres, David, Géricault, Goya, Courbet, Renoir, Degas, Matisse, Rodin, Klimt, Picasso, and Henry Moore, among thousands of other artists. Cancel the nude, and you cancel art itself. Nearly 100 percent of those nudes have been white. Their state of undress has been far more revealing, and often far more “eroticized,” than the single unsheathed breast in Why Born Enslaved!. If that one black breast teaches us that the black female body can still be “desired, despised, dissected, and distorted by all,” those thousands of white breasts should carry that meaning, too. In fact, far from being a mark of contempt, the solo naked breast in Why Born Enslaved! places the work in the tradition of heroic rebellion, recalling, as it does, the naked double breasts of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.
A wall text claims that the Carpeaux bust is part of the nineteenth century’s “representation, commodification, and fetishization of Black females and the disproportionate amount of attention aimed at their bodies.” This verbiage is pure black-studies boilerplate, unmoored from historical reality. There was actually little representation of “black females” and “their bodies” in the nineteenth or any previous century—unsurprisingly, given the racial demographics of Europe. The art-historical Left can’t get its story straight regarding the black nude. While the Met decries the “disproportionate” attention directed against the black female body, a feminist art historian blames racism for the “paucity of images of the black female nude in the history of Western ‘high’ art.” In reality, the representation of black females that did exist employed the opposite “binary” (to use academic jargon) more than the one lambasted by the Met: it was the white female who was nude and paired with a clothed black female, as in Manet’s Olympia or Félix Vallotton’s enigmatic La Blanche et la Noire.
Hiram Powers’s Greek Slave was a life-size full-frontal nude. If the one breast of Why Born Enslaved! represents “fetishization” and “commodification,” the Greek Slave’s two breasts with bonus genital area should be off the charts for fetishization and commodification. Yet the Met curators ignore the work entirely, even though the museum owns a porcelain reproduction of the statue. It is conceivable that Met curators no longer know what is in the museum’s collections.
The Met fumes that the model for Carpeaux’s bust is unnamed. A wall text observes that though “real people posed” for the artists in the show, the “names and biographies of these individuals were disregarded or lost, their likenesses recast into exoticized symbols.” The identity of the vast majority of models who have sat for artists over the centuries is also unknown, unless the artist was creating a commissioned portrait. The models’ names we do know are due to research into an artist’s working (and often romantic) life and only rarely to the works themselves. What is the “name and biography” of the white male adult who sat for Carpeaux’s massive composition Ugolino and His Sons? We don’t know, beyond Carpeaux’s reference in an 1858 letter to a “seaman of rare beauty” whom he had spotted in Rome. What street urchin sat for Carpeaux’s neoclassical Fisherboy with a Seashell? We don’t know. Who were Vermeer’s, Veronese’s, and Fragonard’s white models? We don’t know.
Yet a young newcomer to art who visits Fictions of Emancipation with his high school class will come away with the impression that Carpeaux and the other artists in the show were engaged in an unprecedented erasing of their black models’ identities, violating a long-standing artistic tradition. That wildly incorrect understanding has been deliberately created by the Met’s curators, our supposed guides to the history of art, and it will only increase black students’ sense of victimhood and animosity toward the Western cultural tradition.
Any antiracist enterprise worth its salt must take aim at the idea that race exists. Even if Carpeaux had not portrayed someone in bondage, if he had provided a long biographical note about his model, if he had draped every available inch of his subject’s neck and shoulders in heavy wool, he still would have buttressed Western racism by having created an identifiably black figure. Carpeaux’s bust and its original title, Négresse, “reinforce[ed] the fallacy of racial difference,” according to a wall text.
The Met wields the “fallacy of racial difference” to kneecap another artist in the show: Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier. A contemporary of Carpeaux’s, Cordier specialized in sculpting non-Europeans, a genre known at the time as “ethnographic sculpture.” Cordier’s intentions were explicitly egalitarian and humanistic. “My genre,” he wrote, “has the freshness of something new, a revolt against slavery, . . . widening the circle of beauty by showing that it existed everywhere.” Beauty is not the “province of a privileged race,” Cordier asserted; it is universal. If Cordier’s manifesto would seem to be unpromising material for demonstrating the ubiquity of white supremacy, one does not understand the determination of the Met’s antiracists.
The Cordier busts included in Fictions of Emancipation are sensual, dignified, and brooding. A slender, long-necked woman whom the poet and critic Théophile Gautier named Venus Africaine has been caught in a moment of meditation, her half-lidded eyes downcast, her lips slightly parted. The Met fights back against the nobility of Cordier’s busts with verbal descriptions that try to make Cordier out to be a Klan member. Cordier’s subjects “exhibit thick and fleshy lips; broad, flat noses; [and] coarse locks of hair,” writes James Smalls, chairman of the Department of Visual Arts and professor of various identity-based groupings, such as Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies, at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. No viewer not already wedded to an ideological program would use such language to characterize Cordier’s compositions. Yes, we recognize the subjects as black—not because of Cordier’s racism but because of his realism. Proponents of the race-as-social-construct conceit are enraged that human beings continue to identify one another’s race accurately.
The ban on portraying blacks applies only to white artists, however. Black artists may even use stereotypes that would doom any nonblack artist. A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, by Kara Walker, is an airplane-hangar-size sphinx made out of polystyrene foam. The Sugar Baby, from 2014, has a nose four times as wide as it is high and as flat as a pug’s; the Sugar Baby’s lips protrude beyond every other feature of her face. Met sculpture curator Iris Moon praises the work but is silent about its exaggerated features. If pressed, Moon would presumably explain that Walker is ironizing white racism.
A bust by contemporary painter Kehinde Wiley, celebrated in another catalog essay, also eludes the Met’s ban on racial representation. Wiley’s After la Négresse, 1872 shows a man with a tattooed head in a Lakers jersey; his lips are full, his jaw protruding, his shoulders muscular. We immediately recognize him as black. Is Wiley racist, or just the viewer? The Met’s curators slam Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier for embellishing his Ethiopian subjects with African ornament. But Wiley can dress his young black male in a Lakers jersey and get away with it because Wiley is black and thus exempt from the Met’s racial rules. Wiley can also conceal the name and biography of his model without being accused of racial oppression.
A final link in the chain of creation must be broken if the Met’s war on the European tradition is to succeed: the art market. If a white artist tries to sell his art, he is engaged yet again in white supremacy, according to the Met. At the time of Why Born Enslaved!, Carpeaux had barely escaped bankruptcy, having invested huge sums of his own money creating a sculpture for the Paris Opera House. Carpeaux made Why Born Enslaved! with the hope of sale—just as nearly every other post-Gothic artist has done. But according to Nelson, that commercial end undercuts any abolitionist meaning that a naive viewer may attribute to the bust. Since the work “was designed to meet consumer desire,” Nelson writes, we should see it as a vehicle for “colonialist fantasies about the physical possession and containment of Black women’s bodies.”
The art press ran with the Met’s anticommercial theme. New York Times art critic Holland Cotter dismisses any abolitionist motivation for Josiah Wedgwood’s antislavery medallion, since it, too, entered the stream of commerce. Once the medallion was offered for sale, it became merely a “commodified emblem of Black abjection and white paternalism,” Cotter writes in his review of the Fictions show.
When black artists market their works, the Met lauds them for their branding creativity. The creator of After la Négresse, 1872 has an entire “Kehinde Wiley Shop” online, where he peddles his “exclusive, limited-edition designs.” Caitlin Meehye Beach, an assistant professor of art history and an affiliated faculty of the African and African American studies department at Fordham University, notes admiringly in her catalog essay that Wiley’s After la Négresse, 1872 comes “packaged in a glossy black cardboard box printed on one side with a high-contrast photo.” The box seems “as much a part of the work of art as the sculpture itself,” Beach writes breathlessly, unoffended by such commodification of culture.
According to Beach, Wiley is not seeking to get rich with his Kehinde Wiley Shop; he is critiquing white supremacy. His marketing of After la Négresse, 1872, box and all, simply “brings the question of bodily objectification into the contemporary moment” and makes a “forthright statement on the nature of art objects as consumable goods.”
Shattering the market nexus for non-Met-approved art requires going after the demand side as well. The wife of Emperor Napoleon III, Empress Eugénie, purchased a version of Why Born Enslaved! in 1869. She thus became complicit in the work’s whitewashing of the colonial impulse. Curator Nelson sneers that “Eugénie stood to benefit from the political posturing that [the bust] enabled.” The Left, as we know, would never engage in “political posturing.” Yard signs announcing a house against hate and for science are acts of political sacrifice, not posturing. Ditto the Met’s land acknowledgments—not cost-free virtue-signaling but difficult decisions with real-world consequences. The corporations that funneled billions into Black Lives Matter shell organizations in the weeks after George Floyd’s death were not seeking to burnish their antiracist credentials with the media and activists but were disinterestedly seeking racial justice.
One work alone in the Fictions exhibit escapes the Met’s opprobrium. Edmonia Lewis was a nineteenth-century American neoclassical sculptor of black and American Indian descent. Her Forever Free, from 1867, depicts a male and female of indistinct age and relationship. The life-size male stands, with his left arm raised and a broken shackle on his wrist. The man’s right hand rests on the shoulder of a kneeling female in a long frock; her hands are clasped in petition or, perhaps, in thanks. The female’s scale is so much smaller than the male’s that it is difficult to know whether she represents a child or the man’s diminutive wife.
Forever Free is patently inferior to the other works in Fictions of Emancipation. The composition is static; the figures are expressionless, their faces a blank mask. The anatomical proportions within, and not just between, each figure are out of alignment. Their feet are gargantuan; the female’s foot is as large as the male’s, despite her miniature head and vastly reduced overall size compared with the male’s colossal body. Lewis’s modeling of muscle and bone is elementary.
Yet the Met curators treat this work as the only masterpiece in the exhibit. The figures are “imbued with power, dignity, and spirituality—human traits they share with their creator,” expounds a wall text. If Carpeaux possessed any such “human traits,” a visitor to the show would never know.
The Met’s enthusiasm for the one “black”-created work included in the show is all the more striking, since Forever Free violates the proscriptions that damned more artistically compelling works. Despite the vacuity of the pair’s expressions, Lewis presumably used live models for the composition. We do not know their names or biographies. Elyse Nelson claims that Carpeaux ignored the “personhood” of his subject in favor of a “racial type.” This is curatorial malpractice. The subject of Why Born Enslaved! is particularized; we feel that we know the movement of her soul. Lewis’s figures, by contrast, are generic.
The Met was scandalized that the white artists in Fictions of Emancipation portrayed recognizable blacks, thus fueling the fiction that race exists. But its commentators do not flinch from presuming the male in Forever Free to be black, thus confirming the reality of race. One commentator, Harvard University researcher Adrienne Childs, cheerfully concludes that the female is of mixed race.
The Met scorned the supplicant gestures in white-created abolitionist works. The female in Forever Free is beseeching someone or something. She gets a pass, however.
The most shameless application of racial double standards comes from Cotter of the Times. In January 2022, he reviewed the Met’s African Origin of Civilization show (which anticipated Fictions of Emancipation in its contempt for historical accuracy and aesthetic honesty). Cotter had criticized an ancient Egyptian sculpture of a man and a woman for making the “man . . . dominant.” The Egyptian male was a “head taller than his mate, his left arm [was] around her shoulder; his hand cover[ing] her breast,” Cotter wrote.
Cotter should be concerned, then, about Forever Free’s “gender-based hierarchies,” as he put it in January 2022. Not only is the female three-quarters the scale of the male; she is on her knees, her head barely reaching up to the male’s crotch, and under his protective paw.
Cotter solves the double-standard problem elegantly: he simply excises the female out of the composition. Lewis’s sculpture “offers an exultant vision of Black male agency in the figure of a man standing tall and waving broken chains skyward,” Cotter writes. One would never guess from his description of the work that the man was “standing tall” next to a female. If we didn’t know Cotter’s sympathies, we might suspect him of misogyny.
The art museum was once considered a place apart, where visitors, seeking beauty, could see the world through more perceptive eyes than their own. An art museum, wrote British critic William Hazlitt, “calls forth the most intense desires of the soul.” A former curator at the Louvre, Germain Bazin, compared the viewing of art with a “sort of trance uniting spectator and masterpiece.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is obliterating that ideal. The making and collecting of art—when done by white artists and white collectors—is now a culpable act for which the museum must atone. The Met’s collections have “imperialist origins,” its buildings occupy “stolen lands,” and its galleries are dedicated to “pervasive narratives of white supremacy,” notes chief sculpture curator Sarah Lawrence. If beauty exists anywhere in those culpably “Eurocentric” galleries, you would never know it from the Met’s spokesmen and scholars. Lawrence's recommended reading list for staff and docents consists exclusively of black oppression works like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.” No work of art history makes the cut. (Lawrence happens to be the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Curator in Charge of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Iris Cantor lauded Carpeaux’s “gorgeous work” in the catalog to the Passions of Carpeaux exhibit, which the Cantor Foundation underwrote. The Met is using Cantor Foundation money for Fictions of Emancipation. One wonders if Iris Cantor understands what her philanthropic support is now contributing to.)
The Met once acquired art because it was exquisite and because it expanded our understanding of artistic influence and evolution. The Met now acquires white-created art as if it were taking castor oil. The Met purchased Why Born Enslaved!, writes Lawrence, to fulfill a “commitment to broaden the narratives told in our galleries.” The bust, says Lawrence, is a “prompt to acknowledge issues of race and empire.”
“Narratives,” not connoisseurship, drive the Met today. Director Max Hollein writes in his Fictions essay that the exhibit grows out of the Met’s campaign to redress “institutional narratives by bringing race to the forefront of our discussion of 5000 years of art.” Race was irrelevant for a good 99 percent of the works created during those 5,000 years, which will not stop the Met from imposing its anti-Western template upon them.
Museumgoers don’t need a “prompt to acknowledge issues of race and empire.” Such issues surround them every day. To use a work as dazzling in its technical accomplishment as Why Born Enslaved! in order to pummel viewers for their white supremacy is a misallocation of resources. Such banal outlets as the New York Times and CNN provide such pummeling without any artistic skill at all.
For the antiracist museum, artists are no longer a source of transcendence or insight. The Met advises viewers that Carpeaux is “only able to convey his perception of a world about which he has only an idea.” This gratuitous putdown is a meaningless truism. No human being has unmediated access to the world outside his perceptions, as Plato, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and other philosophers have understood. But human beings do differ in their capacity to imagine and communicate a broader range of experience than their own; traditionally, we have turned to artists for that superior capacity.
The works in Fictions of Emancipation refute on their face the narrative that the Met imposes on them. Subjugation of enemy peoples is not what set the West apart from the rest of the world. Cruelty toward the “Other” has characterized virtually all human societies and still does in many parts of the world today. Traditional attitudes toward foreigners in non-Western countries like China and Japan, or toward lower-caste Hindus in India, or toward blacks among African Arabs, have been condescending, to put it mildly.
Only the West developed whole disciplines devoted to understanding non-Western cultures. Some of those disciplines may have originally been handmaidens to conquest. But European interest in difference, manifest in Herodotus’s and Xenophon’s observations about Asia, preceded colonialization and outlasted it. The Met should mount a show of non-Western portrayals of the Other. It would have a hard time locating works displaying as much respect for their subject as Carpeaux’s bust of a Chinese man, whose glance conveys mysterious depths of feeling, or Jean-Léon Gérôme’s resplendent warrior Bashi-Bazouk, both included in the Fictions show. Non-Western representations of the “Other,” often sanctioned and promoted by the state, routinely descend into caricature.
The Met should also try to mount an exhibit of African art calling for an end to Africa’s essential and profiteering role in internal and external slave trades. Its crusading curators might discover that the trait of fierce self-criticism has not been equally distributed among the world’s civilizations.
Fictions of Emancipation is a barometer of hate. Only hate toward Western civilization could drive the repudiation of art-historical knowledge required to arrive at the show’s analyses. Only hate could drive so casual a disregard for consistency in the application of aesthetic and moral standards. The curators started with their conclusion: the West is unremittingly white supremacist, even (or especially) when it appears to be fighting white supremacy. They then manufactured evidence to support that conclusion, evidence provided solely by parroting the tired nostrums of academic theory. Give the Met credit for aiming high: if it can portray abolitionist art as a smoke screen for slavery, it can portray anything in Western history as a pretext for oppression—and it will do so.
This hate is a betrayal of the Met’s civilizational responsibilities. For a century and a half, donors gave it art that responds to our yearning for sublimity and that teaches us to see beauty in the everyday. Now the museum wants to expose the alleged racist subtexts of those works. The hate that it spreads within its walls reinforces the hate spreading throughout society.