Harlem on My Mind
at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art thru April 6
WHEN my roommate from Mississippi first began receiving weekly copies of the Madison County Herald, I thought I'd finally stumbled upon a way of divining the Real Truth about the South. But the Herald proved to be too cryptic for that. In fact, most of the photos were not unlike those in my own town newspaper: first-of-the-New-Year babies understandably bemused over the sudden transition from anonymity to notoriety; vindicated matrons having just reasserted the triumph of their risen Lord through a successful church bakery sale; or, inevitably, the distraught but delighted graduating high school class. All smiling, self-conscious, vacuous. Or are they really vacuous? Just what am I allowed to see behind the conventional stance and posture with which they protect themselves from the photographer?
The whole difficulty is intensified when the photos are of blacks, when they are hung in a white museum, and when I--who have been told that I have not shared in, and hence cannot understand, the black experience--am asked to evaluate the truthfulness of what I see. But the Metropolitan's Harlem on My Mind photographic exhibition presents the viewer with few predetermined reactions. The majority of the photographs require one's active collaboration. The directors purposely limited the number of photographs that revealed a strong photographer's presence.
IN THEIR Depression studies, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange set examples of the formal, restricted composition, eliminating extraneous details, while avoiding both didacticism and ambiguity. Only about a quarter of the Harlem display falls into this category of formal photography. But the pictures that do form the show's core. The charges of superficiality that have been hurled about can hardly be leveled against Aaron Siskind's "Black Sleeping below White Pinups," Gordon Parks' character studies, or Steve Schapiro's militant "Motorcyclist" with a Kennedy lapel pin held in his teeth. Both visually arresting and intensely personal, these photographs make individual artistic statements whose sociological application might be debatable but whose value in a documentary exhibition of this type is self-evident.
The greater part of Harlem on My Mind, though, purposely depends on the subjectivity of the viewer. Allon Schoener Exhibition Coordinator, conceived the project as a kind of communications environment in which the participant is forced to choose between the many multimedia techniques that surround him. Films, tapes, music, and photos present a history of Harlem, but it is the viewer who is forced to integrate all the material into what, for him, will be the show's unique impression. It was a courageous move on the part of the museum. For very few of us, I would imagine, are comfortable enough in the area of racial confrontation to trust our own reactions.
While the confrontation which emerges is basically one between the individual and his sensibility, it is simultaneously the educational meeting of cultures which Thomas Hoving had hoped for. Many of the photos are mere snapshots, others are from UPI. Most of both these groups are understandably shallow. As a series of photographs--as they are presented in the infamous exhibition catalogue--they do not provide the kind of answers a confused public is seeking. However, with the addition of audio-visual techniques, the photos are charged with the appropriate atmosphere and emotion.
ONE CAN'T HELP but be fascinated with technology's introduction into the museum, especially because it goes beyond mere gimmickry. The thirties room is the finest example of the exhibit's eclectic approach. Most of the pictures are blown-up and attached to sprawling cubes or precarious towers. The result is threatening and chaotic. Similarly, as we enter the fifties, we are forced to trudge slowly in a narrow queue. It is all more than a game. It is participation in a way of life.
And then there are the purely human moments which--white or black--would be a delight in any show. The most absorbing is a taped television interview with Mother Brown, born November 17, 1853, a Virginia slave, and now a Harlem resident. Her remarks on slavery, for example ("Sometimes people were nice t'ya, sometimes they weren't. Just like they are nowadays."), are representative, but only of a quite ordinary human being who, like us, is doing her best to comprehend the events through which we are all living. On the other end of the scale, there is a wonderful 52 by 14 foot mural of a Sunday school class taught by Adam Clayton Powell Sr. The kids pictured are an unbelievably engaging group.
Given the enormous variety of experience which Harlem on My Mind offers, it is regrettable that it has met with so much misplaced criticism. In editorializing that Hoving is responsible for "Irrelevancy at the Museum," the New York Times is choosing comfort and convenience over difficult self-assessment. Their warning of January 22nd--that "the politicalization of art and all other forms of culture is a favorite device of dictatorship"--is ridiculously severe. Better they should deplore the pressures which led several New York City councilmen to threaten the end of the city's three-million-dollar allocation to the museum if the show's catalogue weren't withdrawn--as it now has been.
IT COULD BE argued that the controversial introduction by Candice Van Ellison--which should be read in its entirety--is valuable for its basic, even if deplorably tragic, honesty. But I think it is far more important to see the catalogue, as well as the whole show, as the museum's first and most important groping toward a new forum for the discussion of contemporary social problems. It would be self-defeating to expect every isolated statement or display in the exhibition to offer a definitive statement on a very difficult set of relationships.
The vitality in Harlem in My Mind--both in form and content--is what at first appears so outrageous. As you walk up Fifth Avenue, it's quite shocking to see a huge sheet with "HARLEM" emblazoned on it draped over the entrance to the once staid Metropolitan--in fact, it looks as if the building has been seized. And, in a way, it has.