El Greco’s "The Vision of Saint John” ( c. 1609–14) in one of The Met Breuer’s new galleries (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

El Greco’s “The Vision of Saint John” (c. 1609–14) in one of the Met Breuer’s new galleries (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

If you thought the Eurocentric gods may have been toppled from their comfortable perches at the top of Mt. Met, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The Metropolitan Museum’s renovation of the Marcel Breuer building, which reopens this month, has left it largely in the same state we all remember, and, with the exception of a few touchups and finesses, largely unaltered. Add to that the fact that the museum is marking the coming-out of its new contemporary- and modern art-focused pavilion with a show dedicated to “the unfinished,” and you have a rather underwhelming experience.

Installation view of 'Unfinished' at the Met Breuer

Installation view of ‘Unfinished’ at the Met Breuer, with Alina Szapocznikow’s “Tumors Personified” (1971) in the foreground and works by Medardo Rosso and Auguste Rodin in the background (click to enlarge)

There is nothing radical about the Met Breuer; in fact, there is something staid about the expansion from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue. The main exhibition provides an almost exclusively Eurocentric stroll through Western art history, starting with the European Renaissance and continuing on through Auguste Rodin, Cy Twombly, Gerhard Richter, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Urs Fischer. These are known quantities that fit neatly into the history of art — nothing radical here.

The idea of Unfinished is peculiar to begin with, and even the wall text often questions whether the works on display are finished at all. For Titian’s “The Flaying of Marsyas” (probably 1570s) — one of the must-see masterpieces in the exhibition — the text is strangely rambling: “We do not know for whom Titian’s late masterpiece was painted, whether it was completed to the artist’s satisfaction (although it is signed), or whether it was altered following his death.”

Each work is a puzzle, but there aren’t many answers, and that’s OK. The general mood suggests that unfinished works have a contemporary air about them, like they offer insight into an artist’s mind that finished works could not, but is the concept strong enough for an entire show at the center of a new building’s relaunch? Not really.

The Met’s reboot, new logo and all, has been highly anticipated and promised a more global and contemporary vision of the history of art. What we’ve gotten so far has been a watered-down version of that exciting promise.

A view of the Nasreen Mohamedi exhibition at the Met Breuer

A view of the Nasreen Mohamedi exhibition at the Met Breuer (click to enlarge)

Even the second-floor exhibition, which is devoted to the work of South Asian modernist Nasreen Mohamedi, is largely pedestrian. The work is conceptual and tends toward the minimal. Mohamedi’s art only reinforces established hierarchies of taste and art, while only offering a geographically expanded version of them. Mohamedi fits almost too neatly into established art historical narratives, allowing the Met to avoid questioning the functionality of the narratives themselves. She went to school in India and the UK, and then spent most of her life creating beautiful abstractions that are expertly conceived and highly refined, even if they tend to be somewhat dull and rather repetitive. This is a show that reinforces the rightness of Eurocentric narratives and justifies the established hierarchies, which dovetail with the global art market. Mohamedi could’ve been included in the Met’s galleries at any time — we didn’t need a reboot for that to happen.

Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect the Met, a Eurocentric institution of encyclopedic proportions, to change much. Maybe it’s too ambitious to think that its curators even know that the current conversations about decolonizing museums are raging all around them. What we’ve gotten is an outpost of the venerable institution closer to the commercial hub of its neighborhood. But don’t fret, because it’s still the Met. There are masterpieces galore, there is luxury around every corner, and be assured that the crowds will follow.

I’ll be watching eagerly to see how the programming develops and how Sheena Wagstaff, the chairwoman for the Met’s new department of Modern and contemporary art, and her staff will shake things up. Retrospectives of Diane Arbus and Kerry James Marshall are on the way, and Vijay Iyer’s performance residency continues. Will the new Met change the way we understand art? Probably not, but that’s a continuing conversation.

The Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) opens to the public on March 18. Unfinished runs March 18–September 4. Nasreen Mohamedi runs March 18–June 5. Stay tuned for Hyperallergic’s reviews of both exhibitions in the coming weeks.

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

37 replies on “The Metropolitan Museum Is Still Very Eurocentric and Conservative”

  1. The day the Met stops being a museum for great European art is the day I stop going. Probably the same for most people.

  2. Ridiculous! What institution in the world collects and displays art of the highest quality made by virtually every culture? Are you kidding? Enough of this political nonsense in the face of the greatest collection in the world.

    1. But they could have gone further and included incredible unfinished work from other artistic traditions… we are missing out on astounding work that’s outside of the cannon that was first envisioned by German scholars who invented modern art history in the 19th century… that canon excludes incredible work… there are holes in what the Met displays… there is not enough Latin American work from post 1500 / known as Colonial Latin American art… there isn’t enough african art that doesn’t fit into the primitive label… we can love the met… while also opening a dialogue about incredible art that isn’t on view right now because of the myopia of the collecting patterns of previous generations… this isn’t about being politically correct… it’s about INCREDIBLE art that isn’t getting shown… that happens to be from cultures that the german pioneers of art history didn’t take seriously…

      1. there will be other shows, right? art goes on and on. the unfinished theme, for an opening, is a hopeful start.

  3. The Met is the only museum I visit in New York anymore, with MOMA and the Frick being garbage warehouses. Keep your grubby mitts out of there. It is the one ray of sunshine in the landfill of the NY “art” scene.

  4. Can someone please unpack the statement about Mohamedi’s work, “the work is conceptual and tends towards the minimal.”

    1. I used that phrase because I don’t think she was doing “minimalism” in the traditional sense. She appears to demonstrate tendencies that we associate with minimalism.

  5. Hrag, I couldn’t agree more. What’s dispiriting about this hanging is that the phenomenon of the unfinished isn’t limited to western art. Where is the Wabi Sabi aesthetic from Zen Buddhist art that celebrates the rough and incomplete, which many contemporary Japanese artists explore? Where are the unfinished Persian manuscripts that reveal the techniques of their masters? Where is the half carved African sculpture that could reveal more about its artist? Incredible unfinished objects of creativity survive from every epoch on every continent. What a shame New Yorkers are left with the myopia of the 19th century art historical narrative. But wait! Someone diverse is in a side gallery.

    1. Daniel you have elucidated the shortcomings succinctly, something that Hrag failed to do in his critique. As a result it comes across as an art-political rant rather than a critique of substance. I would have preferred to see a critique of what was displayed and a description of the lost potential by not including significant works from other cultures rather than a relentless remonstration about the lack of the “radical”.

  6. I counted 5 instances of ‘Eurocentric’ and two ‘radical’ in this short and superficial article that looks like a bad undergraduate paper. It’s frankly embarrassing. And consider this sentence about Mohamedi: “She went to school in India and the UK [and that’s bad of course, because the UK is in Europe], and then spent most of her life creating beautiful abstractions that are expertly conceived and highly refined [wow, that seems pretty great to me!], even if they tend to be somewhat dull and rather repetitive. [how un-radical!]” So, one goes from a quick biographical notation to an appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of the artwork to a critique of the same, with no apparent logical connection among them. It’s probably too much to ask from this ‘critic’ to know something about the institution s/he writes about, but at least one could expect some basic writing skills…oh wait, skill – that’s such a conservative idea!

    1. I think this is harsh – Hrag is an incredible writer and brings lots of wisdom to the table

  7. Please, Met, do not bend to an intellectual fad which has severely hobbled and threatens to destroy what used to be called “higher education.”

    1. It’s not a fad. There is GREAT unfinished art outside the lily white canon that could inspire artists and viewers.

  8. “Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect the Met, a Eurocentric institution of encyclopedic proportions, to change much.”

    Because of course, the Met became the dominant force it is by foregoing its rich history and haphazardly embracing every random trend that happens to be prevalent at any given time.

    In a similar vein, I look forward to Hrag Vartanian complaining that the Rolling Stones totally ignored dubstep on their last album, that James Cameron has not even bothered to follow the mumblecore directors, and Pixar keeps steadfastly refusing to incorporate any god damn hentai at all into their animated movies.

      1. That’s the philosophical equivalent of yelling at a cop “but I pay your salary, you should be arresting murderers” in spite of the fact that you were clearly going 50 in 30 with your seatbelt off and a beer between your knees. Yeah, sure, it’s technically true, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the matter at hand.

        They don’t pretend like they represent more then they do. The very premise of your complaint concedes this, calling it “a Eurocentric institution.” That is all that they claim to represent, and that’s what they live up to. Your criticism is not merely misguided, it’s a contradictory failure of logic at its core.

        You seem to be unable to grasp the role of the institution, and are complaining about the fact that their mission doesn’t line up with your worldview. You want that mission to “change,” great, bully on you.

        But the Met doesn’t owe you that, your childish rantings about public funding aside.

          1. No, don’t be sorry. It’ll do you good to confront your inadequacies. Maybe next time your review won’t be as weak in its premise.

          2. Why would banning this person be appropriate? Surely after writing this piece you expected blowback.

          3. Really, you want to ban the dissenters? As a critic you should be able to argue your position without resorting to the retorts of a petulant child regardless of the tone of the commenter to whom you are responding. (By the way, I am not calling you a petulant child, just that your response makes you sound like one).

          4. The banning was unnecessary (as was the insult about AOL). They weren’t being disrespectful. They were disagreeing. What site rule were they breaking, exactly? Because your response makes you look immature.

  9. The critique “nothing radical” is used twice in the second paragraph as a value judgement by the author. First, very few people have the foresight to determine what is radical in their own life time (although maybe the author is an exception and has a history of discovering “radical” art unknown to most of us). Second, “radical,” like “cutting edge” and “avant garde,” is highly over stated in our epoch and used too often as a selling point and marketing meme by gallerists and promoters.

    What turns out, over centuries to be “radical” are often small shifts in perception. A good example for me: the artists of Fond-de-Gaume, painting almost 30,000 years ago realized that depicting bison and horses in the convexities and concavities of the rock gave the images an almost three dimensional quality … and that with the flickering of a torch, gave the images what appeared to be movement.

    There are of course numerous other “radical” moments in the history of art, as there are in food, science, etc.. But, in the age where anything and everything can be called art as long as there is a concept attached, the term “radical” has lost the power of its meaning for me.

      1. Actually, the way you just put it … maybe that is “radical” or at least unexpected. Hrag, you might be one of the few to really determine what is “radical.” If so, my hat goes off to you. Most of us do not have your skill. If we did, Theo would have been able to sell a lot more of his brother’s paintings.

        Wonderful that you are reading and responding to feedback. I look forward to going next week as my last visit to the Marcel Breuer building was to see the radical cutting edge avant garde art of Jeff Koons.

        1. I’m open to other opinions but I want to hear what you think after you saw it. This was a rather conventional walk through Western European Art History (not even Eastern European) and right onto some contemporary stuff (though again, rather conventional). I think the fact that the Met chose not to include non-Western art is a clear (and disappointing) statement. Can’t wait to hear your opinion.

          1. I am looking forward to seeing not only the opening show (next Tuesday), but what the Met will do with this space going forward. They have an excellent collection of 20th Century art that will be interesting to see at the Breuer building.

          2. John, I think you’re being a tad harsh with Hrag. Although, I do find these words games with radical amusing. It is term with many meanings. Go see the treasures in Timbuktu, the manuscripts in Aremnia, or the gardens of Osaka. There is such beauty to inspire and nurture us outside of the western canon. There was a lot of chatter that this unfinished show was going to cross boundaries and give us some unorthodox comparisons. And while it includes many different chapters of history, Hrag is right that it sticks with a standard narrative of the development of western art. Now that’s not so radical. Imagine a show that included unfinished art from Fez, Ulaanbaater and Port-Au Prince as well and beside these established masters of Spain and Italy.

          3. Of course you are right. I haven’t seen the show and won’t until next week so my response was only to the repeated use of the word “radical” in the critique of the show. This word is thrown around by writers, curators, and salespeople in the art world too often to promote staid and derivative art. As mentioned above, I look forward not just to this show (even if it is underwhelming in its curatorial choices) but to the future of the space – especially if the Met decides to show some their 20th/21st Century art works there. (A walk through the main Met, it should be noted, is a walk through the history and diversity of art only matched by less than ten other museums worldwide.)

      2. that is precisely what is radical, in my view! I’m sorry to see such a narrow-minded vision of art in this article, which is unfortunately becoming the NORM in American culture.

  10. Forgive me, but isn’t Criticism also a Eurocentric activity?
    PS: Why are you also blocking those who are offering what could be some valid views or at minimum a response to your article? And why are they being judged on the fact that they have an aol account? Tsk tsk.

  11. Great review. I often think about how even small museums have an inertia problem when it comes to changing traditional narratives in even slightly radical ways… it’s hard to expect a giant ship like the Met to turn so quickly. That said, it definitely seems like there could have been more of an effort (based on the review, I haven’t seen it for myself yet). The Whitney’s collection survey when they reopened was a great counter-example, showing that even the minor canon-shifting gesture of incorporating more women and artists of color throughout is an important one; because without doing at least that, we’ll never push the needle towards greater representation.

    (To some of the other commenters: showing great art by artists of other nations does not mean throwing out the great artists of the West)

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