Friday, October 30, 2015

Portrait of a Nation

I love National Portrait Galleries (plural). I had previously written about the British version here - it's a wonderful example of the impressiveness of Victorian England, as personified in its great and famous men.

So it was with considerable interest that I finally went to the US National Portrait Gallery recently, when I was in DC.

My hunch going in was that the 19th century would be mostly a wasteland, but the 20th would be fascinating. National Portrait Galleries chart the fortunes of nations, and America's century of greatness was the 20th, in much the same way that Britain's century of greatness (or at least its last century of greatness) was the 19th. My presumption was that most of the famous 19th Century Americans are figures from the Civil War, which is fine as far as it goes, but ideally you'd like to see something of greater civilisational achievement. On the other hand, America dominated the world so thoroughly in the 20th that the category of great men in general over that period is largely a catalogue of famous Americans.

Thus were my predictions going in. As it turns out, both parts were wrong.

Firstly, the 19th Century was actually a lot more interesting than I thought it would be. I was expecting to see only Twain and Melville - the latter was oddly missing, but included were also Poe, and Sir Walter Scott, and others I'd forgotten - Longfellow, Hawthorne, Emerson. The late 19th century industrialists (Carnegie, Rockefeller) were interesting, as were some of the inventors I didn't know, like Samuel Morse and Isaac Singer. In other words, the 19th century, especially the later part, had more going on than I'd given it credit for.

But you could already see creeping in the sheer embarrassment of the curators at the whiteness and maleness of the rooms, strengthened by the fact that the 18th and 19th century parts were clearly the sections everyone had come to see. In the middle of the 19th century section, there was an oddly placed entire room dedicated to a Hispanic woman who was a labor activist in the 1960s. It's the same urge that saw them include in the 'Presidents of the US' section portraits (small, admittedly) of noted non-presidents Eleanor Roosevelt and Martha Washington.

How hard it must be to viscerally hate the composition of the collection you're tasked with curating! To know that the people streaming in every day stubbornly want to see famous dead white males - rubes educated enough to appreciate history, not educated enough to be ashamed at the lack of diversity that the real-life history of the US presents.

But the curators got their own back when it comes to the 20th century. It's basically Women and Minorities' R' Us. It's also included in a poky afterthought section on the top floor - apparently my enthusiasm for the US 20th century is not widely shared.

And how they relish their ability to finally shape the narrative. They do so even to the point of farce and absurdity. For instance, there was almost an entire wall devoted to a gaudy painting of LL Cool J, of all people. He shared this room with other prominent Americans such as Chuck D from Public Enemy, Henry Louis Gates (famous for getting arrested while trying to forcibly enter his own home, and presumably something else before that), some black female opera singer I hand't heard of, some black scientist I hadn't heard of who invented something or other in World War 2. Nobodies, in other words, but nobodies from the right demographics.

You may think I'm just being mean-spirited here, but the far more damning criticism was the list of people whose pictures weren't displayed in order to make room for the above-mentioned notables. Some of the absent included:

-Neil Armstrong
-T. S. Eliot
-Ernest Hemingway
-Robert Frost
-Milton Friedman
-James Watson
-Elvis Presley

et cetera, et depressing cetera.

As it turns out, they have paintings of these people - you can check this for yourself using their search function. They just aren't on display. Presumably, they rotate people in and out of the sections, but always with an eye to keeping the demographic representation in the right proportions. So they'll put in F Scott Fitzgerald, for the moment, but he fills the white author quota, so bad luck for the rest.

There is one ameliorating circumstance, however, that partially lessens the shame. It is this - the sheer scope of the US 20th Century achievement makes it extraordinarily hard to do full justice to it in terms of selecting the most worthy citizens in any reasonably-sized museum.

For instance, the US list of Nobel Prize winners alone comprises 356 names. That is a large museum just on its own, without even starting on the other categories of achievement. Realistically, one will be forced to cull from among the set of Nobel Prize winners. Think about that for a while - you won a Nobel Prize, huh? Join the crowd, buddy - that doesn't get you a painting.

So the scope of the task is daunting. And yet it's hard not to feel that the current attempt falls amazingly short of what could have been. Modern society is simply not willing to celebrate greatness. It celebrates diversity instead. Greatness, indeed, is a slap in the face to the lazy egalitarianism of our age. Hence heroism must be devalued to include doing a fun run to support a cancer charity.

A National Portrait Gallery that includes LL Cool J but not Neil Armstrong is a joke and a disgrace.

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