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Outsider & Insider Politics Within MOMA’s Popular Painting Exhibition

The canonical narrative of modernism within art history is one that is widely known and is extensively acknowledged throughout many places in the world. Everyone who knows art knows artists like Pablo Picasso,

Pablo Picasso by Henri Cartier-Bresson France. 1954

Wassily Kandinsky, Vincent Van Gogh, and more. These artists are considered a part of the mainstream modernists which many institutions, such as MOMA, use to tell the story of modernism. Institutionally, they show a narrative of these artists, and many others like them, and how they shaped modernism through their deliberate negation of past artistic styles and methods. However, many of these artists have been in the spotlight for so long that new, or even old, histories of modern artists have fallen into the background. Many people in the minority groups of the art world are artists of color, native or indigenous artists, LGBTQ artists, or women artists who do not get the same attention as the mainstream artists who are a part of the traditional canonical teachings of art history. MOMA has been attempting to address this fact, with varying levels of success, but in doing so they mostly adhere to the traditionally accepted mainstream histories of art. That is not to say that their attempts are not in vain, they are starting to understand their place as an institution when it comes to teaching narratives of art history. Noticing that in the past they, MOMA and many other museums, have presented a largely white, European-American centric, and heteronormative story of modernism: they have made attempts to not let history continue.

These attempts to reinstitute minority artists or artists forced into the periphery are shown in MOMAs galleries: one, in particular, is the MOMAs exhibition of Masters of Popular Painting.

Hector Hyppolite is considered the grand maître of Haitian art. At the age of 52, encouraged by the Haitian novelist Philippe Thoby-Marcelin, he moved to Port-au-Prince and joined the Centre d’Art, a cooperative founded in 1944 by the American painter DeWitt Peters. The Congo Queen shows Hyppolite’s deftness in conflating Haitian Vodou imagery and Roman Catholic iconography. The central figure, a veiled woman holding an infant on her lap, recalls portrayals of the Madonna and Child, especially the Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland. However, as the title indicates, the subject is Erzulie Dantor, the fierce protector of women and children in Haitian mythology. The deity, here shown with a stern gaze and flanked by a pair of wary seraphim, was among Hyppolite’s most popular subjects. To achieve the painting’s wide range of textures, the artist used brushes and chicken feathers as well as his fingers.

In this gallery, MOMA shows various artists that are “outside '' mainstream art. On their website, MOMA describes this exhibit as consisting of “artists far removed from the mainstream art world” or artists “known as ‘naives, amateurs, self-taught, folk or popular artists, Sunday painters, instinctives’. MOMA declares that these artists “are most often described as ‘self-taught’ or ‘outsider’”. Why are these particular artists prescribed the title of “outsider” artists? MOMA says they are “outsider” artists because they are self-taught and not formally trained in artistic practices. They say that attention to these self-taught artists is “essential to understanding modernism and its insistence on the non-academic and the instinctual” but they still deem these artists as “outside” mainstream modernism. I have some problems with this exhibit, mainly with the use of the term “outsider” and the connotation it brings. “Outsider” alludes to the othering of those deemed lesser: in this case, as less than the artists “inside” the mainstream art world. Not only does “outsider” carry a negative connotation within art history, it perpetuates an othering of artists in the periphery. Artists like Horace Pippin, José Dolores López, Hector Hyppolite, Theora Hamblett, and many others artworks hang in this gallery of Popular Painters. Just by hanging in this gallery, these artists are being othered by the declaration that they are “outside'' mainstream art. Black artists, women artists, indigenous artists, and a few European artists sprinkled in are othered simply because they are self-taught. Why does being self-taught mean they are outsiders? Within this exhibition of self-taught artists, which I have observed in 2022, there are “several of the [same] artists featured [that] were included in the Museum’s 1938 exhibition Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America”(MOMA). ‘Modern primitives of Europe and America’, the title from 1938. If MOMA is showing the same artists as in 1938 and declaring these “primitive” and native artists as “outsiders'', what has changed in eighty-four years if we are still, in 2022, calling them “outsiders”? If MOMA is saying that these artists are essential for understanding modernism is it because of their native or “naive” representations of which the modernists appropriate on a regular basis? This exhibition brings up so many questions for me.

The only real reason that this exhibit is unsuccessful for me is the term “outsiders”. MOMA chooses to keep these artists on the periphery by determining them as outsiders. In The Predicament of Culture, James Clifford

James Clifford
The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art

addresses how “modernism: its taste for appropriating or redeeming otherness, for constituting non-Western arts in its own image, for discovering universal, ahistorical "human" capacities” is institutional in nature. Artists like Picasso, who appropriate artwork by unknown artists in the periphery to create a never before seen avant-garde art style, are worshiped because of their mainstream popularity and genius. Furthermore, this disregard for culture and subsequent othering of artists like those in Africa, Asia, South America, etc shows that we are still stuck within a colonialist institutional art history today. The “outsider” status that MOMA gives these Masters of Popular Painting is conducive to this appropriation that is seen within modern art. These modern artists take ideas from another unknown artist with the intent to use their ideas not only as their own avant-garde artistry but without permission or acclaim to their original creators. Clifford goes on to say that these artists, who deliberately appropriate artists in the periphery, “[succeed] in demonstrating [...] the restless desire and power of the modern West to collect the world”. This collective approach and appropriative nature goes along with colonial sentiments and white imperialistic endeavors that give the white person a proprietary right over those deemed “others”. It is an “aesthetic appropriation of non-Western others” as a result of “issues of race, gender, and power” within a colonialist institutional hierarchy of art history.

In MOMA’s Masters of Popular Painting, the original exhibition created in 1938 by “[founding director] Alfred Barr [...] attempted to unthink the categories of outsider/insider by instead seeing an “outlier” impulse that runs through the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries [...]”. D’souza continues, saying that “MoMA’s rehang, sadly, extracts the outliers [...] and places them firmly back into their own room. Equalish, but still separate”. MOMAs exhibition of Popular paintings as hung in 2022 is of the same agenda as Barr’s in 1938. There is very little attempt to orient these artists within the “inside” of mainstream art, instead, they still keep to their outsider agenda. In MOMA’s “effort to address the sins and errors of the past, MoMA is attempting an integrative approach, inserting artists back into the mainstream canon within which they had either been marginalized or made invisible. MoMA’s principle aim here, it seems, is to revise the canon, to rewrite it—in short, to expand it to include what it had hitherto refused, forgotten, or hidden: women, for instance, and minority cultures''. Instead of giving these self-taught artists the same standard and level of power as mainstream modern artists are given, these artists are deemed “outsiders” and are sitting in a little room off to the side. For example, there were hardly any people in this gallery room when I was there. But, when you walk past Picasso or Van Gogh there were herds of people crowded around, and I couldn't even see the artwork without squishing my way into the crowd! And sure, you could say it's because these artists are more well known and the tourists who come to the museum want to see these famous artworks- but why should these self-taught “outsider” artists not be given the same standard and herd of attention? MOMA “ [is still asking us] to admire the heroes— Matisse and Picasso, the readymade, expressionism, surrealism, and Paris all receive substantial representation—even if those heroes are now surrounded by other comers''.

All this aside, I would say that the gallery was set up successfully in that it has sculptures and paintings in conversation with one another, and the curators did a good job with the placement of paintings. For example, I particularly like the placement of Séraphine Louis’s Tree of Paradise next to José Dolores López’s Adam and Eve and the Serpent. Both contain trees and religious themes, so they work well adjacent to one another. In this way, the room seems balanced and cohesive: the colors within each artwork are feeding off of their neighbors and the gallery space doesn't seem cluttered or disconnected. It is interesting looking at the style that emerges within each of these self-taught artists' artworks. How they are all relatively flat: with flat shapes and not very much attention to chiaroscuro. Although MOMA points to a “nieve” quality that supposedly is seen in these works, all the paintings included within this gallery are sophisticated and show great attention to detail in order to illuminate a narrative. In “Decentering the Modernist Canon'', Mitter illustrates how this naivete was associated with “primitive” art and its influence on modernist artists. Mitter concludes that “we have already encountered some of the best-known cases of primitivism inspiring the avant-garde, which declared its allegiance to primitive art, children's art, and the art of the mentally ill. The naivete of primitive art is a myth. African art, for instance, is governed by strict aesthetic conventions, but the potent myth helped emancipate Western artists from the constraints of classical taste, bringing about a remarkable paradigm shift”. By assuming that an “outsider” artist, such as these self-taught artists, are simplistic by nature directly relates to the preservation of institutional alterity of minority artists. This “nieve” quality is analyzed through these “insider-outsider politics of modernism from the Euro-American perspective” and is not seen as equal in mastery to mainstream artists. In Masters of Popular Painting, MOMA is nodding towards institutional change by adding these artists into their narrative of modernism but is doing so in a way that still adheres to the othering of artists. In order to move away from this insider and outsider logic, we have to “destabilize [...] concepts of artistic center and periphery”. In conclusion, I say that we get rid of the terms of “outside” and “inside”. All it does is adhere to a colonialist institutional hierarchy and provide no productive titling for any artist of any style, level, race, gender, sexual orientation, or geographic location.


Works Cited

Clifford, James. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Harvard University Press, 1988.

D’Souza, Aruna.”Bigger and better?” 4 Columns, https://4columns.org/d-souza-aruna/moma?seo=%2Fd-souza-aruna%2Fmoma.

Mitter, Partha. “Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 90, no. 4, 2008, pp. 531–548.

“Moma's Revisionism Is Piecemeal and Problem-Filled: Feminist Art Historian Maura Reilly on the Museum's Rehang - Artnews, Maura Reilly.” ACA Galleries, https://acagalleries.com/news/123/.

“521: Masters of Popular Painting: Moma.” The Museum of Modern Art, https://www.moma.org/calendar/galleries/5142.


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