Opinion

Another Boring List Praises the White Men of Art and Architecture

Hannah Hoch, "Bouquet of Eyes" (1930)
Hannah Höch, “Bouquet of Eyes” (1930) (via theartstack.com)

Hardly a day goes by on the internet without a publication releasing some kind of Important List. The latest is The New Republic‘s (TNR) “100 Years 100 Thinkers,” a compendium prompted by the magazine’s centennial. The list features “the people we believe have made the greatest intellectual contributions to the fields and causes that this magazine holds dear” and is broken up into various categories that are supposed to somehow be nontraditional.

Two of those categories are, happily, “Art” and “Architecture.” Less happily, the chosen representatives of those fields — five in each — are white men. All of them. Which makes it seem like TNR and its helpers didn’t think too hard or too broadly about their chosen thinkers.

In art, the five picks are Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Alexander Calder, and Balthus. In architecture, they’re Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rem Koolhaas, and Peter Zumthor. I don’t dispute the importance of any of these men to their fields, but the summation of what their choice represents as a whole is so limited in scope, it’s comical.

Regarding architecture, I can’t honestly say I know enough to weigh in. But CityLabs staff writer Kriston Capps, who first brought the TNR art and architecture lists to my attention by pointing out their all-maleness, suggests Julia Morgan, the first female winner of the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal (posthumously), as a possible inclusion.

As for the artists — where to even begin? Beyond the fact that they’re all men and all white, the five choices are of a piece: 20th-century practitioners still very much tied to the 19th century, both in their personal timelines (only Balthus was born in the 20th) and in the way their oeuvres do nothing to challenge the myth of the solitary genius author. Where is Duchamp? Or Warhol? Even if you want to hew to the romantic vision of the pioneering man artist, there’s not a single choice here that represents the explosion of art and artistic philosophy around and after World War II — Jackson Pollock or Robert Rauschenberg, anyone? And how on earth do you sum up the 20th century in art with four painters and one sculptor?

What’s in fact so amazing about art in 20th century is how it cracked wide open as collage, assemblage, photography, readymade sculpture, video, social practice, and performance expanded it from within. And so much of that shifting, I’d argue, was due to the contributions of those who’d been excluded before, namely women and people of color. Hannah Höch, Frida Kahlo, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, Roy DeCarava, Nam June Paik, Diane Arbus, Betye Saar, Cindy Sherman, Carolee Schneemann — any of these people would be worthy picks for artists who’ve made towering “intellectual contributions” to their field. And even my brief list is, I realize, impossibly American- and Euro-centric.

Not that TNR’s choices are surprising. Leave it to a magazine whose art critic believes “liberals are killing art” to pretend that some of the most radical aspects of modernism and the entirety of postmodernism didn’t much matter.

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