Sticks and stones : analyzing the Museum of Modern Art’s values through language




Tisher, Kelcie Katharine

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This historical study investigated portrayals of non-Western objects, culture, and people in two museum catalogs. Performing content analysis on The Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) exhibition catalogs from African Negro Art (1935) and “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art (1984), the researcher found a presence of Western bias and racist language directed toward African makers and their art. The language used in the African Negro Art (1935) catalog isolates Africa from Western culture and art by describing African objects and culture as being of less value and different from traditional art in the West. Analysis of language seen in African Negro Art (1935) revealed a trend of utilizing language that belittled African objects, people, and culture. Through a consideration of language used in the “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art (1984) catalog, the researcher found examples of embedded racist and oppressive language. Yet, a comparison of these two catalogs from MoMA revealed less evidence of derogatory words and terminology in the more recent publication than seen in the exhibition catalog from fifty years earlier. In analyzing the changes seen in language evident in these two museum catalogs, the researcher explored civil rights events that took place in and around New York City which may have influenced the writer of the latter MoMA catalog. Historical research uncovered actions such as anti-discrimination protests, which helped to alter the cultural climate of New York City between 1935 and 1984. It is argued here that these historical events and changes that occurred in New York City’s cultural arts society may have affected the shift seen in MoMA’s use of language to discuss African objects, culture, and people. The researcher concludes that museum generated texts may likely impact how visitors perceive non-Western cultures, and thus strongly encourages museum personnel to be thoughtfully aware of how language is used in their publications.



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