In Depth

"Apeshit" at the Louvre, "Like Life" at Met Breuer, and the Persistent Whiteness of Neoclassicism

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"Apeshit" at the Louvre, "Like Life" at Met Breuer, and the Persistent Whiteness of Neoclassicism

In the Carters’s “Apeshit” music video, Beyonce, Jay Z, and their dancers upstage some of the most well-known pieces of art history at the Louvre, metaphorically decolonizing a historically white space. In one scene, a man casually sits in front of the Mona Lisa getting his hair braided (the painting is so secondary to the actors, you barely notice it’s there). In another, Beyonce holds hands with a line of women dancing on either side of her in front of a gargantuan Jacques-Louis David painting—no longer a focal point, reduced to a mere backdrop. The song itself doesn’t shy away from getting political, lyrically throwing shade at institutions like the NFL and the Grammys, both of whom have come under fire for prejudice and racism. (“I said no to the Super Bowl: you need me, I don’t need you/ Every night we in the endzone, tell the NFL we in stadiums too,” and, “Tell the Grammy’s fuck that 0 for 8 shit/ Have you ever seen the crowd goin’ apeshit?”.) But the fact the Louvre—that like many art museums, have upheld white and Western ideals of beauty, artistry, and historical significance—is the setting for a video by Beyonce and Jay Z, whose African American culture has largely been excluded from such institutions, is the critique that hits hardest.

Meanwhile, “Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body,” the Met Breuer’s transhistorical survey of figurative sculpture that culls works from the 14th century to the present (and yet almost entirely excludes non-Western artists and cultures), begins with “The Presumption of White”: a gallery of white sculpted bodies that illustrate the persistent influence of ancient Greek art. While certainly not the first examples of figurative sculpture (small figurines were carved from mammoth ivory in the beginning of the Paleolithic era) or even full-scale statues (Classic Greek and Roman sculpture was heavily influenced by Egyptian statues of kings from as early as 2500 BC), Classical sculpture is often thought of as the beginning of high art; and for centuries, artists and institutions have seen it (and more specifically, the Aryan subjects those sculptures depict) as the highest form of beauty and perfection.

Three sculptures in the Met Breuer's "Like Life." Photo: Artspace.

Throughout history, we can see an undulating trend that returns to the Greek classics over and over, each time with a slightly different spin. The oldest piece in “The Presumption of White” gallery at the Met Breuer—a marble sculpture from the first or second century A.D.—is already an emulation; the Roman sculpture is an adaptation of a Greek statue from the late 5th or early 4th century BC. Next is a 1554 marble figure by the Roman Domenico Poggini in a similar style. Then a 1858 marble sculpture by American artist Hiram Powers that was inspired by the California Gold Rush; in the figure’s left hand she holds a diving rod, and behind her is a rising crystal of quartz—a rock typically found near gold. It’s worth noting that this was the first sculpture by an American artist to enter the Metropolitan’s collection. 

The obsession with Classical art is so persistent it’s become it’s own movement; “Neoclassicism” began in the middle of the 18th century. Starting in Rome with the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, it quickly spread all over Europe thanks in large part to Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German art historian and archeologist whose History of Ancient Art (1764) earned him the unofficial title of “the grandfather of art history.” While the knowledge of Greek antiquity spread, so did misinformation about the color of classical sculpture. Though the ancient Greeks painted their marble statues to reflect their culture’s diverse range of skin hues and bright patterned fabrics, they were discovered in the 1700s without paint, and were further polished and cleaned to reveal a white marble finish that was originally intended to remain hidden.

Scan from Indigenous Races of Earth(1857), using the Apollo of Belvedere as an illustration of a "white" skull. Image via contemptorary.org

In an unfortunate case of bad timing, Neoclassicism coincided with the Age of Enlightenment, Europe’s philosophical movement that valued reason over intuition, science over religion—and used these values to justify white supremacy. The white sculptures of ancient Greece not only provided standards for beauty and perfection within the arts, they also provided white, Western “scientists” with what they believed were perfect models of human physical perfection—models to compare non-Aryan bodies to in order to perpetuate their otherness. They also believed that outer beauty was a reflection of inner purity and spiritual morality, which is perhaps why Dutch anatomist Pieter Camper developed a “formula” to measure beauty by determining the distance between facial features on Greek figures, comparing them to animal facial features and other humans. The formulas he developed were later used by Nazis to support their claims of white supremacy during the Third Reich. 

Of course, the relationship between Classical sculpture and white supremacy didn’t end with the Nazis. The equestrian military monuments that pepper the United States, many of which celebrate the Confederacy, are modeled after Neoclassical sculpture. And white supremacist groups like Identity Evropa use images of Classic sculpture in their recruitment propaganda. 

Identity Evropa material. Image via City Pages.

And yet, it’s no surprise that the Nike of Samothrace, the background to much of “Apeshit,” is prominently displayed at the top of the stairs in one of the Louvre’s most highly visible locations. Classic sculpture is still thought of as some of the most “advanced” displays of human ingenuity—and with good reason; these sculptures are no doubt skillfully sculpted, beautifully rendered, and valuable artifacts from a significant moment in history. They should be prominently featured in the Louvre. But, as artist and writer Maya Mackrandilal writes in “The Aesthetics of Empire” on Contemptorary.org, the fact that Neoclassicism is the most prominent aesthetic in public space in the form of monuments, government buildings, public parks, state capitols, banks, schools, etc., is a problem—and it's perpetuated by art institutions. She writes, “Neoclassicism is the style of authority, of power, of money, of the mythology of white dominance over this land. It is also the aesthetics that presides over our public lives. The aesthetics that protects some while carefully alienating others. Who feels proud looking at their statues? Who feels proud walking into their buildings? Who describes them as beautiful: who works to replicate them?”  

What the Met Breuer did right in “Like Life” is they began the exhibition with a wall text explaining “The Presumption of White” as “perpetuating the false presumption that classical sculpture was always white.” But as actions speak louder than words, it’s disturbing that all of the art, culled from almost 1,000 years of history, only came from the West. Considering the Met’s extensive collection of global historical art, and their ability to borrow pretty much anything they want, it couldn’t have been difficult to break up all the Classical references, Neoclassicism, and Western contemporary sculpture with something, anything, else.

The exclusion of non-western art by the Met Breuer is not only symptomatic of the ideologies that valued and fetishized Classical art in the first place, it was also a missed opportunity. (Mummies, for god's sake!) In his review of the exhibition, Jerry Saltz wrote for Vulture, “Even a cursory comparison of Western figuration with that of Asia, Africa, or Oceana—all of which approach the nude more exuberantly, with less conflict, neurosis, and guilt—would have revealed fabulous fissures and disparities in approaches and establish how deeply Western art has been determined and distorted by the Judeo-Christian fixation on—and perhaps phobias about—the flesh, sex, and sublimation.”

Though the Met is proud to host a diverse range of historical objects in its collection, it’s reluctant to elevate those that aren't Western from the status of “artifact” to “art.” And while it’s quick to point out the problem with “the presumption of whiteness,” it doesn’t do a whole lot to counteract it. (It’s worth noting that some institutions, including the Louvre, have made efforts to reconstruct polychromatic ancient sculpture to not only show historical accuracy, but also to help dispel myths surrounding whiteness and ideal beauty. The Tracking Colour Project initiated by The Copenhagen Polychromy Network provides museums with analytic technology and expertise. And the travelling 2008 exhibition “Gods in Color” organized by the Glyptothek in Munich displayed copies of ancient sculpture in full reconstructed color.) "Like Life" isn't the first transhistorical exhibition the Met pulled off without Asian, African, and Oceanic art—their 2016 exhibition "Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible," "comprising 197 works dating from the Renaissance to the present" was just as exclusionary.

"Like Life" is about the human body—about what it looks like, about how artists and artisans throughout history have chosen to represent it, and about how we, in 2018, see it. So much of how and where identity starts is with the body—our experience of the world filtered through it, and the world's perception of our fleshy external selves. "Like Life" could have been great. It could have showed us how people, from every content and from every century, have thought about representing the body, representing identity. It could have showed how different and diverse our bodies are; and how similar and unified our innate desire to see them, replicate them, and craft them are, too. Beyonce and Jay Z’s “Apeshit” video got the world talking about the whiteness of art institutions. But let us, the art world, not leave it up to pop stars and celebrities to do something about it.

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