A publisher’s catalog has raised alarm bells among art critics already concerned about the direction of the UK’s National Gallery.
The Yale University Press Spring 2022 catalog includes Winslow Homer: Cross Currents – which is the publication that will accompany the next exhibition of the American painter Winslow Homer. It opens at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, on April 11, before arriving in London on September 10, 2022. The part of Winslow Homer: Cross Currents What caught my eye is this:
“Long celebrated as the quintessential New England regionalist, Winslow Homer (1836-1910) actually swept a much wider canvas, traveling across the Atlantic world and frequently engaging in his art with questions of race. , imperialism and the environment… Recognizing the artist’s keen interest in distilling complex issues into his work, [the exhibition] overturns popular conceptions and argues convincingly that Homer’s work resonates with today’s challenges.
So, in September, London gallerygoers may experience their first glimpse of Homer’s art framed in terms of environmentalism, racism and imperialism – issues that are at best peripheral to any consideration of his work.
This is not the first example of the politicization of historical art. The Homer exhibition follows the equally controversial Hogarth and Europe at the Tate Britain. This drew criticism for focusing more on the racism and sexism of Georgian England than Hogarth’s art.
It therefore seems that the fine arts are increasingly being politicized by conservative-activists. Great artists of the past are constantly criticized for holding inappropriate opinions or failing to address issues of supposed social injustice. Indeed, exhibitions today frequently take the form of show trials of old masters.
Gabriele Finaldi, the director of the National Gallery, must bear some of the blame for the politicization of his gallery’s exhibitions. After all, it was Finaldi who said the rise of Black Lives Matter meant museums (even historic art museums in the UK) had to take sides. What a British museum of historic fine arts has to say about policing and criminal justice in the United States today is unclear.
In truth, art museums are irrelevant to discussions of race today. The National Gallery’s mandate is to exhibit and preserve only the finest European and North American works of art made before 1900. That’s it. It should have very little to say about contemporary debates about racism.
Yet such is the climate of awakened conformism among our cultural elites that inaction on issues of race resembles indifference. Thus, the likes of Finaldi feel the need to prepare reports on the artists’ links to the slave trade and to exhibit the work of the masters with caveats of racism and sexism.
Desperate to appear relevant, the National Gallery has also revamped its artist-in-residence program. Previously, appointment to this role was a mark of prestige, given to artists who had a deep love and connection to the art of the gallery, such as Paula Rego and Peter Blake. It is now a political prize, awarded to artists whose work has little to do with classical historical art.
The National Gallery has also expanded into contemporary art, exhibiting the work of American painter Kehinde Wiley, who is recasting Western tradition from a black perspective. How did this transition to contemporary art happen? In its constitution, the gallery is committed to three main activities: taking care of its collection, showcasing it and studying it. Exhibiting new art is not a constitutional commitment unless the new art is closely related to the art/artists already in the permanent collection. As we have seen with the ICA and other bodies, it seems that arts organizations contravene their charters in order to divert public money to their quest for political relevance.
The National Gallery is gradually transforming into a center of social justice activism. In doing so, it abandons its main purpose as an art museum – to preserve the great works of the past. She no longer sees in the work of the old masters anything but a source of embarrassment.
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