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The National Gallery

1/19/15 Martin Luther King Day, Phoenix, Arizona


It’s perhaps perverse, or entirely appropriate, to spend three hours on the afternoon of Martin Luther King Day in Phoenix, Arizona (North Scottsdale) absorbing Frederick Wiseman’s documentary, NATIONAL GALLERY. The only black faces, in a parade of intense, focused, “smart” and mostly middle-aged-and-older faces, belong to some of the young students receiving a lecture tying the collection they are viewing with the human slavery that paid for it. A few black guards/docents appear as background, but we do not hear from them. We hear from quite a few very intelligent, dedicated, and passionate people talking talking talking about the art we are looking at. And we look at a lot of looking. But the lookers, the listeners, the lecturers, are mostly very pale, very northern European. This isn’t by itself surprising or alarming. The art we are looking at is, after all, housed in the National Gallery of an imperial power, and the subjects and aesthetics are rooted there culturally, geographically, historically. This is not a documentary about the Tate Modern, after all. Yet this mash-up of monochrome is never addressed. Perhaps that’s one of Wiseman’s points, hiding as he does his p.o.v. behind other documentarians’ processes (you leave the film realizing that the National Gallery is forever hosting some film shoot, exhibition, or visiting lecturer). There’s something archival about the film, a gesture acknowledging the enormous investment a certain demographic has in a certain kind of painting.

In one of the early scenes of the film, before we really get into the art itself, we are dropped-in on a discreetly heated conversation between two administrators of the National (no one, besides the few actual performers scattered throughout the film, are ever identified). Discussing a proposed projection onto the face of the building that will accompany a coming charity/sporting event, the shorter, female, heavier conversant is clearly coming at this from a public relations angle, while the thinner, taller, male (clearly the superior) is having none of it. Though he never states it (this is the U.K., not the U.S) he is defending the brand.

Much of the art we are looking at is gloriously, almost ecstatically old, antique, animated by narratives that the many explainers in the film do an extraordinary job of enlivening. To watch this film is to realize that the horrid process of imperialism failed not only in creating a better world, but also in sustaining its own relevance to a post modern generation. The majority of the faces listening intently do not reflect the diversity of the London of today. This is not, let’s remember, altogether bad. If the sweet promises of multiculturalism are to be fully realized, why not allow all tribes their trove? But is this then really the “National” Gallery? Is the wisdom of Wiseman that he never explicitly says that he is filming a dying power, yet we feel the lights flickering? A curator fusses over the frame shadow marring the top of a Leonardo, but otherwise all is light and learning.

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