By Luke A. Fidler
This year’s first issue of the Chicago Tribune included its winter preview of Chicago’s art offerings. Critic Lori Waxman named ten shows not to miss and, unsurprisingly, picked no exhibition of work made before the year 1900. This elision is part of a trend, a tendency among critics writing now to privilege the newly made. Year-end lists for 2016, including Waxman’s, also overwhelmingly were stumped for modern and contemporary shows.
In a narrow sense, Chicago-based art lovers seem to feel that their city is poor in older art. We lack, after all, the bounty of pilfered Greek and Roman masterpieces on display in New York and Los Angeles, or Boston’s Renaissance and Baroque collections. As an art historian who tries to teach with objects, I’m admittedly frustrated by the paucity of Late Antique, medieval Slavic and Paleolithic art on display. However, early twentieth-century Chicagoans, collectors and museums alike, drew on the expertise of figures like the Art Institute’s Bessie Bennett to build up a trove of pre-twentieth-century objects in the city, and institutions like the Newberry Library are world-renowned for their medieval and American Indian collections. Last year saw ambitious shows about Greek sculpture, early photography and Himalayan jewelry; there’s material here aplenty.
Ignoring pre-twentieth-century art has broader consequences too. Waxman prefaces her winter preview with a reference to the imminent age of Trump, arguing that some shows “feel particularly prescient, or at least notably relevant, especially those that deal in social justice.” The implication, of course, is that modern and contemporary art is particularly well-suited to deal with social justice, and the entailment of this implication is that pre-twentieth-century art has little relevance to the struggle we live through now. Waxman makes these claims explicit when she continues: “art is always also informed by its context, and its context is right now.” But I’d argue that contemporary artists are drawing more productively than ever on the past to theorize art’s potential for social justice. I’d also argue that the political discourses of alt-right ideology and white supremacy have laid claim to history in pernicious, tangibly dangerous ways—see, for example, the popularity of crusader rhetoric—and that we need to turn more rigorously to past art to contest these claims. The past is, of course, an integral feature of any political project of re-imagining the present.
Moreover, institutions are doing interesting things with pre-twentieth-century objects this winter, particularly in the realm of nineteenth-century art. The Smart Museum of Art’s “Classicisms” will open in February, and the museum will mount a Rodin and Nauman show later in the year. James McNeill Whistler’s 1871 “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1,” one of the most iconic monuments of American art, will arrive at the Art Institute in March in what amounts to the most blockbuster loan the Musée d’Orsay has extended to the city in decades. “The Many Faces of Vincent de Paul” at the DePaul Art Museum promises to be a fascinating, multi-media look at French Romanticism. Not to mention the upcoming exhibition at Loyola University Museum of Art of wayang kulit and wayang golek, traditions of Southeast Asian shadow puppetry practiced for centuries, and an erudite show of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century handscrolls opening at the Art Institute.
The need to think hard about art and history is dramatized by the ways that fascists of yore thought about art. It’s important to consider the culture of the European nineteenth century in part because it gave rise to nationalist narratives of art and archaeology that aided and abetted the rise of fascist political regimes in the 1930s. Hitler, Mussolini and their allies expended vast sums on the conservation, destruction, display, excavation and imitation of the past. Chicago boasts a reminder of this on the lakefront south of Soldier Field, where an eighteen-foot ancient Roman column from Ostia stands in Burnham Park. Gifted to the city by Mussolini in the 1930s, it preserves an inscription added by the dictator: “This column twenty centuries old…Fascist Italy with the sponsorship of Benito Mussolini presents to Chicago…in honor of the Atlantic squadron led by Balbo which with Roman daring flew across the ocean in the eleventh year of the Fascist era.” Few know that Balbo Drive is named for Mussolini’s air marshal. Perhaps fewer recognize the fasces carved around the inscription, symbols of ancient Roman authority which yoked history to the dictator’s modern ambitions. Critics like Meyer Schapiro recognized the danger of ceding the past to fascists, and we should do the same.