At The Wisdom of the West, Jim H. has a painting by Di Chirico up. I think a lot of people could identify Di Chirico’s style—it’s kind of Escher-like, a little more filled out—and have probably seen a few of the paintings he did. Fewer, I’d guess, could place him in his historical context. I’ve been thinking about this since I saw an exhibit a few years ago at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The museum has been expanding and renovating, and in the process of doing that they decided to display their entire collection of art from the first half of the twentieth century, some of which was already on permanent display, and some of which had been in storage.
Since the choice of works to display was already made, there could be no imposition of some curatorial vision that manipulated the viewer into believing some modern, fashionable idea that in the end might turn out to be only the idiosyncratic opinion of the probably youngish curator and their circle of friends. Only the division of the paintings into groups (by geography: England; France, Spain, and Italy; Central and Eastern Europe), and the order in which they were placed (Picasso’s mythology-inspired paintings interspersed with the more run-of-the-mill mythology-inspired paintings done by his contemporaries, later Picasso’s cubism-inspired paintings ditto, and so forth), imposed any narrative at all. It was impossible by the rules self-imposed on the curators to exclude a painting that didn’t fit what they wanted to say, or to add a painting that made their pet theories more plausible. They included what they had and excluded everything else. This meant that no real narrative emerged.
I’m not trying to make a distinction between “traditional” and “fashionable” ways of thinking about art. There are people who do make that distinction; they complain that, as they think, too many people these days try to impose new, false, probably politically-inspired ideas on art to which these ideas are actually totally foreign. I’m just pointing out that ideas about art do change over time, and that it is really possible to make a specious argument that isn’t really supported by the evidence (the evidence, in this case, being the paintings). But people who think of themselves as “traditional” can make specious arguments too. A specious argument is an imposition no matter what point of view the person making it has. Even a good argument can be an imposition, for one thing because it usually has to exclude a lot in order to get made in a reasonable amount of time. The exhibit was interesting in part because it had so much stuff in it: way too much stuff for any theory to be convincing.