musings on the museum as mausoleum

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Museums are where cultures go to die; Greece, Rome, the Han Dynasty, Medieval England, Renaissance Italy, civilizations from throughout time and space find themselves entombed and on display, their epitaphs marked in a square of text on the wall. Egyptian mummies find their remains interred in glass cases around the world, bodies and coffins laid up for public consumption. In the upstairs galleries of the British Museum, hot-handed children babble and try to represent priest Hornedjitef’s death in crayon. Historically-focused museums around the world are the scattered final resting places of these civilizations, but this practice raises questions about the effect on the meaning of the art itself.

In a museum-mausoleum, cultural relics are preserved, kept secure, but in return for this protection, are somewhat stripped of their authenticity. Especially in a historically-focused museum, these items are distanced from their original purpose and are embedded in an artificial and consciously composed context. The British Museum, one of London’s most prominent historically-focused museums, serves a critical role in the educational and cultural lives of the community. It’s a resource I love having access to, but I can’t deny that the work becomes almost sterilized in that environment. The colossal Assyrian winged lion was not created for art but for necessity, to mark and guard the entrance of the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, and yet we perceive it as sculpture. How can we internalize the cultural value, importance, or context of the Parthenon when it’s displayed in fragments and just steps away from the Assyrian reliefs of the lion hunt and the Rosetta Stone?  In such close proximity to one another, it’s difficult to conceptualize the meaning of these pieces individually. I was also astonished to find that I could skip over so many exhibits, succumbing to museum fatigue amid some of the most impressive ancient art in the world. Somehow, the sheer scale of the collections in the British Museum diminished the magnitude of each individual piece, for me.

The British Museum also displays newer, more formal art. Contemporary artists’ work only winds its way into museums like the British Museum if it’s considered relevant enough to be commodifiable. I appreciate that these shows are an attempt to enliven the Museums’s collection. I can’t help but feel that showing an artist like Grayson Perry in the British Museum solidifies him as an icon more than an artist, and cements him into history and somewhat restraining the impact of his work. Interestingly, Perry said he chose to send a proposal for the recent Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman to the British Museum because of the museum’s emphasis on death and passed past civilizations.

Grayson Perry on patience with his teddy.

Selfishly, I think that mutation of meaning and shifting of emphasis is justifiable collateral damage, because without museums I would never be able to see this artwork. Arts and crafts don’t exist in a vacuum, and were historically created to be sold and displayed. The British Museum is an icon of grandeur and home to a remarkable breadth of art, craft and relics. As a resource for the community, it’s remarkably accessible, comprehensive and connected to the community. A claim could be made that the juxtaposition of unrelated pieces in museums illuminates subtle aspects of both. I am not denying that they serve London and the art world well, but am arguing that the very nature of museum display, especially in the British Museum, alters and dries the meaning of the work it intends to illuminate and share.

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After having been to many of London’s museums and galleries, here’s a short list of those not-to-be-missed:
1. Tate Modern
2. The National Gallery
3. The Wallace Collection
4. The Serpentine Gallery, especially if you’re low on time as it’s so small
5. Royal Academy of Art, followed by Fortnum & Mason (not a museum or a gallery, but an icon and a delight, even if you don’t buy anything)
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laissez les bon temps rouler,
the girl

van gogh and gaga

Van Gogh was commercially unsuccessful during his lifetime, living in relative obscurity, mostly as an outsider. A Dutchman relocating to Provencal France in the mid-1800s was bound to attract some mild hostility, and being an emotional and secluded artist surely didn’t ease his entrance into that society. During his time in France, his productivity was broken by bouts of emotional turmoil. At 37, his prolific, tumultuous, decade-long career ended when he committed suicide. The tragedy that was his life captured the public’s imagination and defined what it meant to be an artist. As an eccentric, be became an icon for the fitful genius, embodying the public’s new idea of the artist. Even the information page on the National Gallery’s website plays up his “tortured genius” persona by using his Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889 (below). This painting depicts van Gogh after he’s cut off part of his own ear. When I think about van Gogh, it’s this story, this ear-chopping display of madness, that comes to mind first. How often is it that the artists’ image outweighs the art itself?

After investigating contemporary culture, I realized that we’re familiar with this idea because it’s a defining feature of pop artists. Actors tend to feel this imbalance most acutely, because people know them more by their celebrity than by their roles. Lindsay Lohan hasn’t done a good movie since she was a child, but the public is still clued into her every move. Capote and Wilde and even Warhol were, in many ways, more active socialites than artists. The Ziggy Stardust persona is the first association for many when David Bowie comes to mind. Tracey Emin’s public antics are more recognized than her artwork by the general public. But van Gogh is different, and maybe because he was the first in this progression of emphasis from art to artist persona. Van Gogh, with the lack of commercial success during his life but vast posthumous fame, is more of a Nick Drake than a Lady Gaga figure. He sold only one painting during his lifetime. It’s possible that post-van Gogh, artists recognized eccentricity as an acceptable method to fame and subsequent commercial success. Now it’s a well-trodden path to popularity and commercial success. From this vantage point, it seems like van Gogh’s presence before and after death marks a turning point in the way the public conceived of the artist, and the routes available to the artist for commercial success.

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I’m not sure of any posthumously successful eccentrics prior to van Gogh, though there almost certainly were. If you know of any artists that fit the bill, holler at me!

laissez les bon temps rouler,

the girl

crafternoons with rick ross

rozay

Originally published in full at Don’t Panic Online.

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The cultural implications of a cross-stitched tribute to Rick Ross are murky, but DIY versions of popular rap lyrics are one of the most common trends on sites like Etsy.

Crafternoons with Rick Ross

Combining these two radically different art forms alters the tone of both. In many ways, rap is a declaration of mostly-male identity which emphasizes dominance, presence, and style. Cross stitching, needlepointing and otherwise crafting these lyrics strips the music of it’s original spirit, making it simple, making it ironic. The repossession, repackaging and reselling of this identity by a predominately white audience could be considered condescending.

On the other hand, this juxtaposition of the two starkly different arts could arguably enhance both. The complementary colours theory is one of art’s most basic: placing a colour adjacent to it’s opposite on the colour wheel emphasizes the essence of each. The same could be said for these DIY rap creations. The contrast created by stitching raps may make the tone of each stronger and clearer. Stitching Rick Ross’s “everyday I’m hustling” in pink thread over a tumble of flowers makes visible the stark contrasts of tones, and clarifies each. By taking these lyrics and this craft out of their original context, it emphasizes both the words of the music and the style of the stitching.

It’s also interesting that this music has found an audience in the women it so frequently disparages, and that those women have glorified the message in a traditionally domestic and feminine art form. It’s no secret that rap culture objectifies women, using them as status symbols, and revels in misogyny. By flipping this trend and owning it, the women making this art could be achieving a triumphant satire. Can anything take the sting out of “bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks” quite like sewing it in eggshell blue thread next to a pot of flowers on a throw pillow?

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that’s-th-th-that’s all folks!

laissez les bon temps rouler,

the girl