Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What We Look Like From the Outside

President Obama was reportedly treated to a special tour of Queen Elizabeth II's art collection yesterday. Jonathan Jones has the details:
It is a custom of state visits for the Queen to show the visiting dignitary a specially chosen selection of highlights that may be of interest to them and their nation from her extraordinary collection of paintings, sculpture, drawings, photographs and objets d'art.

The Royal Collection is one of the last surviving examples of monarchical collections, which in most countries have long since become part of public museums; from a historical point of view, it is the finest collection in the world, with treasures such as Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawings and Holbein's portrait studies.

Barack Obama will get a personal view of it this afternoon in the picture gallery of Buckingham Palace, where he will see paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Titian. Among these masterpieces, he will see a special "American" display.

This may seem unpromising – after all, the monarchy lost America back in the 18th century – but in fact the Royal Collection has a fascinating haul of Americana in among its Leonardos.

Indeed, this art collection tells of British enthusiasm down the centuries for all things American, offering plenty of material for a presidential private view.
The rest of the article seems to confirm Jones' first supposition (it required a bit of a stretch in places to flesh out the full customized tour). But more than that, the art that the Queen chose to represent the monarchy's interest in the US art seems to paint a particularly antiquated portrait of the relatively new republic as a romantic Western wilderness:
One of the most evocative American images in the Royal Collection is a photograph of Buffalo Bill that [Queen Victoria] purchased as a souvenir of her favourite frontiersman.

It shows the famous hunter and scout posing with his rifle, long hair and cowboy hat, and wearing a leather tunic in the style of a Plains Indian. It was taken in 1892, the year the Queen enjoyed a special performance of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Windsor Castle. This was the second time she had seen the show. She praised Buffalo Bill, real name William Cody, as "a splendid man, handsome and gentlemanlike".
Indeed, whereas Jones insists "You can chart the cultural history of two continents from this venerable art collection," none of the work described seems to have come from the 20th century, the era in which American art began its international dialog in earnest.

All of which leaves me with the impression that England still views the US via an only-slightly-post-colonialist lens, which I guess, given their more mature sense of history, is understandable.

Another recent opportunity to see what we look like from the outside is the fanstastic exhibition of recent work by German-born artist Josephine Meckseper up at the FLAG Art Foundation through tomorrow. As you consider Meckseper's vitrines and mixed media wall pieces, there's no question that you're seeing something familiar to you as an American, but the point of view is decidedly from the outside. Things we might not even notice (so comfortable are we with them as part of the "natural" landscape around us), look virtually alien in Meckseper's compositions, reminding us of how insular we can be over here in the "new world."

The difference between the shiny chrome and hyper-branded products in Meckseper's vision of America and the more flattering (if ultimately condescending) vision represented by the Queen's collection strikes me as more than just a matter of chronology. Bill Powers nailed it in his review of Meckseper's show :
Josephine Meckseper's show at the FLAG Art Foundation reminds me of Robert Frank's "The Americans" because often it takes a foreign perspective -- insert Alexis de Tocqueville quote here -- to tell us who we are as a nation.
Meckseper's show left me too with the impression that I had been treated to a Tocquevillian update. It may be all the shiny reflective surfaces, but in the end it made me rather self-conscious and even a tad insecure. My vision of myself is not necessarily how others see me. The metaphors and loaded symbols I use to communicate and assume that the people around me understand the exact same way are far from universally agreed upon. This would not appear to be much of an epiphany in the golden age of globalism, but I was still surprised to learn a bit more about what we look like from the outside.

Again, you can catch the FLAG show through tomorrow. You can get a private tour of the Queen's collection if you run for and win the US presidency.

Labels: art viewing


Anonymous Gam said...

... but in the end it made me rather self-conscious and even a tad insecure.

Trying to relate this feeling with the prior post: Art is good for you ... :

When it stops being fun and/or relaxing for them, many collectors stop collecting.

Which seems to reflect the age old mantra that "modern" art is shockingly irrelevant. This blurry boundary between being insulting and revealing something of value that art seems to straddle, seems significant.

Does your galleries encouraging of some artists to be less restrictive on their arts usage, also include subject,style, materials, message. Would you be against corporate sponsorship of individual works of art, such as logo branding on individual paintings - similar to the artists signature on works of art. (versus exhibition/collections sponsorship) Okay I am pushing thte boundries there, but how open do you encourage your artists to be in the 'usage' of their art by collectors - could it eventually be used by advertisers in much the same way memorable songs are used as soundtracks for mundane commodities.

Where do you trace that artist propensity to limit the arts usage?

(I hesitated over using "the" or "their" arts usage.)

5/26/2011 06:12:00 AM  

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