Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline

By Elizabeth Mansfield | Go to book overview

8

THE TASTE OF ANGELS IN THE ART OF DARKNESS

Fashioning the canon of African art

Christopher B. Steiner

Since it is commonplace that every work of art requires both a creator and a spectator, it became evident that some exploratory inquiry was in order to determine the role of the patron and collector. Through the centuries he has held the balance between the artist and the layman and has handed down with courage and a spirit of adventure the tangible remnants of the history of civilization.

Francis Henry Taylor, The Taste of Angels

Before every trip to Africa, I always pay a visit to one of the leading tropical disease doctors in Manhattan. Although he practices out of a swank apartment building on the upper eastside, the doctor's office itself is unassuming with a starkly appointed waiting room stocked with a bare assortment of tattered books and dated magazines. Among this odd array of reading materials laid out for his patients' perusal, one book that always catches my eye is an autographed copy of the 1971 exhibition catalogue African Art: The deHavenon Collection, which was published by the Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. Like most African art exhibition catalogues of this period, the book contains surprisingly little text - a half page of gratitude and praise for the collector written by the museum's director; a half page of gratitude and praise for the museum's director written by the collector; and two pages of introductions about the history, function, and diversity of African art written by an unidentified author. The catalogue's remaining two hundred or so pages contain mostly grainy, black-and-white photographs of African masks and statues, all of which are shot on white backgrounds so that they appear to float on the surface of the page. Like the spartan waiting room in which it now resides, the catalogue contains little extraneous matter: each object is identified plainly by a number, a “tribal” affiliation, a short descriptive term (e.g., “ancestor figure” or “ritual head”), and a single measurement taken in inches. In this particular copy of the catalogue, the inscription penned in black ink across the title page also includes words of gratitude and praise by the collector for the good doctor.

-132-

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