Pretty Things

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As a regular visitor of art museums, I'm often presented with the idea that the history of humankind is wholly about kings and queens, tiaras and chalices. In museums, much of what's on display is objects commissioned by the ruling class. For example, at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, a recent exhibit of art from 18th and 19th century India focused solely on treasures of the maharajahs. On display were gem-encrusted necklaces, a gleaming silver-plated carriage and fine silk saris.

Art has power. It has the ability to shape public thought, to touch hearts and minds. For this reason, through the ages kings, queens, popes and priestesses have co-opted art for their own ends. They commissioned statues, portraits and coinage in their own likeness. They adorned themselves with gold and glittering jewels. The goal was to impress and intimidate their subjects.

While we are fortunate that some of these statues and portraits have survived the ravage of time and are preserved for posterity, what has also survived is the marketing mythology of self-promotion that underlies these objects.  When our children visit museums, what they see is art that speaks cloyingly of the power and magnificence of kings and queens, and that this power and magnificence constitute the good and natural order of human life.

But what about the larger context? Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Museums are silent on the dark side of the ruling class. Nothing is said of the cruel excesses of the king's ego or the suffering of the masses.
Consider this. A hundred years from today, school children are taken to visit museums and all they see are glossy billboards and TV commercials of McDonald's and Coca Cola, these being the art of our times. Because these billboards and commercials are presented without context or commentary, the children will learn only of the power and magnificence of corporate America as presented by marketing executives. Is this the whole story?

I hold museums in high esteem. As publicly funded institutions, they have a responsibility to inform and educate.  As bastions of art, they have a duty to tell the truth, the whole truth and not just a narrow sliver of the truth.


With a Perspective, I'm Clarence Wong.

Clarence Wong lives in San Francisco and works at a community health center in Oakland Chinatown.