Read an Excerpt
Crossing 125th Street
Harlem on My Mind Revisited
Gershwin. He comes from another oppressed people so he understands.
George C. Wolfe, The Colored Museum
FOR THOSE AMERICANS who lived through the 1960s, the tumult and the excitement, the sense of things falling apart or beginning anew, the fervor, the naïveté, and above all the emotionally charged rhetoric are all easily recalled. For those who did not experience this era directly, it can be conjured up without much difficulty. Scan any issue of the New York Times during this period. You can reanimate the zeitgeist as easily as a baby boomer once added water to produce the mysterious sea monkeys commonly advertised in the back of their comic books.
Pluck a day from the calendarlet's say, January 31, 1969. Three hundred students occupied the administration building at the University of Chicago, enraged over the dismissal of a popular Marxist sociology professor. On the campuses of San Francisco State and the University of California, Berkeley, police on foot and on horseback broke up demonstrators lobbying for ethnic studies departments. Also in California, Sirhan Sirhan, the accused assassin of the presidential hopeful Senator Robert F. Kennedy, challenged the composition of the grand jury that indicted him for the 1968 murder.
Governor Nelson Rockefeller recommended stiffer penalties against unions of public employees after strikes and slowdowns thepreceding year by city teachers, sanitation workers, police, and firefighters crippled New York City. Youth violence was front-page news. School desegregation lurched along fitfully between reform and resistance. S. Dillon Ripley, the head of the Smithsonian Institution, acceded to the demands of Lady Bird Johnson that a portrait of her husband be consigned to storage; three years earlier, then President Johnson had declared the likeness of him by the artist Peter Hurd to be the ugliest thing he ever saw.
A pervasive sense of upheaval and crisis was sustained internationally as well. The perplexing and divisive war in Vietnam raged on. The bloody Tet offensive had been launched exactly one year earlier, intensifying American apprehension about military involvement in Southeast Asia. In Iraq, the hangings of fourteen people accused of spying for Israel evoked worldwide condemnation, while the trial of thirty-five additional individualsincluding 13 Jewson similar charges generated great concern.
All these events provide a backdrop for a local story that had been garnering attention for weeks. In a front-page, top-of-the-fold report that day, a headline declared, "Museum Withdraws Catalogue Attacked as a Slur on Jews." The museum in question was New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the show was Harlem on My Mind: The Culture Capital of Black America, 1900-1968, possibly the most controversial American exhibition ever mounted. In fact, the New York Post Magazine credited it with sparking the biggest public flap since Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase shocked visitors to the 1913 Armory show. In 1969 this exhibit or its catalogue infuriated blacks, horrified Jews, purportedly smeared the Irish, slighted Puerto Ricans, teed off artists and art critics, and propelled the Jewish Defense League, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, and members of the right-wing John Birch Society all into upper Fifth Avenue to man picket lines in front of the Met.
Harlem on My Mind is a landmark. It opened the doors of cultural institutions to multimedia technology. It helped define the blockbuster exhibition. It launched at least one person's career, but hobbled several others'. And, depending on whom you listen to, it either insulted Harlem residents and black artists, shattered significant racial barriers in museums, or frightened these institutions away from addressing racial topics for years to come. As is true for any watershed event, each of these observations captures some bit of the truth.
Harlem on My Mind also provides a template for the museum-centered controversies that followed in its wake, many of them surging over the social landscape like a tsunami a quarter century or so later. Features that are common to these events in the 1990s actually have deep sources: the acute breach between groups occurring along racial, ethnic, generational, and ideological lines, the dig-in-the-heels, take-no-prisoners bombast, and the demands for accountability in the use of public funds as a way to leverage control over content may all be commonplaces today, but they were relatively fresh developments in 1969. In hindsight the inevitability of this conflict becomes excruciatingly clear: Harlem on My Mind pushed on an array of civic pressure points, inducing cries of pain in several quarters.
With its imposing Beaux Arts facade, squatting on the rim of Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art oversees tony Fifth Avenue like a dowager queen. With the appointment of Thomas P.F. Hoving as director in April 1967, the Met embarked on a tumultuous ten-year odyssey that tested its prim and poised reputation. Hoving was not shy about tweaking noses. He granted that the initials P.F. stood for "publicity forever," thus inviting association with the hucksterism of a P. T. Barnum. In a lengthy cover story in the New York Times Magazine, the art reporter Grace Glueck dutifully noted his "modishly-longer hair" and the dismissive moniker "Tom Swift and his Electric Museum," coined by a detractor dissatisfied with Hoving's fledgling stewardship.
Hoving brought a blend of charisma, youthful good looks, and ambition to his position, akin to what John F. Kennedy had used to turn Washington, D.C., into Camelot, and that John Lindsay was also exploiting as mayor of New York City. He bore a distinguished pedigree and splendid credentials: he was the son of the chairman of Tiffany's, he held multiple degrees from Princeton, and during the five years he spent at the medieval collection called the Cloisters, he worked his way up to the position of curator. At the age of thirty-six, Hoving left his briefly held post as New York parks commissionerwhere he turned the city into the staging ground for what some critics felt was threatening to become an unremitting Happeningto assume control of the country's wealthiest museum. Chartered in 1870, the Met was also among the oldest and most conservative. Making the Mummies Dance, Hoving's controversial chronicle of the years 1967 to 1977, takes its title from a remark made to him by Mayor Lindsay when he first took the helm, sensing that Hoving would breathe new life into the venerable institution.
Tom Hoving wanted the museum to be "relevant." He wanted the museum to be "now." Soon after he came aboard, a Department of Contemporary Arts was established for the first time, headed by the young Henry Geldzahler, whose social circles intersected with Andy Warhol's Factory and the pre-Stonewall gay demimonde. It looked as though the Met was no longer going to be merely a temple to the sacred past.
According to Joseph Noble, the vice director for administration under Hoving, "When Tommy came he wanted to do a show, but it had to be quick. And that meant it had to be something from within the house, stuff we had in the Metropolitan. He came up with a damn good idea. He called the show In the Presence of Kings. And it was all royal paraphernalia." Featuring crowns, scepters, suits of armor, and even the kennel of Marie Antoinette's pet dog, that show fell foursquare within the museum's symbolic boundaries. It became a success. Not so the display of James Rosenquist's enormous ten- by eighty-six-foot Pop Art mural F-111 early in 1968. In this billboard-sized painting, the fighter-bomber provides the backdrop for a smattering of Technicolor images such as a smiling girl under a hair dryer, an angel food cake, and a twisted mass of spaghetti. Linking smug materialism with militarism, its antiwar sentiments played off three history paintings hanging alongside: Poussin's Rape of the Sabine Women, David's Death of Socrates, and Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware. The mini-exhibition was blasted by the prominent critics Hilton Kramer and John Canaday, for whom this contemporary behemoth had invaded hallowed space.
That mini-show was a teaser, a brief foreshadowing of the trouble that would follow. Noble recollects that "Tom wanted to do something that he could really put his imprimatur on, and not just have something that was around the Metropolitan anyway." When Hoving first announced Harlem on My Mind at a staff meeting, the curator-in-chief, Theodore Rousseau, said, "`Oh, that's wonderful. I've got some wonderful paintings. Which Harlem do you mean?' Tom laughed and said, `The one north of us.' And Ted shut up and he never opened his mouth again about Harlem on My Mind." Rousseau may have perked up his ears at what he initially assumed would be a survey of the golden age of Dutch painting. Soon enough, it would become clear that they were all greeting a new breed of dog that would prove to be lame at this hunt.
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It was actually Allon Schoener's brainchild. Schoener, who was trained as an art historian, produced over one hundred television programs for the San Francisco Museum of Art in the early 1950s. He was an aficionado of new communications technology, deeply influenced by Charles and Ray Eames, and then by the writings of Marshall McLuhan. Later as the director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Schoener produced Cincinnati Plus and Minus, his first venture in creating an exhibition as a total cultural environment. Schoener also masterminded The Lower East Side: Portal to American Life (1870-1924) at New York City's Jewish Museum while he was the assistant director there in 1966, and he then became the visual arts director of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA).
The Lower East Side show integrated sound, image, and text to re-create the teeming immigrant Jewish ghetto. It enveloped the visitor in a startlingly different way with slide projections, films, photo murals, and recordings, and was both a critical and popular success. On the face of it, there was every reason to expect that Schoener could achieve something similar with Harlem. The reality proved to be much more complex.
The texts making up the Lower East Side show and its catalogue drew heavily from the writings of immigrant Jews themselves. The documentary images were not only photographs, but paintings bearing signatures such as Walkowitz, Soyer, Gross, Epstein, and Weber. In other words, Jewish artists were well represented. Moreover, by this time large portions of the Jewish community had moved on from the immigrant experience, geographically and financially. The Jewish Lower East Side was generally yesterday, not today; it was sufficiently in the past to serve as prime symbolic real estate for nostalgic reflection. The exhibition also provided an occasion for self-congratulation, a tangible measure of how far one ethnic group had progressed to realize the American Dream.
It was a different story in Harlem, which had long been, and continued to be, a largely impoverished, segregated quarter that offered few escape routes to blacks. According to Schoener,
Well, the Lower East Side show was sort of a sentimental meditation on life at another time, and it didn't have a political agenda. And the Harlem show had a very clear-cut political agenda. I mean, the objective of the exhibition was to create an awareness that didn't exist. So it questioned some very fundamental attitudes. And it dealt with what is still a major issue in American life, racism.
Racism was unmistakably in the forefront of the public's consciousness in 1968 while Harlem on My Mind was being designed. That same year, the Black Panther minister of information, Eldridge Cleaver, published his searing book Soul on Ice; the American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute on the winners' platform during the Mexico City Olympics; and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in April in Memphis, sparking riots in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Kansas City, Newark, Trenton, Hartford, and a bloody roster of other cities, dashing many people's dream of an integrated, nonviolent society. Moreover, links between blacks and Jews, forged out of a shared sense of oppression and minority status and through extensive collaboration in the civil rights movement, were rapidly coming uncoupled. Growing militancy and the desire for self-determination by more vocal segments of the black community made the martyrdom of the black and white civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Cheney seem a part of ancient history, even though they had been murdered in Mississippi only four years before. Both blacks and Jews increasingly turned inward, blacks wishing to control their own fate, and Jews focusing on Israel, Soviet Jewry, and other concerns directly affecting their brethren.
In New York City, black-Jewish tensions exploded in a spectacular way in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn. The issue was the decentralization of control of the schools. The rhetorical context is exquisitely captured in a letter to the editor published in the Harlem-based New York Amsterdam News, signed simply "Black Brother":
The beautiful soul blacks want some power.... Obviously the whole white power structure will shut down all schools ... if it is necessary to keep the niggers in their place. [T]ough beautiful soul blacks ... are incapable of being anti-Semitic. That kind of jive shows the sick minds of some poor whiteys.... The blacks have been up against the wall for a good while now. And they ain't afraid. "How long blues" is a part of the black experience and now the cats talk about black-stone-soul. Struggle with it brothers and sisters. Better grave than slave!
In this particular Brooklyn district, one of three experimental sites introducing decentralization, a locally elected community governing board transferred out a group of teachers and administrators. The neighborhood was 95 percent black and Puerto Rican; all the transferred teachers were Jewish, as was much of the membership and the leadership of the United Federation of Teachers, including its pugnacious leader, Albert Shanker. (As several commentators noted at the time, whites typically interacted with minority ghetto residents only in their capacity as landlords, business owners, teachers, or welfare workers; many times these people, experienced as exploiters, were Jews.) The UFT called three strikes in 1968, shutting down most of the schools for fifty-five days. It was a battle very much staged in the media's glare: charges and countercharges sailed back and forth on the nightly news as each side exposed the boundless corruption and villainy of the other.
The black community was primed for a fight against what it perceived to be an oppressive, alien, ineffective bureaucracy. Jews felt betrayed for all their sincere efforts, and very much under assault. Accusations of "mental genocide" were met by epithets such as "Black Nazis," "hoodlums," "extremists," and "vigilantes." The constant polemic dominated both the print and broadcast media.
At one juncture, a virulently anti-Semitic tract was placed in some teachers' school mailboxes in Brooklyn. Slamming white instructors as "Money Changers," the leaflet threw down the gauntlet of black nationalism:
If African American History and Culture is to be taught to our Black Children it Must be Done By African Americans who Identify With And Who Understand The Problem. It Is Impossible For The Middle East Murderers of Colored People to Possibly Bring To This Important Task The Insight, The Concern, The Exposing Of The Truth That is a Must If the Years Of Brainwashing And Self-Hatred That Has Been Taught To Our Black Children By Those Bloodsucking Exploiters and Murderers Is To Be OverCome.
Shanker publicized the contents, giving the document an influential public life. Later it was discovered that the leaflet bore the endorsement of a parents' community council that did not exist, as well as other fraudulent details. Its exact origins remained a mystery.
This struggle created a huge breach between New Yorkers, and the repercussions continue to be felt even now. Shanker's obituary in the New York Times nearly thirty years later was headlined "Albert Shanker, 68, Combative Leader of Teachers, Dies," and an editorial soon thereafter called the "school wars" of 1968 "corrosive," leaving a "painful legacy." In a city known for its belligerent style, this struggle over the schools was especially nasty. It reflected a climate of suspicion and mistrust that already existed between whites and blacks, and also helped set the terms of the debate over Harlem on My Mind.
This was Allon Schoener's exhibition: "I ran the show, and there's no question about it. I mean, it was my concept and my direction." His proposal was to present a sixty-year panorama of Harlem history divided into six sections, roughly by decade. Photographs were to be enlarged to gigantic proportions, audio speakers would broadcast period music and the voices of Harlem residents, and slide projectors would flash images at a staccato pace, creating a dynamic, pulsating environment. Visitors would sample a broad array of sights, from poverty to glitz: everyday street scenes, private homes, commercial life, exuberant dancers, glamorous sports figures and celebrities, political demonstrations, and chaotic riots. The final statistics are impressive: seven hundred photographs (some as large as fifty feet long and eighteen feet high) and five hundred projected images.
Harlem on My Mind was publicly announced on November 16, 1967, at a press conference attended by Mayor Lindsay, Hoving, and the Honorable Percy E. Sutton, president of the borough of Manhattan. In the press release, Hoving emphasized the Met's "deep responsibility" to facilitate communication and a creative confrontation between whites and blacks. He argued that this signalled not a rupture with the Met's past, but continuity: just as Rembrandt or Degas revealed particular worlds to their audiences, so too would Harlem on My Mind. In a classic gesture of noblesse oblige seasoned by '60s liberalism, Hoving declared, "This isn't going to be a white hand-out to Harlem. The Museum's role is simply that of a broker for channeling of ideas. You might say we're attempting to tune in on something we've been tuned out on."
Two points made that day became hotly contested later. One was the notion of "community participation," a goal that many people in Harlem felt was never fully realized, even though notables such as Sutton and Jean Blackwell Hutson from the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and History were among those listed as "cooperating and participating" in the enterprise. Furthermore, Harlem on My Mind was initially announced in the press release as including paintings, prints, and drawings, along with photographic and sound documentation. But Schoener alleges it was never his intention to incorporate these media; he abandoned that possibility, basing his decision on the impression that the painting gallery in the Lower East Side show diminished the interactive and enveloping ambience he so eagerly sought. Ultimately he came to believe that "paintings are from another world. They've stopped being a vehicle for valid expression in the 20th century. I believe in art as process, not as artifacts."
Moreover, he states that he never saw nor approved the language in the press release. As he recollects, "I was always clear with everyone from the start." Schoener's most ambitious designs always shattered expectations of the museum experience, such as when he filled up a renovated barge with material related to the 150-year history of the Erie Canal, and then hauled it to communities from Albany to Buffalo via tugboat. His concept for Harlem on My Mind was a form of "electronic theater," where more traditional media were outmoded and out of place.
Black artists considered this aesthetic choice a slap in the face. For them it was an uncomfortably familiar scenario, corresponding to a painfully long history of closed doors in the art world. Just as the issues of discrimination, blocked opportunities, and exclusion had tremendous currency for blacks generally, they carried special poignancy for black artists. Few of them had penetrated the commercial gallery or museum world, and most felt obliged to represent the history and experiences of their community in their work, an aesthetic ghetto that trussed them stylistically and thematically. What at first seemed like a promising possibility, a natural setting to feature their work, quickly soured.
This was a pivotal and baffling period for black artists. The writer Ishmael Reed was deeply suspicious of white artists taking up some social causes while ignoring others that were equally pressing: "many pimps of misery ... although publicly `crying the blues' about Vietnam have never given a black artist a Hershey bar let alone invite[d] him to set up his work in a gallery." Nonetheless, group shows of black artists had become suddenly fashionable in the late 1960s, much like miniskirts, bell-bottom pants, and Indian print bedspreads. This was particularly the case with university-affiliated galleries and other modest spaces, but not major museums. The artistic status quo seemed to be changing grudgingly, incrementally, while leading institutions were still perceived to be largely aloof from these matters. As the artist and activist Benny Andrews quipped, "We're a trend like pop and op.... We're the latest movement. Of course, like the others, we may be over in a year or two."
About three months before Harlem on My Mind opened, black artists were incensed that the Whitney Museum of American Art presented The 1930s: Painting and Sculpture in America, and included no blacks. This provoked an angry editorial and a cartoon, which both ran in the Amsterdam News, each incredulous that the museum could represent that era without recognizing the many black artists working then. For many blacks it confirmed an all too familiar motif. Even so, a defensible curatorial logic in fact existed: the goal of this exhibition was to highlight the modernist artists who labored primarily "underground" during a time generally noted for its representational and politically partisan work.
Critics in the black community attributed enormous power to this exhibition, as if it were the last word about the period. Yet Hilton Kramer applauded the show in two substantial reviews in the New York Times because he felt it added a different perspective to the received wisdom, tipping the balance away from an exclusive focus on social realism in the 1930s. To Kramer's mind, it resurrected an important bit of history that had been buried. But that argument seemed lame to those who'd felt consistently neglected in the past. Henri Ghent, the director of the Brooklyn Museum's community gallery, helped organize Invisible Artists of the 1930s at the Studio Museum in Harlem to redress the injustice, and defensively countered Kramer's position in a lengthy letter to the editor, where he argued, "What seems most apparent in Mr. Kramer's article is the all-pervading concept that what is white must necessarily be superior."
What was in fact going on was a failure to communicate effectively and a failure to listen, on all sides. Rationalizations honed by years of isolation or bitter experience dictated people's responses as much as the evidence in front of them. Remarkably, soon thereafter, each side to this debate joined the chorus of opposition to Harlem on My Mind, admittedly for different reasons.