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“Afrofuturism and the decline of our art museums”— nice use of the pronoun — blares the headline of Gilbert T. Sewall’s October 26 review in Spectator World, the international edition of the archconservative British magazine The Spectator. That imperious “our” gives the game away: The lesser breeds are desecrating the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Capitoline Hill of high (read: White) culture.
Sewall is a conservative chronicler of American decline. He tut-tuts, in all the usual outlets (The American Conservative, The American Spectator, National Review), about the dire state of the nation, affecting that rueful but knowing tone every patrician right-winger aspires to. Imagine William F. Buckley in a toga, channeling Edward Gibbon in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and you’ve got the general idea:
The hill of the Capitol, on which we sit, was formerly the head of the Roman Empire, the citadel of the earth, the terror of kings …. This spectacle of the world, how is it fallen! how changed! how defaced! The path of victory is obliterated by vines, and the benches of the senators are concealed by a dunghill.
Seventy-five and still fulminating, Sewall cranks out jeremiads like there’s no tomorrow — which there won’t be, he assures us, if schools using children as “critical race theory guinea pigs” and “Woke California” (which is banning “boys’ and girls’ toy sections” in a monstrous scheme to “erase gender”) have their way. Now, he’s spotted another sign of the end times: Afrofuturism in our Metropolitan Museum, of all places.
“’Before Yesterday We Could Fly’: An Afrofuturist Period Room” (2021) is a collaboration between the production designer Hannah Beachler, best known for her Oscar-winning vision of Black Panther’s Wakanda; consulting curator Dr. Michelle Commander, associate director and curator of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; and Met curators Ian Alteveer and Sarah E. Lawrence. The title alludes to African-American folktales about slaves who fled lives of bondage by (literally) taking flight. Beachler, Commander, and their collaborators use Afrofuturism’s faith in the radical power of speculative fictions as their launch pad. Inspired by the 19th-century Black settlement of Seneca Village, which thrived a few hundred yards to the west of the Met until the city razed it in 1857, invoking eminent domain, to create Central Park, the installation imagines an alternate future for Seneca’s residents.
It’s a magical-realist domestic interior where 19th-century household items from the Met’s American wing, African objects from the same period, and works by contemporary African-American artists coexist in what the cultural theorist Saidiya Hartman calls a state of “temporal entanglement”— the Afro-diasporic experience of historical time, in the world after slavery, as one in which “the past, the present, and the future are not discrete and cut off from one another.” As the curators note in their essay for the Met’s quarterly Bulletin, the Afrofuturist period room invites museumgoers “to recollect a disrupted past and reclaim an alternate future.”
Sewall isn’t having any of it. “’Before Yesterday We Could Fly’ comes from nowhere and no time” and is therefore “not really a period room,” he grouses, with the irascible bafflement of Abe Simpson in an Oculus headset. Apparently, he didn’t get the memo posted on the Met’s website: “Unlike these other spaces, this room rejects the notion of one historical period and embraces the African and African diasporic belief that the past, present, and future are interconnected … ” He’s scandalized by what he sees as the curators’ flagrant disregard for “historicism,” denouncing them for “abandoning their trust” and “abusing their artifacts.” None of the objects I saw in the Afrofuturist period room, from the Dahomean royal’s staff, to the 19th-century Venetian glassware, to the nail-studded Kongo “power figure,” to William Cole’s “Shine”(2007), a witty exercise in Afro-surrealist bricolage that jigsaws a pile of shiny black high-heeled shoes into the uncanny likeness of a Cameroon mask, seemed especially abused. Of course, for Sewall any use other than the reverent “display of worthy artifacts in context” is abusive.
No surprise there: Conservatives want to conserve. If the dingy period room recreating the 18th-century bedroom from the Sagredo Palace, with its putti frolicking in the gloom, is the hill you want to die on, be my guest. But if you value history, shouldn’t you value all histories? Yet Sewall begins his review with an eye-roll at the (for him) farcical notion of an “’Afrofuturist period room’ that ‘transforms a 19th-century interior into a speculative future home’ of historically oppressed blacks” and pours scorn, a few paragraphs later, on the room’s “weepy, semi-fictional backstory of historical injustice.”
He doesn’t put “historically oppressed” and “historical injustice” in ironizing quotes; he doesn’t have to. His readers will supply them. Far to the right and, if I know the Spectator, overwhelmingly White, they share Sewall’s indignant contempt for “the spirit of the times,” as he calls it, when some in White America are beginning to confront the racism, personal and institutional, that is part of this nation’s DNA. For Sewall and his readers, the very idea of “historically oppressed blacks,” in this best-of-all-possible post-racial worlds, is just so much “weepy, semi-fictional” liberal bunkum.
Ceding one square inch of the culture-war battlefield — say, a small room at the Met — to a hopeful myth that rewinds the demolition of a Black community and imagines a more radically empowered future for its inhabitants is mere “pander[ing] to the current vogue” for racial justice. From that pinched, parochial perspective, an Afrofuturist period room can’t be anything more than a scheme to “provide a racial learning moment for a maximum number of museumgoers” — clearly a bad thing — or, better yet, an ”anti-historical fantasy” in the “Disneyland of social justice,” like, you know, the Jungle Cruise, with its spear-chucking, headhunting Africans.
But what really winds him up is the curators’ “reckless shift from preservation to political messaging.” This is pretty rich, coming from the Antonin Scalia of cultural commentary. Sewall is nothing if not a rank ideologue, from his media appearances as the expert face of the American Textbook Council — an innocuous-sounding “independent, non-profit, research organization” launched in the Reagan ‘80s and funded by ultraconservative foundations as part of a far-right strategy to beat back multiculturalism and any reckoning with the historical legacy of white supremacism — to decades of paleoconservative diatribes about “the LGBT lobby,” “trannies” (who are, he implies, “mentally ill”), the “calculated and cynical” outrage of Black student “race hustlers” “mau-mauing” the administration at UCSD, and the trauma of “white Americans, badgered ceaselessly, told to renounce their heritage and confess ancestral sins” by “diversity’s inquisitors.”
Sewall wants to make the Met great again. Under the new director, Max Hollein, “activism and anti-European prejudices” are alarmingly ascendant. In a gauntlet-throwing break with the historical lily-whiteness of the Met’s curatorial staff, Hollein hired Denise Murrell, who is African American, for the position of associate curator for 19th- and 20th-century art. (That makes three full-time curators who identify as African American out of approximately 200 — yet more evidence of Hollein’s brazen “anti-European prejudice,” no doubt.) Even more alarmingly, he’s commissioning works by artists of color: Wangechi Mutu’s imposing bronze sculptures of Afro-alien women with lip plates and cyberpunk headgear, “The NewOnes, will free Us” (2019); the Cree artist Kent Monkman’s “Resurgence of the People” (2019), a high-camp send-up of Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851) that replaces Washington’s soldiers with a boatload of Indigenous people and displaced migrants and the general himself with the artist’s gender-fluid, high-heel-wearing alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, whose name alone is enough to give Sewall fits.
Sewall yearns for the days when the Napoleonic director Philippe de Montebello kept an aristocratic eye peeled for outbreaks of political correctness and postmodernist trespassing across the border between high and low culture, “worthy artifacts” and “now-art.” But those days are behind us, and the “mau mau”’s and the “trannies” — terms that mark the user, at this late date, as a dotard or a troll — are inside the gates.
Right-wingers like Sewall will have to take courage in the Churchillian stoicism they’re always extoling and resign themselves to the decline of the Met — another “White Man’s Burden,” heroically borne.
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