Heather Mac Donald, City Journal, February 13, 2022
Like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has redefined itself as an antiracist “agent of change.” In July 2020, its director Max Hollein and CEO Daniel Weiss announced that the museum will henceforth aim to overcome the racism still perpetrated by our “government, policies, systems, and institutions.”
What such a political mandate means for an art museum may seem puzzling, but two exhibits currently running at the Met provide an answer. They suggest that the museum will now value racial consciousness-raising over scholarship and historical accuracy. Double standards will govern how the museum analyzes Western and Third World art: only the former will be subject to the demystification treatment, while the latter will be accorded infinite curatorial respect. The Met will lay bare European art’s alleged complicity in the West’s legacy of oppression, while Third World violence and inequality will be chastely kept off stage.
The first show, “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at The Met,” arranges the Met’s own seventeenth-century Dutch canvases in thematic categories, such as still life and landscape. (The content of those categories is sometimes hard to discern underneath such mannered academic rhetoric as “Contested Bodies.”) Highlights of the show include Franz Hals’s portrait of Paulus Verschuur, a bravura performance of spontaneous brushwork and psychological acuity that captures the Rotterdam merchant’s modern irony, and Johannes Vermeer’s A Maid Asleep, which anticipates Paul Cézanne in its treatment of decorative pattern and geometry.
The Dutch Baroque formed the cornerstone of the Met’s first holdings; subsequent bequests created one of the world’s great assemblages of Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, and their peers. The antiracist museum, however, understands that it is not just Western art that needs deconstructing; the collecting and donating of art does, too. Thus, the commentary accompanying “In Praise of Painting” wearily notes that “of course” there are “blind spots in the story these particular acquisitions tell. Colonialism, slavery, and war—major themes in seventeenth-century Dutch history—are scarcely visible here.” It is hard to know who is more at fault, in the Met’s view: the artists or the art lovers who collected their work. Few seventeenth-century Dutch paintings treat of “colonialism, slavery, and war,” and fewer still approach the technical mastery of the Dutch canon. “In Praise of Painting” contains a Brazilian landscape by Frans Post that shows members of an Indian tribe gathered in a clearing. The painting is included in the exhibit as a synecdoche for a Dutch colony in northern Brazil; its interest is purely ethnographic. What other paintings about “colonialism, slavery, and war” do the curators think the Met should have acquired? Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum recently mounted a self-flagellating show called “Slavery,” intending to atone for Holland’s former holdings in Indonesia, New Guinea, and elsewhere. Even the royally endowed Rijksmuseum assembled few canvases with colonialism subject matter; as a second-best solution, it was left to attribute luxury items in portraits and still lifes to slavery and racism.
“In Praise of Painting” adopts that strategy as well. “Still life paintings pictured the bounty provided by newly established Dutch trade routes and the Republic’s economic success, while omitting the human cost of colonial warfare and slavery,” the accompanying wall text points out. The curators do not reveal how a still life painter should portray the “human cost of colonial warfare and slavery.” As even the curators admit, a still life by definition focuses on “things without people.” The Dutch masters, who brought the nascent genre to peak gorgeousness, may have delighted in the dragon-fly translucence of grapes and the somber radiance of silver and cut glass; they may have taught us to see beauty in a kitchen’s bounty. Not good enough. They should have anticipated twenty-first-century concerns about racial justice and revised their subject matter accordingly.
Having been instructed to see oppression behind portraiture and to hear silenced voices in tableaux of oysters and lemons, the chastened Met visitor may wend his way to “The African Origin of Civilization,” another show drawn from the Met’s own collections. He will find himself back in a world of prelapsarian innocence, where art, if not the collecting of it, is unencumbered by a debunking impulse and where the culture that gave rise to that art is accepted on its own terms, not measured against present values.
“The African Origin of Civilization” pairs artefacts from ancient Egypt with those from modern (from the thirteenth-century A.D. forward) Sub-Saharan Africa to demonstrate their alleged “shared origins,” as the Met puts it, and to “recenter” Africa as “the source of modern humanity and a fount of civilization.” A timeline runs around the walls noting significant moments in African history, such as the receipt of Grammy awards by pop stars from Benin and South Africa.
The show is based on the writings of Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop (1923–1986). Diop held that ancient Egypt was black, that ancient Egypt and modern Sub-Saharan Africa are part of a unified black civilization, and that this black African civilization, not Greece or Rome, is the source of Western civilization. The exhibit opens with a covertly doctored quote from Diop: “The history of Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until African historians connect it with the history of Egypt” (more on that doctoring below). The exhibition “pay[s] homage” to Diop’s “seminal” 1974 book, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, the Met explains.
The original Diop quote with which the Met opens its “African Origin” show, before the Met doctored it, was more explicit about Diop’s racial agenda. The actual sentence reads: “The history of Black Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until African historians dare to connect it with the history of Egypt” (emphasis added). The Met removed the words in italics, underplaying the Afrocentric angle and smoothing over Diop’s own acknowledgment of how outside the mainstream his scholarship was.
For the Met to build an entire show around Diop’s discredited theories shows how much today’s antiracist museums privilege political considerations over scholarly ones. After the doctored Diop quote, the Met’s wall texts pile on their own Diopian inaccuracies. “Studied by the Greeks, ancient Egypt remained the paradigm of ‘classical’ antiquity and the cornerstone of Western representation until the early twentieth century,” the Met writes. (What motivates the scare quotes here is unclear, besides a generalized desire to problematize, as an academic would put it, any possible Eurocentric perspective.)
This statement is astonishing. Ancient Egypt was not the “paradigm” of classical antiquity; classical antiquity, by definition, was ancient Greece and Rome. The Renaissance was ignited by the rediscovery of Greek and Latin texts, not Egyptian stelae. For the next several centuries, European humanists pored over Greek and Roman philosophy, literature, and art for inspiration regarding what a civilization could achieve. Egyptian thought played no discernible role in that development, if for no other reason than that knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs disappeared in the early centuries of the common era through the early nineteenth century. The characteristic features of the West—democracy, citizenship, experimental science, the rule of law—have their roots in Greece and Rome, not in the Ancient Near East or Africa. Yet a final wall panel in “African Origin” reinforces the show’s initial distortions: Africa played a “generative role in shaping foundational institutions” worldwide, the Met asserts. This claim is untrue regarding ancient Egypt and even more untrue regarding modern Africa.
The artefacts in “The African Origin of Civilization” are exempt from the political standards that “In Praise of Painting” establishes, though the Met’s founders and benefactors come in for the usual drubbing. Those patrons’ “profound bias” explains the late arrival (1982) of Sub-Saharan works into the Met’s collection, as well as the priority placed on the Western tradition in the Met’s early decades. But the Met’s initial emphasis on Western art was perfectly appropriate, given the museum’s role as a transmitter of America’s cultural inheritance. Art museums in non-Western cultures, if they even exist, would likewise foreground their national inheritance. It is unlikely that African museums contain Rococo fêtes galantes or Hudson River school landscapes.
Regarding the African works themselves, the exhibit’s organizers have forgotten all about the “war, colonialism, and slavery” that so haunted the curators of “In Praise of Painting.” The African show contains no sculptures depicting Africans enslaving each other, a practice that long antedated European arrival on the continent. The exhibit’s timeline of Africa notes the start of the transatlantic slave trade in 1528 but ignores the kidnapping, coercion, and brutality with which rulers in West African kingdoms like Dahomey and Oyo produced the human subjects of that trade.
War has been a constant in sub-Saharan Africa. The Ashanti Empire (now Ghana) enslaved members of vanquished tribes when it did not murder them ritually. The Zulu state in southern Africa unleashed the “Mfecane” (crushing) against Sotho-speakers and other Nguni societies starting in the late eighteenth century. Highlander Abyssinians conquered and colonized Somalis, Oromos, and assorted small chieftains from the late sixteenth century to the early twentieth century. “The African Origin” curators do not decry the African artefacts’ inattention to such matters.
A brass plaque from the court of Benin shows a warrior chief in a helmet, holding a sword and surrounded by soldiers and attendants, smaller in size to indicate their inferior status. The plaque commemorates the triumphs of the Oba Esigie (the ruler of the Benin kingdom) over what the curators discreetly term “internal and external threats.” What became of those internal critics and external enemies is not represented on the plaque, nor does the Met note the absence of any reference to their fate.
The exhibition is silent on the tradition of human sacrifice in Africa. Asante kings offered human sacrifices as protection against enemies. In recent years, police inspectors and doctors in Uganda have reported on children and women sacrificed by witch doctors to improve the fortunes of their clients.
None of the ritual objects in the African Origin show was created by a female, or we would have heard about it. Yet the Met condemned its own sexism for failing to collect more female Dutch Baroque painters. Power objects are owned and handled exclusively by Malian males, a privilege which undoubtedly gives those males even more power with respect to females. Nineteenth-century British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton described female genital mutilation in his 1856 travel memoir, The First Footsteps in East Africa. That reality is left out of the show, which adopts the Diopian view of Africa’s matriarchal equality and harmony.