Art and the Link Economy

Posted: January 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Culture, Ephemera | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Yesterday, I took some friends from college to the Met, which has late-night weekend hours that cater to a younger crowd. We saw a unique exhibit, a tribute to the outgoing head curator, Phillippe de Montebello. The exhibition is an 8 room collection of his major acquisitions, arranged chronologically by the year the Met purchased them.

Normally, of course, these works hang in the museum thematically–17th century Dutch paintings are in one wing, medieval Chinese scrolls are in another. Because this exhibition framed the artworks through the lens of de Montebello’s career, rather than art-historically, the two disparate genres often hung side by side. One room has these two paintings next to one another:

Top: Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri; Italian, 1591–1666), Samson Captured by the Philistines, 1619
Bottom: Balthus (French, 1908–2001), The Mountain, 1936–37

Though of course I knew this already, looking at them together really brought out how much the Renaissance art world was confined to a small group of people who all knew the same basic collection of classical and Biblical stories: this meant that you could show a crowded close-up scene like this without any background and expect everyone to know what was going on. Fast forward to the 1930s and it’s assumed that viewers won’t share such a coherent base of narratives you can throw on the canvas. Instead, to the extent that anyone is still painting narrative scenes, you have broader views that take you THROUGH a story, a fictional story that is new to everyone looking at the work. This is something I hadn’t really thought about before, and probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t seen these works side by side.

For the techie in me, it was a reminder of how the digital link is meant to work: instead of just seeing the internal logic of a blog post like this one, you jump horizontally from this to a Wiki entry on de Montebello or journal articles about these artists or an exhibition review, and learn things you wouldn’t learn if you had just flipped linearly through the Met catalogue.
On the other hand, there were places in this exhibit where the logic of the link was sorely missing. In particular the curatorial captions on the plaques accompanying the work were the opposite of helpful and often showed a lack of expertise about the particular period or place the work hailed from. One of my companions, a PhD student in early American history, pointed out that the caption for a piece of furniture noted the name “Nicholas Easton” inscribed inside, but said his identity was unknown. In fact, she says, historians of early New England know him well. Academia functions in specialized silos, and if this exhibit is any indication, art and history professors could do well to indulge in more inter-disclipinary link-exchange.

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