Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

V & A: Give them what they want?

September 15, 2010 · 1 Comment

I know the “museum subsidization misrepresents history” discussion has been beaten very nearly to death over the past few weeks.  Believe me, I wouldn’t start it up again unless I thought I might be able to bring something new to the table.  So here it goes.
The collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum is a sight to behold.  Above the information desk there’s a staggeringly beautiful Chihuly chandelier that looks like some kind of giant hourglass made out of blue and yellow grapevines.  There are hundreds upon hundreds of ornate  crucifixes, rows of Classical and post-Classical sculptures, and dimly lit rooms lined with ruby brooches and diamond-encrusted scepters and ivory-inlayed lockets and 24-carat gold hair clips.  It’s impossible not to be blown away (if not taken aback) by the opulence of the spread.
Yeah, there’s also a bunch of East Asian art downstairs somewhere.
But wait!  You missed the coronation robe with opal and pearl sequins and the chalice with the eight-kilogram gold handle and the swords- God, those swords- with enough jewels in each to fund its own war.  I know I’m not the only one who left the V & A having already forgotten about the seemingly mundane artifacts in the Korean, Japanese, or Chinese exhibition halls.  There’s been a lot of speculation about whether or not curatorial decisions might have been influenced by government interests (in short, put a bunch of really colorful, sparkly British trinkets next to a bunch of boring, not-so-sparkly Asian trinkets to show off the obvious superiority of the Empire’s art) as a result of subsidization.  I’ll be the first to admit that I started out very much on the side of the cultural conspiracy theorists.  I think, though, that we might be approaching this from the wrong angle.  There might not be foul play here after all.
It all comes down to what we, as westerners, value in art.  The V & A is a huge museum.  It’s almost impossible to take in every last artifact.  So what are we drawn to?  We’re drawn to sparkle.  We’re drawn to lots of jewels and lots of gold, the more the better.  Westerners value sparkle.  We’ve been trained and conditioned to gauge an item’s merit in terms of carats, not craftsmanship.  The fact that we’re more likely to come away from the museum with a more awestruck reverence of a weighty saphire brooch than of a painstakingly lacquered Chinese wine jug isn’t a result of some sneaky government agenda.  We’re just intrinsically predisposed to like that sort of art more.  It’s an almost vulgarly simple idea, but it has been a defining aspect of western popular culture for centuries.  We would much rather see jewels than silk weavings, crowns than ceramics.  Eastern culture values harmony, simplicity, and order in objects.  Western culture values rarity and opulence.  This is no trick planned by the curators.  Even if the less immediately visually striking Asian art section were moved to the main level of the museum or doubled in size, it wouldn’t matter.  As long as there are jewels and golden scepters for westerners to gawk at, the V & A will always be a museum, first and foremost, fueled by the splendor of those artifacts.  This may or may not lead to a disproportional reverence of one region’s culture over another’s.  It’s not a matter of misrepresentation of art or history on the part of the museum- it’s a matter of a fundamentally skewn collective perception of what is or isn’t worthy of appreciation.

Categories: 2010 Patrick
Tagged: , ,

1 response so far ↓

  •   Mary Kate // Sep 16th 2010 at 13:13

    I think your point here is interesting, Pat – but how do you respond to Britain’s interest in stone and marble sculpture from Greece, Rome, and Egypt? Not very sparkly – and in many cases, crumbling – and yet these pieces are still some of the most valued (and controversial) works in England. Do you think that goes more to historical than aesthetic value? After all, I guess, the British Museum leans more towards being a history museum and the V&A leans more towards being an art museum.

You must log in to post a comment.