Monday, December 19, 2005

First of all, I like Ansel Adams. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t. His monumental images of the American West are practically inseparable from our experience of the West itself. His images from Yosemite, his photos of the Tetons—I saw them long before I saw the real thing, and they intensified the majesty of the landscape for me when I finally did. No need to photograph them myself, though, because Adams had already done it, and nobody’s ever done it better. As for the exhibition of his work at the Museum of Fine Arts: save yourself some money and aggravation, just buy the catalog—the pictures in it are about the same size as the ones hanging on the wall, and you'll be able to view them better in the comfort of your own home.

The choice of an Adams exhibition is in line with the MFA's goal of showing very pretty, very nice, and very irrelevant art. Or worse: showing still-relevant art that could move us in a way that expressly doesn’t, except to move us along as quickly as possible through the exhibition hall and into the gift shop, where, in this case, we could show our appreciation by buying Ansel Adams coffee mugs, coasters, and key fobs. But this easy commodification of Adams and his images was clearly part of the appeal of the artist to the MFA. Adams is a big-name draw, whose utterly uncontroversial work offers the same high-class austerity as Ralph Lauren’s Batmobiles. The exhibition was informative, but in the end presented objects, not ideas. Perfect for the new upscale Mall-of-America MFA.

But the most disappointing thing about the experience is becoming commonplace in Boston: the only people of color I saw during my visit were at the coat check and behind the counter at the gift shop. An anthropologist visiting from Mars would see a division of leisure and labor, at least in the service sector, that looked to be based, the lion’s share of the time, on race. You could tell him, hey, it's the marketplace, not a reflection of our values, but the truth is it's increasingly obvious that we’re a nation that’s given up on the idea that equality is both everyone's right and everyone's responsibility.

Of course, the MFA under Malcolm Rogers has Wal-Martized its workforce, but that doesn’t explain why, on a crowded Sunday morning, there were no people of color attending the show. The truth is, the museum has done its part to price “undesirables” out, and to offer art of no consequence, divorced from the vitality of our lives. It has instead actively marketed a peculiarly Bostonian brand of haute-bourgeois art-snobbery that effectively excludes those for whom art has meaning beyond status, and determines the types of shows: always more decorative than declamatory, as strains of modern art can be—and above all, tasteful. Because you’re not going to buy a set of coasters that doesn’t go with your sofa, now, are you?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

from Boston METRO letters:


Mike Mennonno's column about the Ansel Adams exhibit made me kind of angry. It never seemed to me that Adams intended to move people with his art. His work did not have anything to do with racial injustice or "declamatory" anger - all of which are easy to produce from a classroom, coffee shop, or even from an armchair in front of a computer. What I've taken away from Adams' work is that he wanted to share the calm beauty of what is naturally before us:our earth.

The images I see are one man's expression of the humane equality we can find if we just get outside and search for it every once in a while. As a former sociologist and women's studies graduate, I must admit I am tired of constant anger, dissatisfaction and a self-defeating focus on what is wrong in the world. What about what we do right?

Mennonno's commonplace assumption- that if you debate about race, and hang out with people of color enough, you can actually reject your own whiteness - does nothing to challenge racial injustice.


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