Like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has redefined itself as an antiracist “agent of change.” In July 2020, its director Max Hollein and CEO Daniel Weiss announced that the museum will henceforth aim to overcome the racism still perpetrated by our “government, policies, systems, and institutions.”
What such a political mandate means for an art museum may seem puzzling, but two exhibits currently running at the Met provide an answer. They suggest that the museum will now value racial consciousness-raising over scholarship and historical accuracy. Double standards will govern how the museum analyzes Western and Third World art: only the former will be subject to the demystification treatment, while the latter will be accorded infinite curatorial respect. The Met will lay bare European art’s alleged complicity in the West’s legacy of oppression, while Third World violence and inequality will be chastely kept off stage.
The first show, “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at The Met,” arranges the Met’s own seventeenth-century Dutch canvases in thematic categories, such as still life and landscape. (The content of those categories is sometimes hard to discern underneath such mannered academic rhetoric as “Contested Bodies.”) Highlights of the show include Franz Hals’s portrait of Paulus Verschuur, a bravura performance of spontaneous brushwork and psychological acuity that captures the Rotterdam merchant’s modern irony, and Johannes Vermeer’s A Maid Asleep, which anticipates Paul Cézanne in its treatment of decorative pattern and geometry.
The Dutch Baroque formed the cornerstone of the Met’s first holdings; subsequent bequests created one of the world’s great assemblages of Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, and their peers. The antiracist museum, however, understands that it is not just Western art that needs deconstructing; the collecting and donating of art does, too. Thus, the commentary accompanying “In Praise of Painting” wearily notes that “of course” there are “blind spots in the story these particular acquisitions tell. Colonialism, slavery, and war—major themes in seventeenth-century Dutch history—are scarcely visible here.” It is hard to know who is more at fault, in the Met’s view: the artists or the art lovers who collected their work. Few seventeenth-century Dutch paintings treat of “colonialism, slavery, and war,” and fewer still approach the technical mastery of the Dutch canon. “In Praise of Painting” contains a Brazilian landscape by Frans Post that shows members of an Indian tribe gathered in a clearing. The painting is included in the exhibit as a synecdoche for a Dutch colony in northern Brazil; its interest is purely ethnographic. What other paintings about “colonialism, slavery, and war” do the curators think the Met should have acquired? Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum recently mounted a self-flagellating show called “Slavery,” intending to atone for Holland’s former holdings in Indonesia, New Guinea, and elsewhere. Even the royally endowed Rijksmuseum assembled few canvases with colonialism subject matter; as a second-best solution, it was left to attribute luxury items in portraits and still lifes to slavery and racism.
“In Praise of Painting” adopts that strategy as well. “Still life paintings pictured the bounty provided by newly established Dutch trade routes and the Republic’s economic success, while omitting the human cost of colonial warfare and slavery,” the accompanying wall text points out. The curators do not reveal how a still life painter should portray the “human cost of colonial warfare and slavery.” As even the curators admit, a still life by definition focuses on “things without people.” The Dutch masters, who brought the nascent genre to peak gorgeousness, may have delighted in the dragon-fly translucence of grapes and the somber radiance of silver and cut glass; they may have taught us to see beauty in a kitchen’s bounty. Not good enough. They should have anticipated twenty-first-century concerns about racial justice and revised their subject matter accordingly.
The museum’s benefactors also receive a feminist whack. “Only one picture painted by an early modern Dutch woman has entered the collection over the course of nearly 150 years,” the curators scold. Which Jacob van Ruisdael or Gerard ter Borch would the curators forego for a painting chosen on identity grounds? There simply weren’t as many females as males painting in the seventeenth century. Today, there are; women have unfettered access to art schools and galleries. The Met’s founders bought its female-painted Dutch Baroque canvas—a towering arrangement of peonies, tulips, roses, and marigolds—in 1871. Sexism did not prevent that addition to the museum’s original holdings, but sexism, we are to believe, prevented follow-up purchases.
Having been instructed to see oppression behind portraiture and to hear silenced voices in tableaux of oysters and lemons, the chastened Met visitor may wend his way to “The African Origin of Civilization,” another show drawn from the Met’s own collections. He will find himself back in a world of prelapsarian innocence, where art, if not the collecting of it, is unencumbered by a debunking impulse and where the culture that gave rise to that art is accepted on its own terms, not measured against present values.
“The African Origin of Civilization” pairs artefacts from ancient Egypt with those from modern (from the thirteenth-century A.D. forward) Sub-Saharan Africa to demonstrate their alleged “shared origins,” as the Met puts it, and to “recenter” Africa as “the source of modern humanity and a fount of civilization.” A timeline runs around the walls noting significant moments in African history, such as the receipt of Grammy awards by pop stars from Benin and South Africa.
The show is based on the writings of Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop (1923–1986). Diop held that ancient Egypt was black, that ancient Egypt and modern Sub-Saharan Africa are part of a unified black civilization, and that this black African civilization, not Greece or Rome, is the source of Western civilization. The exhibit opens with a covertly doctored quote from Diop: “The history of Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until African historians connect it with the history of Egypt” (more on that doctoring below). The exhibition “pay[s] homage” to Diop’s “seminal” 1974 book, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, the Met explains.
So who was this “influential Egyptologist, scientist, [and] activist,” as the Met describes him? Diop came from an aristocratic Muslim background in Senegal. In the 1950s, he participated in Paris’s anti-colonial student groups. Diop’s research aims were unapologetically political. He hoped to accelerate Africa’s independence movements by “reconquer[ing] a Promethean consciousness” among the African peoples, he wrote in The African Origin of Civilization. Such a task would be impossible so long as the proposition that ancient Egypt was a Negro civilization “does not appear legitimate.”
In Diop’s telling, in prehistoric times, black Africans moved into the Nile Valley from the South, merged with the blacks already living there, established the ancient Egyptian dynasties, then migrated back across the Sahara into the South. The less demanding conditions those black Egyptians found south of the Sahara discouraged the further development of science and engineering that had begun under the pharaohs. “The Negro became indifferent towards material progress,” Diop writes. Rather than pursuing scientific knowledge, the southern Africans concentrated on perfecting their political arrangements. Those political structures were and have remained superior to those of the West, in Diop’s view. Africans also far exceeded the Europeans in the “social and moral order,” which was on the “same level of perfection” as their political order.
Scientific progress may have come to a standstill back in Sub-Saharan Africa, but the gains made in black Egypt during the Pharaonic period, Diop argues, were so great as to serve as the basis for all subsequent developments in the West. “The Black world is the very initiator of the ‘western’ civilization flaunted before our eyes today,” Diop alleged in The African Origin of Civilization. “Pythagorean mathematics, the theory of the four elements of Thales of Miletus, Epicurean materialism, Platonic idealism, Judaism, Islam, and modern science are rooted in Egyptian cosmogony and science.”
Diop’s intellectual history is as shaky as his demographic claims. Leave aside for the moment the question of whether Egypt was black. Graeco–Roman science and philosophy were a different enterprise from Egyptian learning. The Egyptians developed the calendar, the calculation of time, and some medical cures in the second millennium B.C. Their funerary architecture attests to their engineering skills. But the Egyptian numeration system did not provide the basis for Western mathematics. And though the Greeks admired Egyptian accomplishments, the principle of grounding scientific conclusions on logic and empirical evidence—the hallmark of Western science—began with Aristotle, not with the Egyptian dynasties.
As for Diop’s arguments regarding ancient Egypt’s black racial identity, they rest on Old Testament myth, cherry-picked images of Egyptian sculpture, a reference to “black” Egyptians by Herodotus, and a few alleged similarities between Egyptian and African words. According to DNA analysis from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, mummies from the New Kingdom were most closely related to peoples of the Levant (Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon, among other countries). Modern Egyptians share just 8 percent of their genome with central Africans. As small as that share is, it is much more than that between ancient Egyptians and central and southern Africans; that common 8 percent developed only over the last 1,500 years. The ancient Egyptians, notorious xenophobes, did not believe themselves related to the peoples of the south, with whom their relations were often imperialistic.
The original Diop quote with which the Met opens its “African Origin” show, before the Met doctored it, was more explicit about Diop’s racial agenda. The actual sentence reads: “The history of Black Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until African historians dare to connect it with the history of Egypt” (emphasis added). The Met removed the words in italics, underplaying the Afrocentric angle and smoothing over Diop’s own acknowledgment of how outside the mainstream his scholarship was.
Contrary to the Met’s designation of Diop as “influential,” outside the mainstream is where his scholarship has remained. His oeuvre is a marginal presence in African or Egyptian studies, except in the most fervent bastions of Afrocentrism, such as Temple University’s Department of Africology and African American Studies (which also offers a course on Ebonics). Frank Snowden, a Howard University classicist, showed definitively in 1989 that Diop, in Snowden’s words, “distorts his classical sources,” including Herodotus. Oxford University Press’s African History (2007) notes that Diop’s theories have been “convincingly rejected by archeologists and historians on empirical grounds.” Kwame Anthony Appiah called Diop an example of “romantic racialism.” Contemporary scholarship on Africa emphasizes, irony of ironies, the diversity of cultures on the continent, not their alleged pan-African unity.
For the Met to build an entire show around Diop’s discredited theories shows how much today’s antiracist museums privilege political considerations over scholarly ones. After the doctored Diop quote, the Met’s wall texts pile on their own Diopian inaccuracies. “Studied by the Greeks, ancient Egypt remained the paradigm of ‘classical’ antiquity and the cornerstone of Western representation until the early twentieth century,” the Met writes. (What motivates the scare quotes here is unclear, besides a generalized desire to problematize, as an academic would put it, any possible Eurocentric perspective.)
This statement is astonishing. Ancient Egypt was not the “paradigm” of classical antiquity; classical antiquity, by definition, was ancient Greece and Rome. The Renaissance was ignited by the rediscovery of Greek and Latin texts, not Egyptian stelae. For the next several centuries, European humanists pored over Greek and Roman philosophy, literature, and art for inspiration regarding what a civilization could achieve. Egyptian thought played no discernible role in that development, if for no other reason than that knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs disappeared in the early centuries of the common era through the early nineteenth century. The characteristic features of the West—democracy, citizenship, experimental science, the rule of law—have their roots in Greece and Rome, not in the Ancient Near East or Africa. Yet a final wall panel in “African Origin” reinforces the show’s initial distortions: Africa played a “generative role in shaping foundational institutions” worldwide, the Met asserts. This claim is untrue regarding ancient Egypt and even more untrue regarding modern Africa.
The Met should be on firmer ground regarding the arts, but its claim that ancient Egypt remained the “cornerstone of Western representation until the early twentieth century” is as inaccurate as its claim about “paradigmatic” Egyptian antiquity. Certainly ancient Greece and Rome had cultural contact with Egypt. Greek Kouroi and decorative motifs from the Archaic period show Egyptian influence; the Doric shaft, as well as the very idea of monumental public architecture, may derive from Egypt’s funerary districts. Roman emperors brought obelisks and other Egyptian artefacts back to Rome. But the full-blown Classical style of the Parthenon went far beyond any Egyptian antecedents, and artists from the Renaissance forward took Greek and Roman sculpture and architecture as their models, not Egyptian sculpture and architecture. The nineteenth-century Empire Style, with its sphinxes, caryatids, and winged lions, is an exotic sideshow in the larger scheme of “Western representation.”
Given the shaky theoretical foundations of “The African Origin of Civilization,” it’s no surprise that the show fails on purely visual, as well as on historical, terms. The paired Egyptian and Sub-Saharan African objects are supposed to buttress the show’s thesis of the “shared origins” and cultural continuity between ancient Egypt and modern Africa. Instead, the pairings undermine that thesis at nearly every turn. A limestone sculpture of a man and woman standing next to each other from 2575–2465 B.C. (the golden age of Egypt’s Old Kingdom) is paired with a wooden carving of a man and woman seated next to each other from early-nineteenth-century Mali. The Egyptian male has his arm around the female’s shoulder and his hand over her breast; the female has her arm around the male’s waist. The African male has his arm around the female’s shoulder and his hand extending towards her breast. Apart from the number and the sex of the figures in each pair and their apparent connubial relationship, nothing unites them. The softly modelled Egyptian sculpture aspires to realism; the female’s belly, pelvis, and thighs press through her sheath dress. The Malian sculpture is abstract, symbolic, and angular; it would be difficult to distinguish the male from the female were it not for a quiver on the male’s back and a baby on the female’s. It would have been as relevant, in art historical terms, for the Met to have thrown Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait into the grouping as to pair these wildly dissimilar works.
The curatorial gloss on the Malian sculpture claims that its “precision” and “exacting bilateral symmetry” suggest a “mathematical equation.” Such scientistic rhetoric is ubiquitous throughout the show. A cracked lump of earth with a hump rising from its middle has been “composed by a specialist with precision,” explains the text accompanying a twentieth-century “power object” from Mali. The power object’s form is “deliberately indeterminate,” says the Met, and made up of an “exacting combination” of millet, alcoholic beverages, expectorated kola nuts, and the “blood of sacrificial offerings” (more on sacrificial offerings below). That exacting combination constitutes “esoteric knowledge,” per the Met. If the knowledge that went into this power object lies at the root of Western science, as Diop would have it, it is a miracle that the West developed vaccines.
The Met pairs the twentieth-century Malian power object with the museum’s iconic turquoise hippopotamus from Middle Kingdom Egypt. Perhaps the power object is meant as a hippopotamus itself; even so, nothing formally connects the two works. Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batlló in Barcelona comes more readily to mind than the Egyptian faience when viewing the power object.
The artefacts in “The African Origin of Civilization” are exempt from the political standards that “In Praise of Painting” establishes, though the Met’s founders and benefactors come in for the usual drubbing. Those patrons’ “profound bias” explains the late arrival (1982) of Sub-Saharan works into the Met’s collection, as well as the priority placed on the Western tradition in the Met’s early decades. But the Met’s initial emphasis on Western art was perfectly appropriate, given the museum’s role as a transmitter of America’s cultural inheritance. Art museums in non-Western cultures, if they even exist, would likewise foreground their national inheritance. It is unlikely that African museums contain Rococo fêtes galantes or Hudson River school landscapes.
Regarding the African works themselves, the exhibit’s organizers have forgotten all about the “war, colonialism, and slavery” that so haunted the curators of “In Praise of Painting.” The African show contains no sculptures depicting Africans enslaving each other, a practice that long antedated European arrival on the continent. The exhibit’s timeline of Africa notes the start of the transatlantic slave trade in 1528 but ignores the kidnapping, coercion, and brutality with which rulers in West African kingdoms like Dahomey and Oyo produced the human subjects of that trade.
War has been a constant in sub-Saharan Africa. The Ashanti Empire (now Ghana) enslaved members of vanquished tribes when it did not murder them ritually. The Zulu state in southern Africa unleashed the “Mfecane” (crushing) against Sotho-speakers and other Nguni societies starting in the late eighteenth century. Highlander Abyssinians conquered and colonized Somalis, Oromos, and assorted small chieftains from the late sixteenth century to the early twentieth century. “The African Origin” curators do not decry the African artefacts’ inattention to such matters.
A brass plaque from the court of Benin shows a warrior chief in a helmet, holding a sword and surrounded by soldiers and attendants, smaller in size to indicate their inferior status. The plaque commemorates the triumphs of the Oba Esigie (the ruler of the Benin kingdom) over what the curators discreetly term “internal and external threats.” What became of those internal critics and external enemies is not represented on the plaque, nor does the Met note the absence of any reference to their fate.
The exhibition is silent on the tradition of human sacrifice in Africa. Asante kings offered human sacrifices as protection against enemies. In recent years, police inspectors and doctors in Uganda have reported on children and women sacrificed by witch doctors to improve the fortunes of their clients.
None of the ritual objects in the African Origin show was created by a female, or we would have heard about it. Yet the Met condemned its own sexism for failing to collect more female Dutch Baroque painters. Power objects are owned and handled exclusively by Malian males, a privilege which undoubtedly gives those males even more power with respect to females. Nineteenth-century British explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton described female genital mutilation in his 1856 travel memoir, The First Footsteps in East Africa. That reality is left out of the show, which adopts the Diopian view of Africa’s matriarchal equality and harmony.
New York Times art critic Holland Cotter adopted the Met’s conceit regarding women’s equality in Africa in his rave review of the “African Origin” exhibition. The male-female carving from Mali balances out “gender-based hierarchies of size,” Cotter claims approvingly. In the Egyptian pair, the male is a “head taller than his mate,” whereas in the African carving the “figures are almost equal in height and their features matched with delicate, near-mathematical precision.” (The curators’ mathematical equation imagery has proven infectious.) Cotter even marvels at the mathematical precision with which the “attributes that define” the Malian couple’s roles in life are carved—the “arrows on the man’s back and a baby on the woman’s back.” Had someone suggested that Western females were defined by childbearing, the cries of “patriarchy” would be deafening. Yet sex-based role definition was more implacable in African tribal societies; there likely were no female wood carvers in the seventeenth century whose works the Met’s founders could have collected.
If the “In Praise of Painting” and “African Origin of Civilization” exhibitions point to the future of curation at the Met and other “antiracist” museums, Cotter’s review reveals the media pressure accelerating that future. He calls on the “profoundly conservative” Met to “politicize the art historical narrative,” as if such politicization were not already a done deal. Cotter repeats the Met’s self-criticism about its collecting and display practices, blaming “antiquated, racist Western distinctions” for the Met’s traditional installation of Egyptian and African art in separate museum wings.
That wing for African and other Third World art is currently undergoing renovation. It will surely follow Cotter’s template for a “politicized” art narrative when it reopens. (The December 2021 groundbreaking ceremony for the renovation, attended by the crème de la crème of New York’s Democratic leadership, included a prayer to the ancestors and a curator singing an Aboriginal song, perhaps a first for the Met.)
Expect the new wing to emphasize, as Cotter puts it, “the degree to which much of the art of sub-Saharan Africa . . . is inherently, and often forthrightly, about ethics, about the workings of social justice; about right living, personally, socially, and spiritually; about the quest for balance in the natural world.” The Times critic finds such a commitment to ethics and social justice in a late-nineteenth-century “power figure” from the Congo which has been recently placed in another wildly incongruous pairing in the Graeco-Roman wing. Power figures—stubby, stylized versions of the human form—are the objects of magical thinking. A human nganga (or “spiritual specialist” in the inevitably glorified translation) fills a cavity in the power figure’s belly with seeds, relics, resins, and plant fibers. These “powerful medicines,” as the Met dutifully puts it, are believed to have the capacity to settle disputes and punish wrongdoers. A stone placed in a power figure’s receptacle may result in the pelting of one’s enemies or one’s own protection from being pelted. The nganga’s clients lick nails and blades that are pounded into the power figure to seal its efficacy through their saliva. The power figure will then mete out destruction or divine protection as appropriate.
This is not “ethics,” “social justice,” or just plain “justice”—it is superstition, akin to the veneration of a saint’s alleged body parts in a bejeweled reliquary. The power figure operates transactionally—I, the client, give something to a magical charm or its overseer and hope to get something in return. Rational argument and the rule of law are not involved. Nor is the concept of rights, which are uniquely a product of Western political thought. “Social justice,” with its emphasis on group, rather than individual, rights, may be a distortion of the Western notion of justice, but it derives from that tradition.
Nevertheless, Holland Cotter maintains that it is the West that “badly” needs instruction in ethics, social justice, and right living. The best source for those ideas, he writes, is in the arts of black Africa, unmatched for “head-turning, eye-locking beauty.” Cotter’s ignorance about the origin of the concepts, such as equality and tolerance, with which the woke Left bashes the West is typical. And that ignorance now increasingly governs our leading cultural institutions. Whether art museums or classical music organizations, those institutions have sacrificed their comparative advantages—connoisseurship, scholarly knowledge, and devotion to the highest expressions of culture—in favor of a partisan political program that distorts both present and past.
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