Materials, Objects, and Meanings of Art
Selfie museums are allowing for a deeper experience of truth that is not the museum’s truth, or even the artist’s truth, but your own. Selfie-takers in a museum open up an intimacy with the art, placing themselves as attractive enough to take its center and participate in its esteem. The current generation of youth bravely takes on the museum’s paradox of display through inclination towards witnessing. Dreaming of participation in the large white archive of art, these photos show that art can be what the maker makes it, for better or worse.
As culture producers, museums tend to push largely white communities to an engagement that expands both their boundaries of knowledge and their pockets. Junior Ameya Okamoto, a sociology major, said in a recorded message, “Art collecting and curation is honestly gambling where rich people can sit on a lot of fast-increasing money.” For junior Zoe McKeown, a School of the Museum of Fine Arts student turned philosophy major, museums have had a minimal impact on her as a person. Because of her Vietnamese ethnic identity, her existence is not welcome in museums. McKeown said that museums often pose Vietnamese art as if it “used to exist,” communicating that it’s in the past and has no place in the contemporary. Many non-white artists feel, as McKeown describes, that they “don’t exist in the museum space.”
Histories of kinships with the photo, the camera, and other mediums have led to the social transformations that leave non-white populations in cycles of dependency. In the age of discovery, arguments for the immorality of natives of non-European origin were due to their kinships with the material world. In some cases, this determination provided a basis for the commodification of natural resources and in specific cases, bodies.
Although William Pietz, an intellectual historian and political activist, mentions that Europeans saw objects as little more than trifles, and thus not worthy of theological meanings, European travelers took hundreds of thousands of pictures of native people between 1885 and 1960 in central Africa alone. These photographs became glorified objects when used as evidence for the rational knowledge and moral power of Europeans. In her critique of African exhibitions, Ruth B. Phillips argues that up until the third-world liberation front, people of color were represented as “distant from and prior to the space and time of Western modernity.”
Therefore, objects are not merely trifles; rather, they appear as conduits of invasion. Paloma Velasco, a junior film and media studies major, said people of color rarely “get to invade their space back, and I think that’s something that’s always bothered me a lot about photography.”
Contemporary artists don’t deny that objects carry meaning or imbue emotional responses. McKeown has a very personal connection with the ceramic pieces that she makes. This ritual of community grows between her and the everyday cups or plates that she forms on the pottery wheel. McKeown said, “In a lot of ways, art is my way of showing love and being one with love.” After pieces go through the intense heat of the kiln, receivers get glimpses of her physical and artistic self that survive through particles of her skin or hair.
Even more of a contradiction is the nonconsensual removal of everyday objects and tools from native communities to exhibition boxes in museums. How can museum-goers have transactional experiences with stolen objects that in their everyday use are seen as unethical? Is art only art due to the spiritual effect it sparks in white populations?
Dependency on white patrons gives off vibes of forwardness, progress, and the feeling of finally reaching Oz—whether in a museum structure or outside of it. Even still, subversion and mastery of the art landscape exists within marginal histories of inclusive art. Right across from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston stands a brown structure that housed the Allied Arts Center from 1927 to 1930. The Allied Arts Players were the most influential small Black theatre group in New England during the 1920s. While some activists thought of white-controlled institutions as exclusionary and segregationist, others thought forming relationships with esteemed institutions would help legitimize Black organizations. What made the Allied Arts Players unique was their critique of and refusal to work with white institutions, instead making art that inspired their own communities. Third-year Freya Gupta, a psychology and studio art major in the combined degree program, spoke about her own reluctance to appeal to white communities. When her professor insinuated that her work would be hard to understand, Gupta wondered, “For you or for me?”
What’s even more complicated is the survivor’s guilt that comes along with what McKeown refers to as being “the artist you never saw.” In fact, Okamoto said a type of payoff matrix presents itself at the intersections of abnormality and progress. With respect to the latter, artists like Audre Lorde and Jean-Michel Basquiat attribute the fruitful start of their careers to artist residencies like The MacDowell Colony and Green-Wood. However, insofar as it shows up in their art, readers and audiences rarely get an idea of the trauma and racism that these artists experienced during their stays. In a world where white people are holders of capital and seen as judges of value and normality, the Black Bostonians played a large part in living out the fruits of self-preservation for so many contemporary artists.
For some artists, the gallery and institution space allows them to be the best artist they can be. In recent years, creators have even carved out their own spaces, complementing legacies of art as activism even further. Velasco shared that Tschabalala Self’s 2020 showing at the Institute of Contemporary Art made Black and Brown women seem “larger than life,” without the spectre of the male gaze. By starting with her own perspective, Self offers art as learning with and for freedom and liberation that starts with the self.
Although the internet in many ways can still be classified as a white institution, its entry points can be more open and welcoming than what Gupta describes as the “hustle of going to different galleries to share your work.” The realm of social media, not without its own identity crisis, has played a large part in allowing artists of color to receive attention for their work in an attention-driven society. McKeown said she was so happy to see Quinn, a well-known Vietnamese artist and friend, receive praise for her work through Instagram. This is seen across mediums. The television show Insecure was discovered as a web-series on Youtube. Visual artists like Toyin Ojih Odutola and Shepard Fairey attest to Instagram springing their careers. Dan Lam, a Texas-based artist, left Fort Works Art, a gallery, cultural center, and museum, to leverage her popular social media and have greater autonomy over the sales process.
How and where to create from are questions that most artists grapple with and ones that leave even more questions about who to garner support from. Bridging the gap of net exposure, social media becomes a tool to grab recognition from patrons in ways that are separate from the typical white academy. “It’s not that you have to receive validation from a museum, to be an artist,” said McKeown.
However much older generations want to scorn Gen Z and millennials for the amount of selfies they take, the selfie is a natural progression of objectification. This time, the holder of the camera is subject and object. To work with an object is to witness Aristotle’s concept of kairos. Chronos is an idea of time that relates to the location of the sun, but kairos is an idea of temporality as an opening of humanity and of readiness to participate. According to Velasco, selfie museums are a form of resistance in their “deconstructing of classism and art, into who can make art, and how we see ourselves in art and photography, too.”
It’s easy to critique makers that are in art residencies. However, it is worthy of attention to consider the gravity of their acceptance; artists of color don’t receive much funding, and their work is rarely accepted by galleries. It’s much more complex than “selling out.” At the end of the day, what’s key is what artists chose to do with the level of prestige they have acquired. Do they bring the art back to the communities where they come from? Or do they continue to create in white spaces alone and frame white people as harbingers of power?