Pocahontas wasn’t a Dead White European Male (in case you’re not familiar with the current acronym) but she is definitely PC (Politically Correct). She was, as any schoolchild knows, a female heroine from the native population of the Americas whom we (beat your breasts, US and European citizens alike) mistreated, exploited, dispossessed and massacred. Lothar Baumgarten, the German artist, has come to New York just in time to express this fashionable sense of discomfort with an installation which occupies the whole of the recently restored spiral of the Guggenheim Museum. “AMERICA Invention”, he calls it, and its consists of the names of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, from Alaska to the Tropic of Cancer, painted in the same colours as body paints on the parapet of the spiral. It is a work about oppression through naming, or rather, misnaming: as any schoolchild knows, American Indians weren’t really Indians; we just wished they were, so we imposed that name on them.
Baumgarten is not opportunistic with this installation. He has been working in this vein since the late Sixties, when only hippies, greens and cranks thought it was important. Now it comes with the official blessing of German government sponsorship, a gift to the guilt of the American people. He is a lucky artist. He actually has a subject, unlike most artists today. These post-ideological times are rough on an avant-garde that always needed an orthodoxy against which to kick. Whether the various communities of native Americans will be very interested in this case is debatable, but that’s not really the point. The aim of “AMERICA Invention” is to make us reflect on ourselves and our failings. So far and so good. An examination of conscience and a sense of virtuous purpose is always to be recommended. Danger lies only where too much zeal is applied to redressing the cultural balance. Because most of us have ignored non-European cultures in the past does not now mean that European and European/American culture have become less valid or that we must be tempted to rewrite history twisting facts to suit our present crisis of confidence. It is possible now to go through the whole liberal arts course at Stanford University without ever reading Shakespeare (a DWEM) and there are many musems in the US now which cannot contemplate an exhibition without first measuring it up against the PC yardstick. That way lie new injustices and the most insidious censorship of all—self-censorship.