Folk and native arts have inspired a number of art movements and styles throughout history, including Exoticism, Orientalism, Japonisme, Primitivism and Cubism. However, the imitation, display and depiction of such people and their art has often been a contentious topic in the art world. Items ranging from African masks to Shaker furniture were originally created for a purpose—i.e. ritual or practical use—with no intention or desire that they be displayed in a museum. Although museum accession is one of the highest accolades for most Western artists, it can be seen as a great disservice to those outside of this culture.
The “cabinet of curiosities” is a European tradition of the 16th through 18th centuries. Those who were able to afford them collected strange, interesting or unidentifiable objects of natural and human creation. Examples of items in these collections included paintings, sculptures, and whole stuffed animals or their shells and horns. Often, objects were beyond human understanding at that time and mythologies would surface—i.e. a narwhal’s tusk would be identified as the horn of a unicorn. The Walters Art Museum of Baltimore, Maryland has dedicated a permanent installation to a recreation of a Chamber of Wonders “as it might have been assembled by a 17th-century nobleman in the Southern Netherlands.” This particular collection includes a painting depicting another cabinet of curiosities.
This same sense of the absurd still makes its way into modern museums. As the Guerrilla Girls point out, museum collections consist largely of the work of white, male artists. “Others”—people of a different gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.—are generally represented in one of three ways:
1. The depiction of Others
Made famous by Gauguin’s art from Tahiti, exoticism can be seen in the New Britain Museum of American Art’s own painting by Elizabeth Nourse entitled Moorish Prince. Are images like this celebratory or demeaning? They illustrate the beauty of other cultures, but make it very clear that these are not ideals of the normative, Western society.
2. The display of the work of Others
As was previously mentioned, many objects that Western society considers to be an “art object,” such as African masks or Shaker furniture, were originally created for a purpose. These purposes include a variety of traditions or needs, but museum display was never originally intended. The makers of such objects do not consider them to be art the way museums do. Is it right to put such a piece on display in a museum against the intentions or wishes of its creator? Does the opinion of the creator or collector matter more?
3. The imitation of the work of Others
Picasso and Braque’s inspirations for Cubism included the art of African, Oceanic and other “native” cultures. The influence of these ideas is evident in the New Britain Museum’s Young Girl by William Zorach. Do these Western adaptations do justice to that which they imitate? Are these examples celebratory or demeaning? Their style comes from outside of Western culture, but does this imitation imply that the original was not of quality? Or do they celebrate the innovation of the original depiction through their own interpretation?
The New Britain Museum of American Art is proud to display our varied collection by artists from all walks of life. We believe that displaying art by various cultures past and present creates interesting dialogues for our visitors. As our permanent collection galleries are arranged chronologically, we highlight certain areas of inspiration and the subsequent movements. From Shaker chairs to Cubist sculpture, we actively seek to define and redefine what is considered “art” in the ever-changing art world.