A few months ago, I found myself walking the pristine halls of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or the SFMOMA as it’s known. Prior to the visit, I was quite excited – the SFMOMA, after all, is the home of one of my favorite paintings. I remember entering the gallery where it was featured – with its pristine white walls and tiny labels – and searching for it. I remember finding it, far bigger than I expected yet just as impactful. I remember sitting on a bench and staring at it for what felt like hours but was likely just half of one. And I remember being disappointed, deeply and utterly disappointed.
The painting was not the cause; it was astounding. The painting in question is The Flower Carrier by Diego Rivera, an early 20th century Mexican painter. It depicts a Mexican man burdened under the weight of a basket of flowers, aided by his wife as he likely carries away the flowers to be sold. It is a political statement about the commodification of beauty and art. The flowers, seemingly impossibly heavy, weigh upon the man who carries them to market but does not get to appreciate their beauty. It is a statement about gender. As the man falls and shows weakness, it is the woman, standing tall and powerful, who supports him. It is a statement about race. The woman and man both are dark skinned with indigenous roots.
In the context of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, all these political statements were lost. The labels provided no historical context – not one mention of Rivera’s communist sympathies and views of work and art. The painting was de-historicized and de-politicized. Instead of being the political statement of poverty it should be, it was simply a pretty picture to be admired by (notably mainly white) museum goers who could afford the $25 entrance fee. In the gallery showcasing an artist known for his focus on indigenous and working class identities, the only people of color in the room were the staff – just like in the painting, those who carry the flowers do not have the ability to admire them.
This erasure of cultural and political context in the SFMOMA is hardly unique. While museums today seem both widespread and innocent, the modern museum has not always been the most enlightened of places. In the 18th century, the development of the modern museum went hand in hand with the development of the colonial nation state and the rise of bourgeois acquisitiveness in Europe. Museums and gardens developed to showcase new “exotic” goods, essentializing and reducing the cultures they were stolen from. When discussing Western museums, it is impossible to ignore their origins in European colonialism. While the SFMOMA is, of course, far less exploitative than the imperial museum, its erasure of politics is eerily similar. The removal of political significance and arguments a la The Flower Carrier is a reflection of the tendency of imperial museums – showcasing the other without explanation or awareness.
The imperial museum, however, is not the only conception of how a museum should function. In 1997, historian and anthropologist James Clifford published an essay entitled “Museums as Contact Zones,” which, as one might expect from the title, argued that modern museums must function as contact zones. The contact zone is a social space in which two or more cultures interact and communicate histories and relationships – a potentially useful pedagogical tool to recognize the histories of unequal and imperialistic relationships. In the contact zone, the anger at past mistreatments come at the same time as the joy of experiencing the new but familiar. This is the contact zone – a place of rage and of peace, of sadness and of exhilaration. This is what a museum should and must be – aware and attentive towards its history to create a space of conflict and resolution both. Unfortunately, the SFMOMA fails in this regard. The cultural and political interactions are ignored and hidden. With its transformation of the fundamentally political and non-white to a mere pretty picture, it fails as a post-imperial museum.
What, then, would a museum as a contact zone look like? If not the SFMOMA, where can we look to see an example of how a post-imperial museum should function? The answer can be found on our very campus: the Cantor Arts Center. This may sound absurd – the Cantor was, of course, created through the wealth of the Stanford family, famous for their exploitation of workers. However, the Cantor does what every museum should do in this circumstance: it acknowledges its role as a political space. I remember when I first visited the museum – it was during my Admit Weekend. Despite the fact I had not much experience with art museums, something still felt different about the Cantor, something unusual for an art museum, something I did not feel in the SFMOMA. Yet, for the longest time, I couldn’t explain what caused this difference. Then it dawned on me.
The Cantor Arts Center has an exhibition on the Stanford family. It showcases their lives, their legacies, their faults, and their successes. It doesn’t obfuscate the origins of the museum or the sometimes shady provenances of their objects. It is clear where the money came from, as exploitative as it may have been. An art museum having an exhibit on their founders is, as most museum goers will recognize, a rather rare occasion. Having an exhibit as honest and critical as the Cantor’s is even rarer. The SFMOMA, for instance, has no such information on display for the common visitor. It merely showcases the art, devoid of its history and political influence as The Flower Carrier was. The Cantor is different: it functions as a contact zone should. There is conflict, as the Stanford’s legacy of exploitation can never be truly erase, and this conflict is stated clearly, an open debate for all visitors to wrestle with when walking through the wings. This is the contact zone as a pedagogical tool – a space where cultures interreact, revisiting past conflicts as a method of future exploration.
I do not plan on visiting the SFMOMA any time soon, which is a shame, as I would love to revisit The Flower Carrier. However, to experience art in such a whitewashed environment is to not experience art at all. Art must be contextualized and argued; museums must be political and recognize their role as political and historical actors. The Cantor Arts Center does this, and while it can certainly still improve and is nowhere near perfect, stands as an example for museums in our modern era and something to expand on in a postcolonial future.
Photo: The Thinker by Rodin at the Cantor Arts Center of Stanford University, 12 January 2013, Credit: Oleg Alexandrov