Revisionist curating is taking over the museum world. A current show at Tate Britain is even more startling in its score-settling than anything yet seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Art Institute of Chicago.
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.”
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.
If there is anything to be learned about composition, genre, or Hogarth’s self-image from the portrait, the viewer is on his own. The deconstructionist curator is more interested in pointing out what is not in a painting than what is in it, an approach that elides any need to master the history of style or to learn to see form with precision.
Tate Britain assigned an actual specialist in postcolonial studies to “The Tête à Tête,” the second canvas in Hogarth’s biting series, Marriage A-la-Mode. University of Pennsylvania English professor Chi-ming Yang, according to her CV, is currently working on “animals, race, chinoiserie, transatlantic slavery, and popular visual culture.” Yang reduces the Hogarth satire of avaricious social-climbing to odious whiteness, plain and simple. “Dissolute white people correspond with shiny white objects in this portrait of domestic disarray,” she writes, the shiny white objects being Chinese porcelain figurines on a mantelpiece. (Those figurines are interspersed with some coffee-colored Buddhas, but never mind.)
Yang would fail as a postcolonial theorist if she couldn’t also summon slavery into the painting. “However indirectly, the atrocities of Atlantic investments are invoked in relation to the outsized expenditures on Asian luxury goods—overall, a picture of White degeneracy.” How does Yang conjure up the de rigueur slavery theme? An unhappy steward has a copy in his pocket of the sermon “On Regeneration” by the Evangelical preacher George Whitefield. Whitefield had long denounced the cruel treatment of American slaves, but he eventually argued for slavery’s legalization in colonial Georgia. Had Hogarth wanted to explore the theme of slavery, he would have done so. In this work, he did not; the Whitefield pamphlet is intended as a rebuke to the morally wayward husband and wife.
Tate Britain’s in-house curators were only slightly less unforgiving. They fault Hogarth for falling into “xenophobic tropes” in his mockery of perceived French affectation and social inequality. A dead white male just can’t catch a break. One might think that skewering inequality would earn Hogarth some social-justice points; instead, the curators see only jingoism: “Hogarth’s use of contemporary stereotypes [regarding the French] suggests how entrenched ideas of national loyalty and identity were at the time.”
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.
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.
One of the Hogarth and Europe’s wall labels was signed by “Members of the Museum Detox Interpretation Group.” Museum leaders have embraced the notion that Western culture is a poison requiring a “detox.” They are betraying not just their professional role but their civilization as well.
Photo: VV Shots/iStock