UNITED in Art
In 1953, one of the largest and most well attended photographic exhibitions in the history of the medium opened at the Museum of Modern Art In New York City. It was called the Family of Man and was curated by Edward Steichen. Over 500 images by 273 photographers from 68 countries were included.
The photographs in the exhibit were intended to substantiate a modernist idea of a master truth: that all mankind is somehow united in hopes, dreams, needs, behavior patterns and culture. In Steichen’s own words the exhibition “was conceived as a mirror of the universal elements and emotions in the everydayness of life – as a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world … explaining man to man”
Unfortunately, in the Family of Man exhibition the mirror or yardstick, by which the universality of human experience was measured, was that of western culture. The visual evidence for uniformity was derived from carefully selected photographs depicting how “others” in the world did lots of things like we Anglo-westerners. In contemporary postmodern and postcolonial societies these notions are at best naive, paternalistic, embarrassing and Eurocentric.
UNITED in Art at the DeVos Art Museum will not set world records for attendance. However the imagery in the exhibition reflects the values both of the UNITED in Conference and 21st century sensibilities. The work embraces differences and distinctions among human beings. Here is an affirmation of variety in human experience and a warning about the ramifications of failing to do so.
Gone are the demure, eyes-cast-downward, images about people of color. Walk up to nearly any photograph in the exhibit as with Alec Soth’s Sunshine Memphis or Erica Lord’s Un/Defined Self-Portrait series and your gaze is met eye-to-eye with a full-frontal visual response. Witness the process of artists from different cultures grappling with the influences of political, economic and cultural influences in the three video installations. Listen as they discuss their struggle to make sense of these influences and funnel their perceptions into their art. Recognize the dynamics of negotiating family relationships while dispelling racial stereotypes (and the effect these have on the formation of self-identity) as addressed in Carrie Mae Weems’ Untitled family table series.
The subjects in all the imagery refute marginalization, patronization and typecasting. They will not be demeaned or categorized as they affirm the complexity of the struggle to define identity and carve a place for oneself in a multicultural world. It may seem paradoxical that the subjects are not self-assured. Like all of us they grapple with ideas about identity and a sense of place. In a way the work is about the ongoing process of artists making art and rediscovering the histories that comprise individuality. The strongest element of solidarity is found in this concept.
Many of the photographs in the exhibit were never intended to be an expression of ethnic or cultural diversity. But in the context of the exhibition, they work well. Loretta Lux’s surreal portrait of two Asian children recalls the hues of Renaissance master painting coupled with kitschy images of children with big eyes from the 1960s. Yet their storybook setting and perfect appearance reminds us how unrealistic and ultimately harmful the imposition of such stereotypes can be on any individual.
Certainly the “show stopper” of the exhibition is Qin Fengling’s Age of Consumption.The painting addresses questions of how we are caught up in the net of consumerism, products and consumption. These commodities come dangerously close to defining who we are, particularly in China where unabashed production and consumption is quickly becoming part of contemporary culture. Perhaps the painting mirrors a world where humans may be nothing more than products to be consumed by the global economy, trafficked from border to border.
Irving Penn is the one and only photographer represented in both the Family of Man and the UNITED in Art Exhibitions. However his depiction Two New Guinea Men is a far cry from the portrait of the little white girl with big dark eyes in the Family of Man.
From the imagery in the exhibition we can begin to understand that the solidarity of human interaction is not derived from superimposed, imaginary unities or dominant ideologies. On the contrary the message presented by the work concerns discarding the old master truths and embracing the plurality of attitudes that arise from the differences in life-experiences. In addition the work affirms the amplified difficulty of defining one’s sense of identity and place when sensitized to social and cultural diversity. Ultimately the message of the exhibition is cautiously optimistic – that this awareness will lead to greater human understanding.
Christine Flavin, UNITED in Art Curator and Assistant Professor of Photography
- Monday, September 22, 8-10pm