It’s easy to say that art is universal; it is something that brings us together. It is a representation of our shared humanity, or it is how we all share our divergent experiences of humanity.
But all of these statements are decidedly ignorant and are used violently to define norms and values; to divide people into groups based on those values; to stratify people based on their experience and access to education in the norms.
Museum curators, art historians, teachers, writers and critics act in impactful and intensely political ways to decide how we understand the world. They make decisions about what is art versus trifle, display-worthy versus dust-gathering substrate. Their decisions about art arrange how people make social and political decisions by either defining their assumptions about humanity or challenging them.
In defining assumptions about humanity, art is able to create the framing with which we craft our values and beliefs. Art seems like it’s our direct, objective gateway to understanding what cultures and experiences other than our own are like. Since we are so apt to take art as our “true” source of background, without an exploration of the curation, we are bound to accept a warped image. Luckily, art curators are also in a great position to challenge assumptions because objects of art are so convincing.
Some curators of work — whether in museums, classes, bookstores or other institutions — put careful thought into the ideas and values which they are constructing. I look to my high school English curricula, which focused deeply on fictional and biographical stories about racism, sexism, genocide, poverty and mental illness, written by people with those experiences. Sure, I took a class about Shakespeare, but we spent the entire year picking apart bias and oppressive systems in Othello and The Merchant of Venice.
Still, there were important themes and concepts missed. We never read about colonialism or environmental injustice. I’m sure I remain ignorant to a vast swath of other things. Still, we were taught that literature was about the exploration of strife and resistance and that lives exhibit tremendous diversity in struggles and joys.
The lack of analysis that goes into many curations of work is truly astounding. Exhibit designers can craft words which cover up crimes against humanity to glorify the successes of domination by people. They often exoticize, infantilize and deny the accomplishments of people who don’t use the same metrics of achievement as the curators.
An important amount of these decisions do come from the demands of donors and high-level managers who make deals to increase the prestige of the institution. Constrained by these requirements and norms about what is curatable, museums self-perpetuate these exclusive and biased collections and continue to acculturate people to assume that their understandings of art are accurate.
This becomes especially pernicious in cases where the funding is coming to museums from morally questionable institutions. Lots of museums, but most famously the British Museum, are stocked full of stolen artifacts from colonized areas. Brought back as exotica, these items are held on display because. The Museum of Modern Art, for example, was recently the site of a protest against its investments, donations and board member Larry Fink, whose firm BlackRock invests heavily in private prisons. The Met recently denied the claim that they accept donations from the Sackler family, who are closely linked to the promotion of OxyContin and the deadly opioid epidemic, yet they retain a wing named after them for previous donations.
Insisting that the money which funds art is apolitical, because the virtuous act of presenting art to the “public” (what’s the admission fee again?) is valuable enough, is unacceptable. If art cannot be presented without causing the struggles it aims to console and ameliorate, it needs to be reevaluated.
Katie Sims is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Resident Bad Media Critic runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.