On Artistic Historicism

(Three Introductory notes for “A Dictionary of Foreign Time”)

This text was written as an introduction to an exhibition at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York entitled “A Dictionary of Foreign Time”, which opened in January 2007.

1. Foyer: Contemporary Art and Historic Sites

A few years ago, I visited the House of the Seven Gables, the XVIIIth Century building in Salem that Nathaniel Hawthorne used as his inspiration to write his legendary novel. I had been looking forward for that moment for some time, eagerly expecting to be transported into the strange and fascinating past of New England.

Unfortunately, though, as it is the case of many historic buildings, the only way to visit the site is by following a tour guide, and the woman who became our Virgil in this enterprise looked pretty unexcited about her job. She had evidently done the tour a thousand times, and we clearly were just one more tired round (and the last one for the day, which clearly made the matters worse). I felt bad for her, and also for myself, since we both had to go through something we didn’t want to do to get what we wanted (me, to see the site, she, to get paid). She ran through dates, names and people one after another, explaining terms and preempting question and comments that surely have been asked in the past by previous visitors— and which we would perhaps have asked had we be given a minute to reflect on the dozens of facts and figures she was throwing at us. With her glassy eyes and monotone voice, she was pretty much a living and moving museum label.

Then there is the opposite kind of historic tour, which I have often seen in Mexico and, most delightfully, at archaeological sites offered by unofficial local tour guides to unsuspecting tourists. In this tour variety, historic truth is usually taken liberally and often completely thrown out the window, as we hear guides to tell incredible stories about jaguar priests and moon goddesses and their improbable relationship to the temples or grounds where one is standing. This kind of tour is like storytelling in-progress, as you can often detect that the tour guide has been refining and inserting new details into his story based not on historic accuracy but on what elements of the story would be most impressive to a Swedish teenage bag-packer. Did the Aztecs eat the hearts after the sacrifice? Did they play ball with them? The Pre-Columbian world is a perfect scenario for these kind of tours, because we know so little about so much of it that it would be impossible to ascertain the truth or fantasy of whatever a tour guide is telling us. And, while this is certainly on the other end of the spectrum of historic accuracy, one would have to agree that these sort of tours are, at the very least, entertaining.

Museum interpretation, in an ideal scenario, should be a fair balance between the two extremes- providing necessary information about a site and at the same time encouraging the ability to visualize what could have been there. What matters is the place where one inserts the creative interpretation and where one communicates the factual information.

This is the point where art and historic sites can enter into a productive interpretive relationship. The inherent interpretive openness of art can serve as an antidote to the staleness of historic interpretation, and make a historic artifact become, momentarily, a found object that can acquire new meanings.

But how can we best handle this relationship without turning art into amateur history, or historical narratives into bad novels?

2. Downstairs: Facts and Lyrics of History

Elsa Lizalde, my aunt and my closest living relative in Mexico City, unexpectedly passed away this past summer. She was an opera lover, an authority in numismatics, a gourmet cook and an unparalleled hostess. Always single, she spent her life traveling around Europe and spending her money on the best opera balconies and the best restaurant tables. Her overcrowded apartment was a perfect reflection of her personality: over the top, generous, crowded with souvenirs from her travels and cultural life experiences.

It came upon me, my mother and my sister, to travel from the US to empty out her apartment, which had been in the family home for four generations. Being the last in line of a long genealogy that broke when we emigrated to the U.S., my aunt left behind a true museum of family memorabilia that needed to be dealt with, as well as an overwhelming amount of things that she had accumulated throughout her life as part of her travels, her work, and her compulsive shopping. I thus went through the sad and somber task of selecting and eliminating an overwhelming amount of objects, books and photographs. In general, however, most objects (old train tickets, ashtrays, European souvenirs, empty perfume bottles, concert program notes) had only a symbolic or sentimental value that we could only imagine. And while we were often torn by the idea of disposing of those things that obviously had meant so much to her, we eventually had no option but to get rid of them.

When a person disappears, they take with them a whole world of meaning projected onto every object they once owned, and even if you are fastidious about memorializing, retaining these objects does little to recover the anecdotal stories that lie behind them.

While my aunt was alive, all these objects contained a private, albeit knowable, story, ranging from the silly and trivial to the truly commemorative and meaningful. Once she died, all those objects immediately became plain objects again (with the exception, of course, of those of which we happened to know their meaning and had our own personal attachment). Certainly for a stranger who walked into her apartment at that point the place looked like a museum somehow typical upper middle class apartment of the late Twentieth Century urban Mexico. By studying the objects she owned, a researcher (or a detective-historian) could put together a somehow descriptive history of her taste, travels profession and hobbies. But, with the exception for the stories that those close to her could tell, the specific “lyrics” of her life are now out of reach.


At the Tenement Museum in New York’s Lower East Side, most of the objects and people who lived there are gone, and what we have is a historic building that functions within the fabric of New York City in the same way than a romantic medieval ruin would function in England or Germany in the XIXth Century, or the way in which most Pre-Columbian ruins function in contemporary Latin America. It bears the marks of hundreds of stories and experiences, but paradoxically, we practically know nothing of them (other than the general facts of the period and parallel individual histories), and we have not many options but to let the imagination run wild. With the exception of the few remaining anecdotes salvaged through the contact with past living residents there (such as the Italian woman from the Confino family apartment), who do give us a general sense of the life in those rooms, for the most part we can only rely on the general historical data and research about life in those neighborhoods. Most of the objects at the museum are not the original ones, but rather, historical props that help support our narrative interpretations about what happened there.

Carlyle famously wrote that history should be composed of the biographies of the great men— which is another way of saying that regular people aren’t even worth considering. History as often been preoccupied with writing the “great” narratives, and not so much with the personal stories of the average people who lived during those times. In the case of a place like the Tenement Museum, whose protagonists were not famous people but average immigrants, there is a “lyrical vacuum” that we need to fill out through interpretation and imagination.

But aside from the absence of stories, we need to find a significant contextual background against which these stories may come to life and become meaningful to others. Museums that contain the perfectly documented life of historic figures can provide remarkably dull experiences, such as House of the Seven Gables was to me.

Even in today’s information age, where thanks to Myspace and Youtube we may now witness the first generation in the world that may be able to publicly document their own life by the minute, all these infinite stories become a wash, canceling each other in the tumult of commonplace descriptions and situations. The only ones that emerge may have less to do with the content than with the way in which they have been told.

And it is against this paradox of history where art has stepped in providing that interpretive appreciation. History may have given us the facts and the accurate theoretical evaluation about why certain things were the way they were, but the emotional character of a certain historical age have largely been artistic creations, such as the characters of Balzac and Dickens in the XIXth Century and Hollywood’s characters in the XXth.

There is certainly something mischievous about the way in which art co-opts the historic narrative and turns it into a human story, because
historic accuracy usually gives way to its dramatization, creating distorted perceptions of what may actually have happened, for the sake of art. From the tour guide in Teotihuacán making fabulous histories of moon goddesses and jaguars to Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, history becomes a medium for art with varying degrees of historical credibility and too often the ability to influence our collective perception of historical episodes or events that may be complete fabrications (How can any historian may be able to correct now the perception that Mozart was the adolescent prankster as portrayed in “Amadeus”, or that most people in turn-of-the-century Paris weren’t dancing rap-like rhythms as suggested in “Moulin Rouge”?) It is a particularly irritating process when a complex historical narrative is turned into cheap or oversimplified bestselling story. In this scenario, history tends to become something of an endorser for movies that make the vague claim of “based on a true story”, as if for that reason the story being told necessarily had a greater charge of reality than one story that was purely inspired in imaginary events.

But this characteristic of art that plays the role of history may just underline the fact that academic historical narratives usually fail at connecting with the viewer at a personal level. What art really does, more than transporting us to another time and place, is to transport that time and place to our own time, translating it into our contemporary visual and narrative codes. And, in the case of absent historical data, art becomes a filler for those gaps. In the best cases, art doesn’t function like a replacement of history, but rather in its soul. It enacts a relationship that has existed from the earliest times: mythology is nothing but an artistic attempt to fill in an incomplete history.
In the end, we can’t understand without interpretation, and we can’t interpret without creativity.

The best metaphor that I can think of to describe the way in which art plays the role of history, is the one of a tendentious dictionary: one that provides entirely subjective, and yet fairly concrete, responses to complex puzzles of time.

3. Upstairs: Foreign Pasts and Familiar Futures

LP Hartley’s famous phrase “The past is like a foreign country: they do things differently there” adequately describes the feeling of familiarity and yet displacement that most people feel when they enter into a space like the Tenement Museum. We are twice removed from the reality we visit, both because it is distant in time and because it tells the stories of immigrants coming from distant places.

However, this phrase is also significant in the context of the historical site because it helps dispel the assumption that is communicated by the traditional interpretation such as the one I saw at the House of the Seven Gables: history is never a set narrative, but one in constant reinterpretation. Rather it is a set of markers with a multiplicity of meanings. While historic facts and figures may be unchangeable, our view about those facts is never the same, not to mention that facts alone can never transmit the essence of a place (like Elsa Lizalde’s apartment).

“The future is not what it used to be” is a phrase written by one of the most influential poets of the XIXth Century, Paul Valery. At a first glance, it is intended to be humorous (by definition, the future can’t stop being “what it was”, because it can never occur before it happens). What Valery is really talking about is that our own collective outlook of the future, or rather, the cultural role that the notion of the future plays in our present time, is not anymore regarded in the same way than in the past. The meaning of this phrase can be interesting to think about when we compare the attitudes towards the future that we’ve had over the generations. Can we claim to have the same degree of optimism that existed, say, in the U.S. after World War II, or have we grown more cynical about what is to come?

In the context of today’s America and the current political situation in which our national outlook feels bleaker than ever before and there is a sense that we keep making the same mistakes of the past, we may want to ask on whether we are more detached from the past than we should be, or the reasons for which the old proverbial, post-war American optimism of the future has today turned into delusion in some and pessimism in others. The answer to those questions may vary widely, but most would agree that they lie in how we adequately manage to learn from the past and plan for the future.

While either of them may not have had politics in mind, the one thing that both Valery and Hartley may have agreed on is that our relationship with time is ever-shifting, and that things look different, and sometimes to the point of seeming incomprehensible, as we move forward in time. And, in the same way that we may judge those who lived before us, so we will be judged by those who come after us. We happen to be the future of the people who lived at what is now a museum, and we also are the past of those who may one day live in our own homes—which, who knows, may one day be turned into museums. •••

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