Fragility and Power: Looking at Art in Museum Spaces

Fragility and Power: Looking at Art in Museum Spaces


In a world that is dominated by images, our perceptions are constantly shaped by what we see, redirected and reinforced in whichever context one is viewing the image in. The complexity of images lies in the malleability of the meanings we attribute to them. In Stuart Hall’s essay Representation and the Media, he elaborates on how we must reconstruct our predisposed understandings of what images truly are: an unfixed perception that is both the representation of the unknown and the frameworks of what we do know. Hall claims that images are made tangible through language and powerful through interpretation, and thus images and our existence as “cultured subjects” are two interrelated entities.1 The inescapable influence of the visual on our collective psyche is perhaps understood best through the exploration of exhibitions like Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, shown at the Maryland Historical Society from 1992 to 1993, and William Rubin’s Primitivism, shown at the MoMA in 1984. Both these exhibitions reveal a network of interpretations of the show’s contents, having elicited reactions that both contradict and amplify Wilson’s and Rubin’s intentions. The public’s interpretation of the shows manifests itself in a history centered around the white male, and by using Hall’s argument to examine the response to the exhibitions, we can see that the complexity of the image ties directly into power dynamics within society. Interpretations are therefore a mirror of both prejudice and awareness in the political systems of race, gender, and class.

Primitivism was curated with the intent of appreciating “primitive” artworks from tribal groups around the world, yet the general reaction to this exhibition was far from William Rubin’s initial intent to “juxtapose modern and tribal objects in the light of informed art history.”2 The fault within this exhibition was the failure to recognize the diversity of these groups, undermining their existence as individuals, and further reinforcing an idealistic image created by Western guilt and egotism. The othering of these tribal groups proved that there was little to no true intersection between the canonical modern artists and the other cultures from whom they drew inspiration, but rather a spotlight on the eurocentric artists situating their own right in a world that is not theirs—a theme of inappropriate contextualization and an unsubstantiated claim to affinity that is far too common throughout history. The juxtaposition between the anonymity of the “primitive” artists and the fixation on the Western gaze eerily reeks of colonial pasts. It insinuates, as art historian Thomas McVeilly says when discussing the concept of primitivism in modern art, the wrongfully “claimed right to judge other cultures by our own [Western] standards, and to treat these judgements as somehow objective.” 3  The imbalance between the representation of the “primitive” and the modern alludes to Hall’s skepticism toward signification as a truth, and the politics of the truth in general. Hall questions:  “who has the power, [and] in what channels, to circulate which meanings [and] to whom?” The controversy around Primitivism parallels his conclusion that “the issue of power can never be bracketed out from the question of representation.”4 Just as the modern works are represented by names like “Gauguin, Picasso, Brancusi, Modigliani, [and] Klee,” the “primitive” works are simply reduced to the “200 tribal objects from America, Oceania and North America.”5A sense of cultural disconnect arises from the policing of the tribal artworks framed as anonymous objects throughout the exhibition, ultimately revealing a lack of postcolonial progression. When scrutinized in historical context, Primitivism renders itself ignorant to the tangible realities of colonialism and eurocentric hierarchy. 

However, Rubin’s attempt at establishing a cultural narrative between the “primitive” and modern is not to say that the intersection between two art worlds cannot coexist without an overbearing complex of superiority. When recontextualized and placed under a focused lens, “primitive” aesthetics can convene with modern aesthetics in a balanced nature. Picasso’s work, shown in the exhibition, is not entirely problematic on its own (when viewing his art separated from his flawed life). His surrealist style drew great inspiration from early twentieth century “primitivism” as a movement in search for more raw forms of artistic expression.6  It was a fascination of not only the aesthetics but also the grounded elements of pure human nature. As said by Micheal Brenson in his article for The New York Times, “For artists like Picasso and Giacometti, the journey through Primitive Art led them back to something essential in their own artistic tradition.”7This notion links back to Hall’s claim that our identity as curious and social beings means that we classify the world through complex internalizations of everyday interpretations.8 It is within our human nature to explore cultures of others in order to make sense of our place in reality and in order to establish ourselves as “cultured subjects.”9 Only when the “primitive” work is undermined and placed in a space as a secondary to the Western works, the politics of power and colonial history come into play.

In comparison to Primitivism, Fred Wilson’s exhibition, Mining the Museum, was greeted with much more of a positive response from critics and the public. The exhibition featured works centered around the Black narrative in America’s history and consisted of both subtle and overt representations of such. Works like “Modes of Transport” featuring a Klu Klux Klan hood in an antique stroller, or “Cabinetmaking, 1820-1960” consisting of period chairs centered around an elevated whipping post, or “Metalwork” where a pair of rusted slave shackles were placed alongside Baltimore repoussé silver-ware, all reveal the complexity in the layers of juxtaposition within the exhibition. The discrepancy between Primitivism and Mining the Museum is made clear when examining the historical context of the exhibitions and each curators position in the history. While Rubin’s insertion of authority further marginalized tribal groups, Wilson’s ability to genuinely connect to the shared black experiences of oppression created an exhibition with purpose and satire. Wilson’s America was a raw representation of America: a country corrupt with bigotry and ridden with police brutality. The 1992 riots following Rodney King’s beating served as a catalyst for Wilson’s curation, and Mining the Museum was an attempt to criticize the white gaze and the exact issue that had led to much of Primitivism’s controversy. Wilson himself was speaking from his own experience as a person who did not have the privilege to ignore the true history of America. The collaboration of The Contemporary and the Maryland Historical Society, where the exhibition was mounted, is significant to the irony of historical spaces that Wilson provocatively and subtly suggests. In Howard Halle’s essay Grand Street No. 44, he claims that “by excavating the site of institutional racism and retrieving forgotten African-American artifacts and heroes, Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museum” brings to light a history and a cultural presence that [has] been buried beneath layers of neglect and deliberate exclusion.”10 By inserting himself in a position of power that is generally taken by a white man, Wilson is regaining control of the eurocentric narrative and “subverting and shattering”11 it as a curator. Wilson’s contestation to stereotypes is a pursuit to reverse stereotypes and the white-washed history of America.12

Black history and narratives are often removed from historical sites in America, and setting the exhibition at such a site brings up the question of truths once again. This is demonstrated in Truth Trophy, an installation shown in the very first room of the exhibition. This installation shows a gold globe with the emboldened word “TRUTH” held on a pedestal in the center, along with three empty black pedestals to the left of it, and three white pedestals with sculptures of Napoleon, Henry Clay, and Stonewall Jackson.13 The black pedestals were labelled with significant figures in the history of Maryland: “Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, and Frederick Douglass,” all of whom were of African descent. This installation set the tone for the following works and “established that Mining the Museum would explore not what objects mean but how meaning is made when they are ‘framed’ by the museum environment and museum practices.”14 The “Truth Trophy” is a symbol of silenced Black narratives, amplified by the predominately white environment of the Maryland Historical Society. Wilson’s engagement of the context of the historical space to bring new meanings to the art echoes Hall’s emphasis on the malleability of meanings, and the idea that “it is absolutely central to a historical notion that meaning can be changed.”15, Wilson’s evident awareness that the “attempt to fix it [meanings] is why power intervenes representation at all” is what liberates his exhibit from the white gaze and allows him to question the concept of truths with the Nietzschean philosophy of relativity and the separation of truths from reality. 16,17  Through his tactful play on museum spaces being an extension of the works, he reinforces Black history as a constitutive to the history of all Americans, generating a great deal of praise from the art world and thus creating a first mark in changing the dynamics of power within the institution.

Context is eminently linked to our interpretations of images, and the unavoidable experience of viewing images is what shapes our existence as complex beings. As Hall discusses, images, and more so our interpretation of them, is what forms culture and creates history. Along with the power of images comes the responsibility of understanding the context in which we view it. As shown in the exhibitions Primitivism and Mining the Museum, images can only communicate intention so far until the context and interpretation intervenes, and this is why Hall “insists on the role that intellectual work can play in helping to regain control of an image-dominated world that has drifted beyond the democratic reach of ordinary people.”18When exploring the intersections and divergences of Primitivism and Mining the Museum, we can see just how critical it is to dissect the mosaic of systems that give us a sense of meanings and truths. Although we can say that Primitivism operated through the westernized ego while Mining the Museum operated as a more progressive and deliberate attestation to American history, both exhibitions created a greater understanding of the rhetoric of the image, and our place within the image’s realities. 

  1. Stuart Hall, “Representation and the Media,”  Media Foundation for Education (1997), 4.
  2. MoMA, “New Exhibition Opening September 27 at Museum of Modern Art Examines ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art,” press release, August 1984.
  3. Thomas McVeilly, Art and Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity (McPherson, 1999), 157.
  4. Hall, “Representation and the Media,” 5.
  5. MoMA, “New Exhibition Opening September 27 at Museum of Modern Art Examines ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art,” 2.
  6. William Rubin and William Stanley, Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, II (The Museum of Modern Art, 1984), 615.
  7. Michael Brenson, “Discovering the Heart of Modernism,” The New York Times, October 28, 1984.
  8. Hall, “Representation and the Media,” 4.
  9. Hall, “Representation and the Media,” 4.
  10. Fred Wilson and Howard Halle, “Mining the Museum,” Grand Street 44, (1993): 151-72.
  11. Hall, “Grand Street 1993.”
  12. Hall, “Representation and the Media,” 7.
  13. Lisa Corrin, “Mining the Museum: An Installation Confronting History,” Curator: The Museum Journal, vol. 36, no. 4 (1993), 307.
  14. Corrin, “Mining the Museum,” 306.
  15. Hall, “Representation and the Media, 7.
  16. Hall, “Representation and the Media, 7.
  17. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (Penguin, 2013), 3.
  18. Hall, “Representation and the Media, 7.
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