The facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, designed by Richard Morris Hunt in 1902, contains four large niches that might display sculpture but have traditionally been left empty. This was prudent good taste on the Met’s part, since sculpture on buildings is a tricky business that few artists in our age of individualism would understand: Facade sculpture must be part of a harmonious whole. If a piece draws undue attention to itself, it detracts from the building. And buildings, as architecture, have long been the most important, the most pervasive, and also the least consciously respected form of art.
The concept of the harmonious whole may be outdated. It comes from an age when an entire city of artists might devote their lives to a single, collective project: The sculptural niche is a trope of the cathedral, where the building and its adornment were in total alignment, under the unified direction of the master mason. In the absence of that perfect alignment, those exterior spaces might better contain nothing at all. Which is perhaps why, after the British rashly smashed all their niche sculpture during the Reformation, they decided to leave the niches empty rather than replace them with something new. This emptiness was later copied, perhaps unwittingly, by American architects in their homage to the British style, which is why our neo-Gothic college campuses are replete with little sculptural tabernacles and niches, all of them bare.
This is not to say the Met couldn’t have found some appropriate sculpture with which to decorate their facade: They might, for example, have drawn from their ample supply of Rodin bronzes. But if they pulled those Rodins out of their convenient, indoor galleries and stuck them 30 feet above the ground, it would be hard to get a good look at them. And so the sculptures would enhance the building at their own expense.
The Florentines have solved this problem nicely in the case of the Duomo and Campanile, both of which are festooned masterworks by Michelozzo, Luca della Robbia, and Donatello. This statuary works beautifully in concert with the buildings. But the individual sculptures are hard to see, and so no harm was done when every single exterior piece was replaced by a copy and all the originals were moved indoors to the museum across the street. It was a perfect compromise.
The Met, having no such external sculpture with which to contend, had no need to compromise. For the last 120 years or so, the management abided by the single most important precept in architecture — primum non nocere.
But, recently, a new curator has had a brilliant new idea, and now visitors to the Museum will find the four facade niches filled with four gigantic bronzes by Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu. The sculptures depict four seated African women, wreathed or constrained in what appear to be coiling vines, and with flat mirror-like disks in front of their faces. These sculptures are neither exceptional nor are they distressingly grotesque — but they are surpassingly ugly.
From the statement of the artist, it does not appear aesthetic considerations impinged unduly on the design. Mutu writes that her sculptures “reflect on the relationship between women and power across various traditions.” The shiny metal disks, she writes, are also “instruments that trigger reflection.” No kidding.
The curator’s statement, on the reverse of the placard, was written by a power-drunk academic during a foggy stroll through the woke dictionary: The sculptures form a “dialogue” with the Museum, a dialogue “as substantive as it is critical. Using the power of fantasy and storytelling, this work interrogates racial and gender inequalities. Mutu’s are no ordinary caryatids, and herein lies the source of her feminist intervention.” A statement as meaningless as it is vapid.
Art that has a political axe to grind is usually hard to look at — but being hard to look at is not, by itself, a recommendation. It doesn’t prove an especial depth. Ugliness has no inherent virtue, even if we discard the idea, so popular for the first several thousand years of human existence, that beauty is in some way desirable, or even that it might be synonymous with truth.
A few people will be genuinely moved when they see sculpture like this, or when they hear Ashley Fure’s music (also reviewed in these pages), or when they see Yoko Ono jabbering like a child at the Museum of Modern Art. I suspect most will pity the art world’s gullibility. It’s hard to imagine Donatello having to put up little signs explaining the meaning of his statues. But that is the difference between achieving and trying to achieve.