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Thursday, December 31, 2015

New York's art museums

During this week, I have been doing the rounds of art museums in New York – The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art – it’s simultaneously been an enriching and disturbing experience.

It was enriching because for the first time I saw the original art of the American abstract expressionists – the art form that began in New York in post-World War II era. I was familiar with the two masters of this form – Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko.

Jackson Pollock (MoMA)
Marc Chagall (MoMA)
Picasso (MoMA)
MoMA has a permanent exhibition of the works of many others from the genre; it also has original works of many other masters of modern art, as does Guggenheim (Vasily Kandinsky) and the Met (Abstraction). It would take a long time to carefully study all the art work housed in the galleries of these museums.  

And it was disturbing because there was absolutely no representation of art from anywhere else except the western world. Perhaps that is a minor quibble, or perhaps it isn’t. Nevertheless it weighed upon my mind throughout the time I was in the midst of the western world’s iconic artists.

Then I read the Met’s explanation of Abstraction: “Widespread appropriation of artistic forms from Africa, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and other non- or preindustrial cultures encouraged modern artists to embrace abstraction as a meaningful alternative to the European tradition of depicting three-dimensional and realistic space and form. Many artists and designers considered abstraction to be universal and egalitarian because of a viewer’s appreciation of abstract art did not depend on learned knowledge of history or literature. Throughout the early twentieth century, abstraction developed in painting, sculpture, and design, ranging in style from geometric to organic, with variations in between. Additionally, many modernists associated abstraction with music, a form of expression that artists exalted as inherently subjective in meaning and free from the constraints of realism.”

It would seem that the Western art establishment even in the 21st century assesses the world from a colonial (or at least a neo-colonial) prism. This was definitely true of a majority of the important artists of the twentieth century. Postcolonial sensibilities many have manifested in the adoption of raw imagery and rough-hewn art techniques of the colonized world, but didn’t move the artists enough to make it the subject of their work.

Of course, urban art, which is heavily politicized, is making significant inroads into this rarified world, and is transforming attitudes. It is in this context that the work of urban artists such as Banksy needs to be viewed. His ongoing work on the Syrian refugee crises, and his earlier work in Palestine are perhaps the first instances of an established artist from the West charting a new artistic path.

But, that preoccupation with the neglect of the rest by the West has more to do with my heavily politicized mind rather than the inherent merits of the museums. I concluded 2015 among the best works of art that humankind has known.

Among the most fascinating works featured at the Met include the interpretation of the Three Graces by Manieree Dawson (American, 1887-1969), and a Roman copy of the Greek work.

Manieree Dawson's Three Graces

Roman copy of Three Graces
Throughout the recorded history of western civilization, a number of artists have interpreted the Three Graces. There were three Graces in Greek Mythology: Aglaia, the Grace that symbolized Beauty, Euphrosyne, the Grace of Delight and Thalia, the Grace of Blossom. The Graces were called Charities in Greek, and Graces in Roman. According to Greek poet Pindar, these enchanting goddesses were created to fill the world with pleasant moments and goodwill. Usually the Graces were attending the Greek goddess of Beauty Aphrodite and her companion Eros and loved dancing around in a circle to Apollo's divine music, together with the Nymphs and the Muses. 


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