What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Art

Nothing haunts like a skeleton in the closet. When art museums and cultural institutions talk about their treasures, there are always a few items they’d rather keep out of the conversation. In Controversy 2: Pieces We Don’t Talk About, which runs through December 30, 2012 at the Ohio History Center in Columbus, Ohio, the Ohio Historical Society once again takes a few skeletons out of their closet. Focusing on five items from their archives that touch on stereotypes, the organizers don’t just dare to touch the third rail but dance along its length while inviting viewers to dance with them. By opening up the conversation about what we don’t talk about when we talk about art, Controversy 2 takes us to the dark side and sheds light not only on the pieces themselves but also on how to talk about them.

With a minimum of wall text and a maximum number of avenues of discourse, Controversy 2 challenges you to look at these five objects deeply and actively participate in the discussion rather than passively accept an official line or, even worse, the stereotype the object embodies. The most obviously controversial object is a Nazi flag captured by an American soldier at the end of World War II from a German tank and brought home to Ohio. The swastika appeared in many different cultures around the world—from Indian to Native American—long before the Nazis adopted it. White supremacist groups in the United States and abroad continue to use the swastika in the same twisted manner as the Nazis. Yet, it’s not the symbol itself but how it has been used that stirs controversy. Just when you want to apply a label of good or evil, this show makes you step back and think.

Home-grown racially charged items in the show include a poem in typescript by African-American author Paul Lawrence Dunbar written in “black” dialect, a set of toy bowling pins featuring ethnic caricatures, and a 1946 Cleveland Indians warm-up jacket with a grotesquely caricatured Native American. Ohio-born Dunbar’s “dialect” poems (including “Scamp,” the poem appearing in the exhibition) helped him become one of the first mainstream African-American poets in the late 19th century, but literary critics today focus on his non-dialect poetry, perhaps acknowledging that “dialect” was just a game Dunbar played to gain acceptance and not his true verse language. The bowling pins could double as a who’s who of early 20th century ethnic stereotypes: Middle Eastern, Scottish, African American, Native American, Italian, English, Irish, Jewish, and Asian. (The tenth pin is actually a clown, demonstrating just how seriously the makers of the set took other ethnic groups.) The baseball warm-up jacket with its garish smiling “Injun” galls even more when you realize that the current Indians’ logo isn’t much better even today.

The item that set my head spinning the fastest, however, was a Currier and Ives’ lithographic print from the Darktown Series created between 1882 and 1893. The print (detail shown above) features the caption, “Darktown Athletics—A Running High Jump. Match between the darktown grasshopper and the blackville frog.” When I think Currier and Ives, I think of quaint images suitable for Christmas cards, inaccurate but charming historical scenes, and vignettes of 19th century American life, not horribly racist and dehumanizing (“grasshopper,” “frog”) caricatures of African Americans that a Klansman would cheerily collect. But there it is—a perfect reminder of the artistic skeleton in the closet. I haven’t felt this bad since seeing Dr. SeussWorld War II era anti-Japanese cartoons.

Controversy 2 takes such bad feelings and provides outlets for channeling and talking them out. Anyone can join the conversation through Facebook or Twitter (#controversy2) and interact with the curators or other people simply looking for more information and understanding. Social media are such powerful tools for communication today that it seems a no brainer to harness that power to talk about these items that nobody wants to talk about for whatever reasons. If it seems impolite to talk about race, it’s even more impolite to ignore the racism of the past and how it lingers today in American society. If political cartoonist Mike Lester’s depiction earlier this week of President Obama as a 1970s blaxploitation-style pimp (complete with fur coat and feathered hat) as part of the Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke controversy doesn’t convince you of the skeletons in our collective American visual closet, then nothing will. Controversy 2: Pieces We Don’t Talk About should start a national process of cleaning the skeletons out of the cultural closets and rattling the bones in the name of progress.

[Image: Currier and Ives. Detail of lithographic print from the Darktown Series, 1882-1893. Caption: “Darktown Athletics—A Running High Jump. Match between the darktown grasshopper and the blackville frog.” These hand-colored lithographs are part of a series created by Currier and Ives called the Darktown Series. The company made the prints between 1879 and 1893. With over 100 scenes in the theme, it was among the most popular and best-selling series that Currier and Ives produced.]

[Many thanks to the Ohio Historical Society and Sharon Dean, director of Museum and Library Services, for providing me with the image above and other materials related to Controversy 2: Pieces We Don’t Talk About, which runs through December 30, 2012 at the Ohio History Center in Columbus, Ohio.]

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.