Class, or lack thereof, in the American Galleries

Marabou wonders, if there is a lack of representation in a museum’s collection (ex. race, gender, class), should it be the museum’s responsibility to fill in historic contextual gaps with extended label content or other means?

Marabou is certain that The Met made all curatorial efforts to ensure the American galleries exude class. Class meaning high class, of course.

As mentioned in the American Woman post, most of the painted ladies in the galleries are well-dressed women lounging, smiling, and sitting with their children. Just outside the framed scene, a maid or nanny was there to refill a glass of claret or take the baby when it starts getting fussy. Marabou notices that the variety of social and economic classes within the United States from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries is not accurately represented in the American Wing.

five points, new york, american history
Marabou studies two nineteenth-century paintings that depict life in the Five Points neighborhood in Lower Manhattan.

A set of paintings by an unknown artist(s) in Gallery 758 depict two different scenes in the former lower Manhattan neighborhood called the Five Points. (Yes, if you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, it’s based there. The next time you watch, enjoy for the story, but do not take the film as historical fact.)

five points, american art, american history
“The Five Points” (2016.797.17), Unidentified Artist, c. 1827.
five points, american history, new york
“Five Points” detail.

The top picture, “The Five Points,” is a scene that shows people fighting, prostitutes, and children with single mothers, all who live in the neighborhood. There are also well-dressed people from uptown, likely slumming (poverty tourism of the nineteenth century), in awe of all that surrounds them. The bottom picture, “Moving Day (In Little Old New York),” shows people coexisting in chaos on moving day (traditionally May 1), when all NYC leases would expire and renters piled into the streets and transferred their possessions to new abodes.

five points, american history, new york, american art
“Moving Day (In Little Old New York)” (2016.797.21), Untitled Artist, c. 1827.
new york, american history, american art, five points
“Moving Day,” detail.

The Five Points neighborhood was where many immigrants and poor New Yorkers lived because the housing was affordable and plenty of jobs were in walking distance. As you can imagine, affordable housing in the mid-1800s was not synonymous with quality housing, especially before standards were established and housing laws enforced. The Five Points is historically notorious, the bad parts are emphasized over the good. Marabou is frustrated by the way these pictures are presented in the galleries. The few examples of middle and working-class people in the American Wing represent two extremes of the spectrum, either idyllic and romanticized (a fur trapper floating down a river under a cloud-filled sky) or sensational and demeaning. The Five Points paintings visually perpetuate all the negative stereotypes of the neighborhood, which were already reinforced by literature of the period. For example, Charles Dickens documented a Five Points slumming experience in American Notes for General Circulation (1842). Dickens wrote, the

“lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee-deep, underground chambers, where they dance and game…ruined houses, open to the street, whence, through wide gaps in the walls, other ruins loom upon the eye, as though the world of vice and misery has nothing else to show: hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder: all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.”*

The two paintings could very well have served as accompanying illustrations to this description. Even in the twenty-first century, Dickens’s derogatory perspective is echoed in American history text books. Although poverty and unsanitary conditions were some characteristics of the Five Points, placing emphasis only on negative aspects of the neighborhood ignores the humanity and culture of the people who lived there.**

The American Wing’s social narrative is incomplete and lacking nuance. Paintings celebrating the wealthy and affluent are presented among imagery reinforcing biased perceptions of the poor. Some may argue that historically, art by and about marginalized communities was not seen as valuable, so it wasn’t collected by museums and even if museums made concerted efforts to find more representative art, it may be hard to find. Marabou often thinks about museum responsibilities–particularly art museum responsibilities–as they relate to historical representation. Traditionally, “great art” has been commissioned by the powerful and wealthy. The art that still exists after decades, hundreds, or thousands of years is usually art that has been preserved 1) because it is seen as valuable and 2) the owner or caretaker had the means (money, space, comfortable social conditions) to preserve the art. These circumstances result in a very particular historical narrative that elevates the experience of one privileged strata of society as important while silencing or erasing the experiences others. This unbalanced story is still impactful today. When art made by a population you are not part of is declared valuable and worthy, it suggests contributions from your community are not as important. When you do not see yourself reflected in any of the works deemed “high art,” is is a subtle but powerful involuntary chipping away at one’s self worth. Art museums are places of inspiration, but is it possible for museums to be places of empowerment and historical accountability?

* Charles Dickens and W. H. Bartlett. American Notes, 1842. New York: Westvaco, p 111-112.

** If you’re interested in an accurate history of the Five Points, check out Tyler Anbinder’s Five Points, New York: Free Press, 2001.

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