Despite the myriad of cultures represented at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, all of its galleries, to varying degrees, demonstrate the palpable effects of Western thinking on art scholarship, as “one remembers that art history itself is a Western invention…conceived of as progressive and hierarchical, a good-better-best arrangement that reflected the material values of Europe itself.”[i] Galleries representing cultures deemed ‘foreign’ and ‘exotic,’ most notably the South Asian Hindu-Buddhist and Jain sculpture galleries, rely on Western stereotypes about non-European cultures as being primitive to establish a mysterious visual aesthetic, often eschewing an object’s intended function and environment for the sake of mood. Objects found in these South Asian galleries frequently deviate from the prevailing Western narrative of art, which “embodies the Judeo-Christian concept of divine history as a straight, purposeful line from the Fall of Man to redemption.”[ii] Rather than attempt to right these wrongs by emphasizing the original contexts of each work, these South Asian galleries visualize Western typecasts and then fail to directly address how these biases may affect the viewer’s perception.
Walking through the dimly lit South Asian galleries, buttressed by neo-Near Eastern columns, there is a clear evocation of a dark cave or dimly lit temple space. Each room feels like a pastiche of a Western conception of a South Asian culture. Almost certainly this cultural exaggeration encourages some visitors to move beyond the comfort of the European painting galleries and explore these exotic lands by playing to their preconceived notions of non-Western cultures. While I find this cultural simplification frustrating, I am more concerned by the general disinterest in visually establishing the context for these objects. In many cases, placed side by side are objects of differing functions. To put a devotional object from a temple next to a processional object almost entirely ignores differences in each works intended purpose, and subsequently, how these different environments would have altered the insights of each object’s original audience. A temple object may have been viewed in a dark, enclosed space (as the visual effects of the room would suggest), but a processional object would have been encountered primarily covered in garb, with occasional glimpses of light reflecting off the bright South Asian sun, as it was carried through the streets.
Placed in context and supplemented with relevant cultural information, it becomes clear that statues of multi-armed deities, such as the dancing Shiva, are iconographic and spiritual tools that relate an anthropomorphic physical being to a complex web of philosophical theories of rebirth and the cyclical nature of the universe as a whole.[iii] However, in the absence of this critical information, even though “multiple limbs may have represented spiritual potency to the image’s creator, [to] a Western eye trained to regard naturalism as the esthetic sine qua non, they look like a regressive fantasy, the opposite of the progressive values that art should embody.”[iv] For decades, universalist collecting museums like The Met have operated on the assumption that exposing the visitor to artifacts from distant lands was, in and of itself, a sufficient cultural and moral education. However, since the rise globalization and nearly unavoidable cross-cultural pollination (and sometimes appropriation), it has become clear that the art world must relinquish the convenience of its simplistic and innately Western approach to art and art history.
Cotter, Holland. “ART VIEW; Eastern Art Through Western Eyes,” The New York Times (New York, NY), Jul. 10, 1994.
“Shiva as Lord of Dance (Nataraja).” 1987.80.1 (Gallery 240). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
[i] Holland Cotter. “ART VIEW; Eastern Art Through Western Eyes,” The New York Times (New York, NY), Jul. 10, 1994.
[iii] “Shiva as Lord of Dance (Nataraja).” 1987.80.1 (Gallery 240). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
[iv] Holland Cotter. “ART VIEW; Eastern Art Through Western Eyes,” The New York Times (New York, NY), Jul. 10, 1994.