Latest Exhibition at the Berman Challenges Traditional Value Systems
The Berman Museum of Art’s latest exhibition, Innominate, features works with unknown makers, titles, and origins. Each piece comes from the museum’s permanent collection: an eclectic assortment of artwork from various places and times.
At first glance, the pieces in the exhibition seem mismatched. No period, medium, or style ties together the art in the gallery. Instead, the unique arrangement invites a conversation about hierarchical value systems and what it means to push against them.
Value systems then and now
Western art history has witnessed many changes in how society chooses to admire or value works of art. In the 17th century, the French Royal Academy developed a value system that organized the status of artworks by genre. This system quickly became dominant throughout Europe, and scholars recognize it today as academic art’s hierarchy of genres.
The wealthiest patrons in Europe believed the human form was more important to represent in art than any other living or inanimate thing. As a result, the upper classes viewed historical, portrait, and genre paintings as superior to landscapes and still-lifes.
The genre of a painting speaks to the subject of the piece.
Genre paintings depict an everyday scene with human subjects. Musical Group is an example of a genre painting from Innominate.
As the hierarchy of genres shifted over the centuries, Western culture developed several new value systems for the appreciation of art. Today, society often ascribes greater value to a piece when the style, subject, or artist is familiar within the contemporary social consciousness. In many societies, this practice favors art in the Western canon. Moreover, the art of early cultures outside of Europe tends to be overlooked because museums rarely have sufficient information about such pieces. In these cases, many museums have historically labeled the works in question as “ethnographic.”
Social, or cultural, consciousness refers to a shared knowledge base that the average person in a society could recognize. For example, Harry Potter is part of the cultural consciousness in the United States because most Americans are aware of the franchise even if they haven’t enjoyed the books or movies.
The controversies of ethnographic art
A separate term for unnamed, undocumented pieces traps them in a category that invites othering and exotification into the collection. Qualifying such works as “ethnographic art” implies they have a lesser value than other types of art.
This art/ethnographic value system is particularly problematic in a country that has engaged in colonization. There is a history here of degrading core elements of indigenous cultures—including art—into trinkets. When museums don’t challenge this system, they perpetuate the perceived superiority of art made in the Western tradition.
Because of this history, Teddi Caputo, the curator of Innominate, believes it is a museum’s moral responsibility to research, assess, decolonize, and—when possible—repatriate artworks of dubious backgrounds in their collection. She explains, “If you don’t show [these pieces], they’re just sitting in your vault, and you’re not doing anything about the problem. It’s better to create a conversation about it.”
Therefore, the Berman Museum’s approach for this exhibition was to display “ethnographic,” innominate pieces from its collection and reframe their “value.” Caputo designed it to inspire critical conversation around issues of collection and nomenclature.
What Innominate adds to the conversation
Innominate presents ceramic sculptures and oil paintings together in an intimate gallery, eliminating barriers that traditionally separate pieces by genre, period, and place of origin. An Impressionist landscape is adjacent to a sculpture of a man wearing a lungi; an aristocrat’s portrait hangs beside a ceramic figure riding a horse.
There is harmony in Innominate. Some may experience an initial sense of surprise at seeing such different pieces grouped together. After sitting with the exhibition, however, visitors will begin to see threads of commonality.
When visiting the exhibition, ask yourself:
- What makes each one of these pieces a work of art?
- How can we interpret the paintings in conversation with the sculptures?
- Is it worthwhile for museums to display pieces like this?
- How does our society determine what art is most valuable?
Connections to Ursinus College
Much of Caputo’s inspiration for the exhibition comes from the fingerprints two creators have recently made on the Ursinus College campus.
Immigrant Flora by artist Bahar Behbahani is a site-specific wall drawing currently on exhibition in the gallery adjacent to Innominate. In it, Behbahani depicts native plant species and non-native species to create a symbolic representation of the experiences of displaced peoples. The wall drawing explores issues related to displacement and questions of belonging, such as:
- At what point might a non-native group begin to belong in its new ecosystem?
- What challenges stand in the way of cultural assimilation?
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer was recently part of the One Book, One Ursinus program, which connects the campus community over a shared reading experience each year. One chapter of the book, “Learning the Grammar of Animacy,” speaks to the ways the English language robs non-speaking entities of their agency. Kimmerer argues that plants are living beings with experiences and stories, asking us to reconsider our relationships with non-human life forms.
Traditional value systems in Western museums objectify and other “ethnographic” art like that encountered in Innominate. Pushing against that practice, the exhibition nods to Behbahani’s work; both exhibitions position their subjects in one space, defying systems that would group them separately. And, like Kimmerer’s argument about the language of plants, Innominate reminds visitors that an object’s lack of documented information cannot erase its story or its significance.
“We’re giving the pieces a voice,” Caputo says, “even if we don’t have the language to describe them ourselves.”