In 2010, I wrote an essay titled “How to Write Art Criticism in 2010” (I had thought it was titled “How to Write Art Criticism in the 21st Century” but apparently I was more modest in my goals). Since then, I have very rarely lived up to my own prescriptive standards of taking into account not just the formal aspects of the art, but its context in the biological, social, economic, and, yes, aesthetic aspects of the human condition across thousands of years of human cultures, from the Paleolithic onward into the farther reaches of the present climate-altering Anthropocene epoch. This little essay, which essays to be self-consciously outrageous in places (including in that ridiculous use of the verb “to essay” from which the noun derives), is my attempt to restore my reputation as a critic trying to operate in the changed conditions of the century and millennium in which we live.
By a coincidence that is for once only a coincidence,“Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas” opens at the High Museum of Art, which originated the exhibition, at almost the same time (May 21 vs. May 17) that “Kongo Across the Waters,” the keynote exhibition of Africa Atlanta 2014, arrives at the Carter Center from the Harn Museum of Art, the originating institution in Gainesville, Florida.
What, you may ask, do these two exhibitions have to do with one another? The answer, as with so much else in life, is: either almost nothing or almost everything, depending on the frame through which you view them.
One Atlanta art-world gatekeeper remarked that “Kongo Across the Waters” is an ethnographic exhibition, not an art exhibition—it presents mostly 18th- and 19th-century functional objects and artworks from the territory of the former Kingdom of Kongo and its Kikongo-speaking outliers, juxtaposed with functional objects and artworks of the African Diaspora that show the survival of Kongo cultural influences. Contemporary art from Diaspora artists in the Americas comes into it at the end, after a long consideration of transmuted traditions. (We leave to one side the excellence of the contemporary art, and the superb quality of the 111 artworks and objects from Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa, which co-organized the exhibition.)
But if “Kongo Across the Waters” is ethnographic (itself a contested categorization), surely “Dream Cars” is also as much ethnographic as it is design-oriented or art-oriented—or at least it is difficult not to read the exhibition and its catalogue as a study in several important aspects of the cultural habits of the European and North American peoples (mostly but not entirely the socially and/or demographically dominant ones) of the 20th and 21st centuries. We learn from the “Dream Cars” catalogue how the table with seating of the 1936 Scarab presaged the layout of the culturally transformative minivan, and how the elegantly bulbous electrically powered L’Oeuf électrique of 1942 was one designer’s personal solution to fuel shortages in German-occupied Paris. These dream cars are culturally embedded functional objects that happen to have strong aesthetic qualities that allow us to situate them now in an art-world context, just as Central and West African objects of different sorts made their way into art history by way of ethnographic collections or Parisian bric-à-brac bins after being removed from their operational days in Central and West African societies.
If someone protests that these cars have singular designers (not always: sometimes nameless teams in corporate design departments) who created automotive experiments with artistic elegance as well as technical innovations far ahead of their time … why, even so did many Kongo objects have identifiable designers or creators (sometimes we know their names, sometimes only their recognizable styles) who responded to social circumstances and to the need of their societies for innovative design solutions for the practical problems of the day. Ethnographers contributing essays to the “Kongo” catalogue protest, for example, that figurative as well as medicine-bundle minkisi are functional objects made for specific purposes rather than art objects or even “religious objects,” if that means objects serving an exclusive function of devotion or worship rather than healing or resolution of trade disputes; perhaps this would be somewhat in the way that a 1935 Bugatti prototype is not an art object, but rather a beautiful functional object intended for transportation? The mirrors in minkisi may have been added for symbolic purposes, but we are told that they were also added to make the minkisi attractive—although in this particular worldview, the aesthetic quality may have been to attract the indwelling spirit as much as to please or frighten a human audience.
If you want to grouse that sculptural figures such as minkisi are one problem but woven baskets are another, and that you can’t equate a basket with a Bugatti, well, yes. One has many more moving parts than the other, and the moving parts are sometimes sufficiently ugly that they have to be covered over with a sculptural veneer that far exceeds the need for mere surface continuity. (One could add that the right kind of well-designed container has earned a place in design museums alongside Bugattis, and in certain art museums as well.)
A major difference between the two exhibitions is that much of “Dream Cars” is devoted to designers who made one-of-a-kind objects that later inspired more anonymous automotive creations (though as noted earlier, sometimes the original concept cars were team-created), whereas most of the objects from Kongo are already objects fully melded with their social functions—so we don’t know the names of their originators any more than most of us know the names of the artists who carved the crucifixes at local Catholic and Episcopal churches, the painters and potters who produced the typically unsigned items of decoration in our doctors’ offices, the architects who made our standard-issue apartments or townhouses, and the designers who created our dinnerware, bedding, or bookcases (unless we are into that sort of thing and buy designer items from the appropriate sales outlets).
Sometimes the Central African works are purely art objects with no function otherwise—the early 20th century Congolese artist Voania Muba seems to have made his signed sculptures exclusively for sale to Europeans. There are also cultural-crossover objects. The upper classes in Kongo society seem to have admired Toby jugs imported from England for the same reasons that contemporaneous Europeans admired objects imported from China and Japan—they were quaintly exotic portrayals of an alien society, with the added benefit in the case of Kongo that Toby jugs were amusing portrayals of fat, squat Englishmen. Local potters made their own imitations for local Kongo use. All could be used as vessels, but their sculptural qualities gave them the potential for providing something that might as well be called aesthetic enjoyment (or something strongly resembling it). They became indicators of prestige and sophistication, rather as owning a short-production-run version of the concept cars on display at the High was an indicator of wealth and taste.
Until American artists took to importing unaltered muscle cars into gallery spaces a quarter century ago, the sculptural qualities of visionary vehicles like the ones in “Dream Cars”did not turn them into art objects. And yet today we can see their place in art history, just as we can see the place in art history of Kongo objects that may have been meant to be viewed more mundanely in their original setting—just as dream cars were (and sometimes still are) in theirs.
Dr. Jerry Cullum is a freelance curator and critic living in Atlanta. His poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in a wide variety of local and national publications, including Art Papers and Art in America.
“Kongo Across the Waters” is on view at the Carter Center in Atlanta through September 21. It will travel to the Princeton University Art Museum, October 25, 2014 – January 25, 2015, and the New Orleans Museum of Art, February 27, 2015 – May 25, 2015. “Dream Cars” is on view at the High Museum, May 21-September 7, 2014.