My standard college dictionary defines a museum as “n. –a building or place for exhibiting artistic, scientific, or historical objects.”
This narrow perspective, focusing on the objects, fails to capture the raison d’etre for museums. I was recently reminded of such while reading a history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a child of the area, I am a sucker for New York City history. Merchants & Masterpieces by Calvin Tomkins is filled with rich history and golden anecdotal nuggets.
Carlo Dolci and 17th Century Florence at Nasher
for 9 more days
by: Aaron Mandel
The bits that got me thinking about a museum’s purpose were a series of excerpts from the principal address at the Metropolitan’s formal dedication in 1880. The President of the United States with whom Trump may be vying against for worst of all time, Rutherford B. Hayes, was on-hand. The principal address was given by a young Harvard lawyer who, according to Tomkins, had stirred up New Yorkers about the inequities of the machine politics of Boss Tweed, Joseph C. Choate. Choate was the youngest of the Metropolitan Museum’s Board of Trustees.
He said (in part), “that the diffusion of a knowledge of art in its higher forms of beauty would tend directly to humanize, to educate and refine a practical and laborious people.” (1)
Recall the noxious, long, dark hours the worker of the late 19th century faced.
Choate went on “the vital and practical interest [was that] of the working millions… [that the museum not be] …a mere cabinet of curiosities which should serve to kill time for the idle… but should –show—the students and artisans of every branch of industry, in the high and acknowledged standards of form and color, what the past has accomplished for them to imitate and excel.”
This is a mighty and vital purpose for a museums within a culture; to be of practical interest to the common working people and of service to the artist community.
The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University nestled within Durham gets both of these goals.
The second one first.
Nasher hosts, among many other community programs regular teen meet-ups and studio shares. These are open studio and art sharing sessions. A certain amount of free materials are allocated for the artists who attend. They are also granted access to the fabulous galleries of the museum.
Which bring us to the practical interests of the common working local resident.
It can be easy to forget the institutions, to forgo the Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall for the headiest new band at CBGB’s. One way we are prone to do just that in Durham is our fabulous visual arts scene. We have so many galleries, pop ups, alternative and traditional spaces to see art that we can sometimes overlook the big institutional museum’s exhibits to our detriment. (2)
It is especially easy to do when one writes off an exhibit as standard, perfunctory, or mainstream. I think it would possible to make such a mistake with the exhibit that is leaving the Nasher Museum in nine short days, “The Medici’s Painter Carlo Dolci and 17th Century Florence”.
This exhibit, seemingly distant, has echoes in the present day. It is evocative and part of long debate about the value of beauty and sentimentality in culture.
Dolci’s work was not given the benefit of the doubt. As the book that accompanies the exhibit tells the reader in Eve Straussman-Pflanzer’s essay, “The reception of seventeenth-century Florentine art has been on even shakier ground…for instance, the Italian art historian Giovanni Previtali’s over the top declaration in 1979,
“Seventeenth-century Florence reeked of the boudoir and confessional, death and decay, and its artists give us a sense of the stench, this certainly makes them great, but should we not call decadent the society to which they are witness?”
This hits home in 2017-18 America. The stench of the boudoir? With every Kardashian-Jenner.(3) Death and decay? Logan Paul in the Aokigahara Forest. And it is not just the depths of American internet culture, it is more over the tenor of our politics and media. Base and crass are currently triumphant.
But two-hundred years from now we will be able to indict all of the artists of Global America for failing to deconstruct this culture? Are they (we) to blame or merely witness to the horrors?
Artists around the world have been faced with those questions from time immemorial.
I do not believe it inherently devalues the art to be created during low cultural tides. Difficult is always personal and present. The grass isn’t proverbially greener on this side.
Yet despite Previtali’s critique and artist history’s general derision of his era, Dolci’s works moved great thinkers. From Thomas Jefferson who loved his painting as a “violent favorite” to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who called Dolci’s work “sugar coated excess” to Nathaniel Hawthorne who accuses Dolci of blasphemously satirizing the Almighty making “him” all too human in Straussman-Pflanzer’s commentary.
Yet (again from Straussman-Pflanzer’s essay, quoting George Hay) for all the emotion Dolci arouses even his critics admit he had “a keen and childish sense of beauty and righteousness, and he sought to express it on canvas…”
Artists from Walt Whitman and Robert Frost to Robert Louis Stevenson and E.B. White faced similar critiques.
Art speaks to its time. Judged sentimental and somehow lesser for not being deep and dark, is not Dolci’s work in service of the common man?
How dare society in dark times look to simple happier bits of culture for solace? Is all that is sentimental saccharine? The debate rings familiar from our era for musicians, writers, and creators of movies and television. Dare, I say Taylor Swift could relate.
Dolci moved and provoked people. He cannot be held to account for all that is the era.
Great art can be made in seemingly vapid times. The Great Gatsby both proves the point and excoriates its own era’s vapidity.
Dolci via the Nasher is still rendering service to the artist community, too. His work still speaks practically. On the final Sunday of the exhibit, the legendary photographer, Burk Uzzle (the youngest photographer ever hired by Life magazine), will give a talk and demonstration on light, shadow and composition, how the long tradition of portraiture connects, and how artists are inspired by and grapple with faith in their work.
3pm, January 14th FREE with admission to Nasher Museum. The Nasher will stay open late until 7pm on this the final day of the exhibit.
The Nasher Museum works actively and successfully to be the kind of institution that is for the people and the artists of Duke, Durham, and beyond.
Sometimes that is more and less obvious to the public. Durham is ready and prone to notice Nasher exhibits that hit close to home geographically, like “919” and “Southern Accent” that delighted huge crowds in recent years. And I’m quite sure Durham will be focused on the upcoming “Courtside Photographs by Bill Bamberger” an exhibition of vibrant color photographs that capture a variety of basketball hoops around the world.
Nasher’s “The Medici’s Painter Carlo Dolce and 17th Century Florence” shouldn’t slip by without notice.
Go while you still can.
This is THE first exhibit of Dolci’s paintings in the United States.
1 Applying perhaps a pinch of salt to the 19th century elitism sprinkled here.
2 NCMA can be too often overlooked, too.
3 Or darker yet, omnipresent pornography.