The Critical Angle

Fifteen hundred years ago, Afghan artisans in Bamiyan began carving away at
a mountainside with hammer and chisel. Last month, soldiers from the
Taliban
regime finished the job with explosives, destroying the two colossal
Buddhas
left by their predecessors. The world—especially the West—was
dumbfounded at the Afghans’ defiant act of desecration. Ever since
1793, when the French made the Louvre palace into the people’s
museum,
art preservation has been a chief public project of Western democracies;
to do the opposite is to proclaim one’s own barbarism. This notion
has never been lost on Americans, who, like skilled curators throughout
history,
have always used art to make the state look good. Museums traditionally
divide
their galleries by national school, and our own museums are no exception
in shining the brightest spotlight on our native achievements. Therefore,
the recent reopening of the remodeled American galleries at the Yale
University
Art Gallery, a point of Yale pride as the country’s oldest college
art museum, was, like many Yale events, an occasion for gratuitous
self-congratulation.
This is the story of how we came to the top, and we’re proud of
it.
For narrative effect, it’s best to view the collection starting at
the back, among the colonial and early national works of the Trumbull
gallery.
Most prominent is John Trumbull’s history cycle depicting the
Revolutionary
War. The display marks our national inception, but one can’t help
but
feel that, as a nation, we got a rather silly start. What we see is a
secular
apotheosis of George Washington. The general is at once a Christ figure,
ascending to the heavens buoyed by the heroic cherubim underneath, and a
cock-sure actor taking his final bows: He strides out of the gigantic
central
portrait while the war’s supporting characters golf-clap
appreciatively
in the wings. But the theatricality of the project seems amateurish
now—it’s
only myth, and second-rate myth at that. Knowing what we know now of their
slaves and their sexual peccadilloes, we can’t help but feel an
adolescent
awkwardness in the proto-nationalist posturing of the Founding Fathers.
Things
just haven’t turned out as the they planned. For centuries, the name
Agincourt was capable of rousing English pride; and the French still rally
around the Bastille every July; but we are more likely to pinch our noses
as we pass through Trenton, New Jersey, than to cross our hearts in memory
of that glorious victory.
The gallery captures Trumbull’s time and its attitudes perfectly.
Though
we can today see past the spectacle,  Trumbull and his peers were not
disingenuous when they cast Trenton as the new Troy. A bust of Trumbull
himself
surveys the gallery, along with Thomas Crawford’s busts of Homer,
Demosthenes,
and Cicero; their presence equates Trumbull’s achievements with
their
own. Centrally located is Thomas Greenbough’s statue of The Angel
Abdiel,
seemingly advancing towards the New World. One almost hears echoes of
Milton’s
praise following behind, applying equally to angel and revolutionary:
Having
fought the better fight, each now stand approved in sight of God, though
worlds judged them perverse. The wall opposite Washington is occupied by
portraits of the righteous (if misproportioned) worthies of
Trumbull’s
time. Many of the works are Grand Tour portraits  with the ruins of
the Old World set as a backdrop, a powerful symbol of the American promise
to rebuild the Western ideal from its current degenerate state. Even Ezra
Stiles is here, standing before his bookcase in fuller possession of the
Western tradition than any Oxford don. Taking it all in, the viewer is
struck
with wonder at the early nation’s artistic project: We see here the
artful but unmistakable extension of the young nation’s middle
finger,
a gesture of contemptuous pride directed to the Old Country monarchs. One
cannot help but nod in approval.
As we pass into the colonial decorative arts galleries, the atmosphere is
no longer that of a princely gallery, but your
great-great-grandfather’s
attic. The contrast balances our forefathers’ idealized
self-portrait
with a snapshot of who they actually were. Most striking is the central
display
of colonial chairs which matches Trumbull’s history cycle: Here we
see the apotheosis of the joint-stool, circa 1715, artist unknown. The
stool
evokes far more pathos than Trumbull’s grandstanding generals ever
will, embodying the humble origins of America’s rough-hewn,
democratic
genius.
These two models remain consistent throughout the rest of the collection:
The picture gallery is an aesthete’s delight, while the peripheral
decorative arts galleries provide a more sober sense of historical
resonance.
Albert Bierstadt’s painting of America’s finest cathedral,
Yosemite
Valley, is expertly placed to capture our attention as we leave the 
furniture behind and seemingly venture out of doors into the natural light
of the grand salon, streaming through the newly uncovered skylights in the
roof. Unfortunately, the curators have not taken full advantage of the
spectacular
views created along the room’s side corridors. Joseph Stella’s
Brooklyn Bridge, the 20th century’s answer to Bierstadt’s
natural
cathedral, should hang on the far wall behind it. Instead, it is on one of
the shorter central walls; the connection is lost and the viewer is unable
to stand back and take it all in. The corridor view presents us only with
a decidedly un-epic piece by Edward Hopper, and the line of sight is
broken
by a group of  statues by Thomas Eakins. Hiram Powers’s
rarified
Greek Slave is similarly crowded by the display of Pennsylvania Dutch
ironworks
in the background, overflowing from the colonial decorative arts
galleries.
Seen from the side, she is caged by the sandstone columns uncovered during
the renovation, and this view would be enough to make Elizabeth Barrett
Browning
compose a second sonnet in her honor. By far the best-placed object 
is the gilded bronze American Eagle, perched on high and visible across
the
gallery from the entrance, a glorious reminder of the first battles that
made this all possible. Although his gold leaf has flaked off in the
perilous
fight, like the flag he is emphatically still there.
Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley, like the works in the Trumbull gallery,
bears witness to the continuing king-of-the-mountain battle between Europe
and America to the peak of the Western tradition. But even in the
paintings
of the Hudson River School, whose artists rejected the monuments of
classical
Europe in favor of the natural beauty of God’s canvas, the European
aesthetic still rules: Yosemite is beautiful not so much in itself, but
because
it outdoes Chartres in majesty. Even among the genre scenes of cranberry
gatherers and the still lives of the American flora  the figure of
the
glorious European dandy still lurks here in the work of Thomas Horenden.
As we come nearer to the present, the line between European and American
art blurs further as the very best American city-, sea-, and
landscapes—all
in the style of the Impressionists—cover the gallery walls.
The decorative arts galleries present a narrative that likewise drifts
from
its original thesis. From the patriotic, frontier heroism of the
joint-stool,
we move to the sophisticated European revivals of the 1800s, then to the
more familiar designs of the early 20th century. This is no longer your
great-great-grandfather’s
attic, but your own. My mother’s Revere Ware pots, or at least the
original 1936 design, are in the Modernist room. So is my
grandmother’s
Electrolux vacuum. The aura of miraculous survival no longer surrounds the
objects, and the viewer is left to look into the cases with contradictory
motivations: Should I stand in solemn contemplation, or put the spaghetti
on the stove and sweep the floor? One cannot help but feel
confused in the
Contemporary Design room, which enshrines a bright orange i-Book and those
skin-chilling black metal chairs that are ubiquitous on the Yale campus.
It takes a bit of false consciousness to install these
“artifacts”
alongside the joint-stool; the curator plays the time-capsule game,
guessing
that hundreds of years into the future, the laptop and the dorm-room
accessory
will be the iconic emblems of the lives we lived.
It is fitting for the gallery’s narrative to end with the art of the
40s and 50s. This was the turning point in the American project, when we
finally got the upper hand on the Continentals and New York became the
center
of the art world. But we did so by a process of artistic globalization:
the
American and the European blended into one. The museum’s layout as
a whole confirms this: Through the door of the American galleries are the
modern and contemporary rooms, the fusion point of the museum’s
European
and American collections. But something was lost on both sides in the
process.
Nothing captures this better than the series of paintings along the left
wall at the end of the grand salon—we see the transformation happen
before us, passing from Marsden Hartley’s elegiac Last Stone Walls,
Dogtown to the cold concrete elegance of Arnold Witz’s American
Landscape
to the geometric abstraction of Morton Livingston Schaumburg’s
Machine.
This was also the point when art got away from us, defying the concept
that
seemed proper a few rooms back of a uniquely “American”
gallery.
In the first room beyond the American wing hang the works of
quintessentially
American artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, shoved
outdoors
like the children the curators know will misbehave when the company comes
to visit, ruining the happy family illusion. We see them eventually,
however,
and the story we’ve been led to believe is suddenly no longer
relevant.
In effect, the viewer is left inside a Hopper painting, waiting like that
woman in the hotel room white-knuckling the bedpost, afraid to venture out
into the world we’ve shaped in our own image. We’re afraid
because
we’re still comfortable with the old narrative. We refuse to leave
and thus get stuck, not knowing any longer how to respond to art.
Even our response to the iconoclastic Taliban despots is simply another
example
of our growing uncertainties. One couldn’t help but wince when the
Grand Mullah pointed out that, for all of our clamoring about two stone
statues,
no one has rushed in to feed the children in Afghanistan who are starving
as a result of un sanctions. After all, they are just as innocent of the
Taliban’s atrocities as the two Buddhas carved out of the rock.
Hateful
as his regime is, the Mullah had a point. His comments were yet another
signal
that our Enlightenment attitudes toward art are ill-fitted to the
contemporary
world. Yet these attitudes are not going to change on their own. The first
place to look for the necessary cultural redefinition ought to be the
temple
of artistic culture itself—the museum. The Yale University Art
Gallery,
however, has passed at its chance to provide any new insight. The new
American
galleries stick to the script of 1793, and they play it well. But as one
passes through the exhibit, the narrative at its foundation becomes less
and less apt. One leaves with the disheartening feeling that the final
monologue,
the speech that makes our progression from John Trumbull to Jackson
Pollack
explicitly clear, has yet to be spoken.

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