A Visit to the African Museum
By Adrian West.
We are at the African museum, Beatriz and I. The building, a distasteful admixture of Byzantine religious and vernacular swim-club architectures, flanks a lush, fenced-in par-terre fronted by a brass plaque explaining the origins of the term par-terre to Anglophone visitors, opposite a museum of Asian art built in a nearly identical style. “The two excluded,” Beatriz says, provoking a certain annoyance on my part, because I do not believe the distance that separates them from the National Gallery is a sign of ethnocentrism, and because I fear that overexposure to the intellectual sloth I consider characteristic of the postmodern, postcolonial treatises her work obliges her to read will lead her to join in that instinctive rejection of the Positivist tradition that is, for me, one of the more unsettling trends in the humanities of the present day.
There is something pathological, it occurs to me, in our enthusiasm for the picaresque aspects of the suffering of the disaffected and our despisal of the economic and political arrangements by which this enthusiasm is made possible: in our fervor for seeking out spectacles that provoke our outrage and our failure to see that our desire to have our outrage provoked is a symptom of our belonging to an economic class that is often, however indirectly, responsible for the spectacles that provoke this outrage. It is derisible, I then think, to cultivate an expertise in the suffering of the excluded and thereby gain ourselves a university chair or a post at a publishing house from which to declaim the evils of this suffering and exclusion to others who, like ourselves, depend far too intimately on the mechanisms by which this suffering and exclusion are produced ever really to break their ties to them. The intolerance suffusing my thoughts must relate to my irritation at having passed several hours on a bus after more than a week of uninterrupted work, because while the realities that upset me never go away, on a different day I might have been content or even cheerful.
The museum guard is a black person, fifty-five or sixty years in age, soft-spoken, with a kindly face. In a certain way, it is natural that the guard should be a black person; at the same time, it seems unjust and depressing. In any individual instance we do not deny the right of a white person to curate a museum of African relics or even to dispose, in doing so, of a group of subsidiaries of which blacks form the most miserable stratum, provided this person be qualified and her interest in these relics sincere, but the repetition of this arrangement throughout the cultural field, which permits one to affirm, almost as an axiom, that the custody of African relics lies in the hands of a slim stratum of collectors and functionaries of European descent while people of color, as they are called, maintain the lawns of the buildings in which these relics are stored, open and lock their doors, and inspect the purses and backpacks of the people who visit them, is dispiriting—especially as we must know, in our hearts, that our failure to acknowledge the contingencies lying at the base of the so-called meritocracy by which this arrangement is brought about to be the sort of willed ignorance characteristic of ideology or religion.
We are always aware of these contingencies—of the harm done to one’s destiny by being impoverished, beaten or sexually abused, mentally ill or unloved, brain-damaged, starved, ridiculed, and so on; it is furthermore clear to us that verbal abuse, stupidity, ignorance, insufficient affection, humiliation and so on, which are minor versions of the former, are bound to affect our lives perniciously and to compromise the merits upon which economic meritocracies are based. But it is to our psychological and material advantage to deny these contingencies, except in the case that we are a victim of a sort granted a social legitimacy, and the ostentation of our victimhood proves more profitable than the ostentation of our merit, as happens from time to time. Moreover, because the concept of meritocracy yields a reasonably plausible account of events and a reasonably plausible account is all we have need of, being too busy, distracted, compromised or uninterested ever to really think about the sufferings of others, or to penetrate our justifications to a depth sufficient to spot their defects, we do not fall victim to a crisis of conscience, and we are not made to shame ourselves by bowing before our complacency.
Nonetheless, we are not oblivious as to the nature of the shortcomings inherent to the meritocratic idea and when we suffer some setback, we may even avail ourselves of them. When our hopes are suddenly dashed, or love is stripped away from us, then the sheer weight of destiny and the feebleness of free will grow clearer, and yet because, without the illusion of second, and in acknowledgment of the first’s omnipotence, we would be forced to acknowledge the vanity of our projects, the emptiness of our institutions and the insolence of our judgments, we count our bad luck an exception and do not take up, thematically and in earnest, the paradoxes and limit-cases that surround free will—whether this property characterizes an animal, for example, or a retarded person, or a child with a day or a week left before her age of majority; we do not seek to clarify the vague predicates that define it and, because we consider this rhetoric-bound version of sink-or-swim a law of nature, we find pretexts to content ourselves with the grotesquely unkind social arrangements that obtain upon its endorsement.
“Of course,” I say when the guard asks to inspect my bag. I smile at him, though I do not normally acknowledge strangers, and I tell him, in a hushed voice, to have a nice day. On another day I would not have had these thoughts and would have treated him differently. I am disturbed by this inconsistency in myself and often dream that if I am ever free, I will rent a cabin on the seaside or in the mountains of the Galician interior and determine, in the manner of Kant, who is alleged to have devised maxims relating to every morally problematic situation presented to him, and to have put them into practice throughout his life, what exactly I think a person should do; but whenever I could bring such a project to fruition, I always end up sleeping or dining in a restaurant, or taking a vacation in some foreign country where I will walk around for hours, staring at buildings of whose history I am ignorant. I am moved, when I read the biography of Kant, by his quixotic moral rigor; in spite of the certain of his farcical conclusions, his life often seems to me exemplary; but I am already well along in a succession of days that has taken a quite different form, and for years now, there has not been time for the thinking through of my anxieties and the derivation of those maxims that would, presumably, relieve them. And this is generally true: we imagine we are gathering data, and that when we have it in sufficient quantity, we will arrive at a correct way of thinking about the world that is the prelude to proper conduct; all the time we are inching closer to the death that will render this conduct irrelevant.
In the entrance hall, there is an array of television screens that recall to us the pathetic talking figures from the past that were the sole objects of interest at the African-American Museum in Philadelphia. We try constantly to tell ourselves we think as highly of the artistic production of blacks, or of their importance in history or their cultural legitimacy, as we do of those of Europeans, but we only make ourselves ridiculous when we observe without complaint these outlandishly tacky displays or waste our time reading capsule biographies of Sarah S. Goode or Elijah McCoy. Our concern is only rarely to ameliorate the social and economic conditions of blacks, or to come physically or emotionally closer to them; most commonly we worry more about elaborating a testimony of our immunity to racism, which we imagine one day we might be called upon to deliver. An astonishing amount of our moral decisions are based on such imaginary testimonies. This may represent constitutional enervation in western peoples, for whom a world in which it were incumbent to do other than talk about oneself is inconceivable.
On the screens, black men dance in groups, holding shields and spears, and weave baskets. “At least we have the ethnographic angle covered,” Beatriz says. Every person presents himself either as a peer or as an object of study. Although we would protest otherwise, we cannot really treat these African dancers and basket-weavers as peers because we cannot talk to them, we see them on television or in magazines devoted to broadening our understanding of culture, and their ways of being and the life-histories that endow their actions with significance are inaccessible to us. We may take a chartered trip to their village and snap pictures on our cellphones to upload to an album on Facebook but our zeal reflects our boredom with the etiolated art products of our own culture, which may indeed have exhausted themselves in their self-referentiality, as Beatriz says, and not a concern with the individual being of which art is an efflorescence. When we read books and watch documentaries about the lives of a people, we come to understand their symbols and beliefs, but this process remains an adventitious one. Our acquaintance with the cultures we study is like that of a student who has learned a language from a book, and when we permit ourselves to be convinced, in some sentimental transport, that it is something more to it, we are as absurd as a person faking his class or country of origin.
Often we have never asked ourselves what we mean when we talk about culture; perhaps in a class we have learned Georg Simmel’s or Clifford Geertz’s definitions of culture and repeated them to ourselves from time to time, gradually forgetting what all they entail. Our everyday language is based not only on knowing what other people are talking about without needing to press for an explanation, but also, and perhaps much more deeply, on not talking about anything, so that our conclusions are sufficiently flexible not to cause discord with those around us.
Along the walls enclosing the information desk are glass cases. In one stands a short statue of a fat man in a T shirt and shorts. Printed on the slope of its ziggurat-like stand, after the embarrassing observation that the man is “small in size, but big in attitude,” is the following consideration by the artist: “I use the figure in gestural manner to evoke emotion.”
From here we descend a staircase that leads to the main galleries, where the art is divided by genre or by the private collection to which it once belonged. We see a coffin in the shape of an elephant, very famous, according to my wife, paintings, masks and artisanal jewelry. Art objects provoke a kind of distress that is unknown when we confront a movie poster or an advertisement, for example. Our grasp of the latter is effortless—we know why they are there, where they came from, and what we are to glean from them. We learn lessons about visual objects in the course of our lives and these lessons contribute to our intuitions about the nature of objects, but these intuitions fail us when we go to the museum and find something so strange as a lead comb and a wrist cuff from a hundred years before. Our thoughts about these things are not fertile, we find ourselves repeating the most elementary judgments of them and when we read the placards that are supposed to clarify their nature, if we are not deluded into accepting that real ideas lie behind the constant propagation of words like exploration and space and convey, we see our elementary judgments repeated back to us. We imagine that to educate ourselves as to the history of the areas where these art objects first flourished and the conditions they were produced under will conduce us to some richer experience of them, but in general this is a tedious ordeal. I am also not sure that I am a more virtuous person when I attempt to inform myself as to the lifeways of so-called minorities, my motivation for doing so often feels meretricious.
If I were to be visited by a tribesman from Africa, I would not recommend he read about my way of life beforehand; not because I doubt the utility of doing so, but because it is somehow unceremonious. We naturally suspect the motives of a person who knows too much about us before he meets us, who has searched for us on the internet, for example, or queried our friends about our character. We would like to speak for ourselves. In the same way, I am not sure I would be doing justice to an African—a hypothetical African, who serves to help me clarify the ethical and intellectual dilemmas surrounding the encounter with an African of flesh and blood, or the African of flesh and blood himself—by establishing a set of assumptions about his dreams or his inner life based on my reading, however subtle or exhaustive it might be.
An art object as such is a perversion, I think to myself. It is possible that the practice of walking around among the artifacts of a country that have been bought or appropriated and then hung on the walls of another country cannot be justified in terms of intellectual or spiritual edification. We are faced with an art object, we do not know what it means, why it was made, or what we are supposed to do with it; our sole natural inclination is to answer these questions and yet, confusingly, we have also often heard that art represents purely visual truths that are only distorted by discursive analysis.
Frequently I stare at the families or solitary students walking through museums, pausing now before some masterpiece that has been reprinted on postcards and now before a vanguardist provocation, looking with listless pietism, as though to will an insight into being. A work of art, viewed naively, is intractable beyond its decorative appeal; but when we read about a work of art and learn, for example, that the solemnity of the married couple in the Arnolfini portrait adumbrates its reference to funerary sculpture, our transmission of this opinion we have acquired from reading Panofsky feels pompous and pedantic. Of course there is a difference between acquiring these opinions in the course of one’s intellectual wandering and doing so with the intent to repeat them in a system of social exchanges for the accrual of prestige, but unless we are utterly isolated and implacably dedicated to those intellectual divagations—which strikes me as misguided and, in the end, nihilistic—we are already enmeshed in these systems of social exchange and hence disqualified from speaking of our actions with reference to their ethical purity.
The pleasure we feel at a symbol’s illumination is the same that attends on the satisfaction of infantile curiosity; it represents, in all likelihood, a rendition into the acceptable domain of high culture a longing execrated as nosiness when expressed in its most natural form. The idea of sublimation views this rendition as a process of moral and intellectual betterment but this may be a class prejudice, related to the monetary privilege that goes nearly hand-in-hand with the transcendence of one’s native taste for vulgarity.
When we devote ourselves to a study of those works that are said to illuminate the nature of art, we hope to amass a quantity of data sufficient to allow us to arrive at our own original understanding thereof. We have no assurance this will happen. It may even be that our study will saddle us with delusions from which it will be ever more difficult to escape, or that we are condemned, for reasons that we will never understand, to mental barrenness.
On the wall hangs a picture of a storm in the style of Kaspar David Friedrich. Beneath the clouds lie ears of grain, blades of grass, and bones. The picture refers to the devastation of the Biafran war of secession. In it, according to the accompanying text, the artist expresses his “personal sense of loss over his ravaged homeland.”
It is not the heavy-handedness of kitsch, but its seductiveness, that repels us. We react to the exultation of kitsch, to its diffusion, in a manner more moral than esthetic. We sense something sinister in the enticements of kitsch and we feel it upright to cultivate immunity to them. Indictments of kitsch tend to rely on invocations of its importance to totalitarianism and at times go so far as to recommend obscurantism as a kind of prophylactic against fascist tendencies, but it is likely these assertions are spurious and serve as a cover for snobberies anchored in social class. We are alarmed by the sentimentality of a figure such as Lenin crying at the opera, or those postcards of Hitler, the “Tierleber,” petting a fawn, but then, the Jesuitical embrace, on the part of countless allegedly progressive people, of artists and philosophers who count petulance and inscrutability as virtues, is equally far from consoling.
It is taken to be philistine to respond to art with the question, what does it mean, but the coolness with which the non-philistine suppresses this question is, if anything, more ridiculous. I cannot imagine that the question of meaning is indifferent to the soi-disant initiated; it is more likely that, having never furnished themselves with a robust notion of meaning or, on the other hand, an account their reasons for engaging themselves with art, they find obscurantism or laconicity, with their suggestion of intransmissible illumination, a warmer refuge than candor.
When we think something has meaning, we imagine what is lying behind it; to mean something, first of all, is to arrest out attention, to draw us somewhere, though we do not know where. Often there is nothing behind the apparently meaningful, or the type of meaning that can be arrived at is distinct from the kind we had hoped for. We may, standing before a painting by Fathi Hassan, assume the letterlike forms composing a head to consist of propositions in an unknown alphabet, and believe these propositions to be essential to the work’s meaning; but then we learn, reading the description on the wall, that “most of his scripts are deliberately illegible, and they thus question the assumption that the written word is always accurate.” Thereafter, the meaning for us lies not in the painting’s background, but in the economic circumstances surrounding its production, essential to which is the shrouding of the artist in gnomic discourse in order to promote him as a desirable commodity.
We pause before a glass case holding gauntlets and necklaces wrought of the Maria Theresa thalers that remained in use across Africa until after the Second World War. We both remark on their beauty. Beatriz remarks on the raw materials’ intransigent nature, and the consequent difficulty of cheating, of artistic charlatanism in the craft of metalworking, and I agree, although what stirs me more is the material sacrifice for the sake of art, and the concomitant notion that the importance of these handicrafts was thought to exceed that of the species from which they are fashioned.
Two yards away, with hair like brush-bristles, stand a file of primitively sculpted dolls used, according to an explanatory index card, for didactic purposes.
Early in our esthetic formation, we are told that didacticism is an ignoble end for art. We probably do not ask for an explanation why and we go on repeating it, never asking whether it is true, or to what end this opinion is propounded. Really we do not like to be ministered to, we are raised to reject personalities disposed to ministration and we are convinced, without a preponderance of evidence, of the moral superiority of individualism. Furthermore, we have gown averse and even timid toward many fairly robust intuitions the earnest acceptance of which would require a discomfiting degree of moral engagement. We are not deluded as to the malignant nature of music about committing murder, films in which women are made to lick semen from a dog bowl, or television shows that invite us to chuckle at the degradation experienced by drug addicts and criminals, but we would rather people destroy themselves with their untrammeled liberty than be accused of parochialism. Senghor was right to reject this as a specifically Western malady. Perhaps the vice is not didacticism, but our failure to take it seriously, to refine it and rid it of the insensitivity, conceit, and imperiousness that so frequently blight it. Only an enormous detachment from the values without which human coexistence would prove impossible—a detachment, once again, frequently to be reckoned in terms of the economic privileges that make it possible—could lead one to believe that esthetic refinement or triumph in a competitive marketplace were nobler ends for art than the education of the young, and their preparation for lives to be characterized by kindness and compassion rather than ruthlessness and insensitivity.
In one corner, almost life-sized, stands a statue of a Serer woman composed of bowls, pestles, and other traditional implements of feminine labor, put on display in Venice at the 1993 Biennial. I like it, Beatriz says, while I complain of the depravity of packaging traditions already in the last stages of obsolescence for a foreign art market whose appreciation for them cannot extend beyond a dissolute fondness for the quaint.
It is only some days later that I see a photograph of the artist dressed in a brown tunic with a row of slender wooden figurines behind him, his face joyful and intelligent, and read the title of his posthumous exhibition, “Je ne rêve que de lumière,” a phrase that strikes me as beautiful and profound, that I begin to repent of the undoubtedly reactionary sentiments that weighed on me through the course of that day. Moustapha Dime’s atelier, now a charitable foundation, lay in an ancient fortification on the cliffside of L’île de Gorée, a short ferry-ride to Dakar, from which he would descend to find inspiration among the detritus washed up on the shore, from 1993 to his death, in 1999, at the age of forty-six. We can easily denounce the mercantilization of art but not the right of an artist to walk along the beach collecting driftwood to make a sculpture, or even the wish, on the part of the artistically inclined, to live from their calling and not to work a job and watch their promise wither through neglect. We have an inchoate instinctive reaction, say, to African art, which we pull out of ourselves through writing, but when we have come near the end, we see the scantiness of the evidence on which our conclusions hinge and we can put them forth only with the gravest reservations. If our orientation is indeed a moral one, then it should not be otherwise. Ideally a critical discourse extends beyond itself into the practical field, and its basic character is exploratory; but more commonly, it is an instrument of self-promotion on the part of careerists in the humanities whose prosperity and repute depends upon an open contradiction between the extremity and impracticablity of their ideological utterances.
These were neither the only works I saw that day, nor the only ideas that occurred to me. There was an exhibition by a Brazilian artist of grand intestinal forms, titled in scientific jargon, following the fashion of other richer and more famous artists, as well as a photograph of a Congolese virgin being sold, a coffin in the form of a cell phone, a briefcase decorated with comic strips, one of which featured a clever hare who tricks an alligator into buying what he believes to be a talking car, and finally, a painting of a horseman by an art teacher and friend of Senghor, the sight of whose name, because I am so prone to melancholy, brought to my mind his années d’errance, his crying out of Vive la France! Vive l’Afrique noire! before the German soldiers who had loaded their guns to shoot him, his illness and death in Normandy, and the concession of his seat at the French Academy to the romance novelist and theme-park founder Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. I laughed to excess at the comic strip, probably in hopes of dispelling my bad mood.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adrian West is a writer and literary translator, mainly from German and Spanish. His work has appeared in numerous journals in print and online, including McSweeney’s, 3:AM, Words Without Borders, and the Brooklyn Rail, and his translation of Austrian Büchner Prize winner Josef Winkler’s novel When the Time Comes has recently been published by Contra Mundum Press. He lives between the United States and Europe with the cinema critic Beatriz Leal Riesco.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 11th, 2013.