Another thing. A lot of new non-Western acquisitions by museums are of contemporary art. Classical African sculptures still turn up. But they’re outnumbered by dynamic, straight-from-the-studio work, like the glowing wall hangings made of bottle caps by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, and the masks pieced together from gasoline jugs and junked hardware by Romuald Hazoume of Benin.
So the situation is that our encyclopedic museums — the ones that most people visit, and look to as repositories of what we most value in art — are rarely doing ambitiously scaled, big-idea shows of older non-Western art, and American art historians of the rising generation aren’t studying it these days. (Europe is doing somewhat better on both counts.) In the craze for the new, certain areas of Western art are being neglected too. But it’s non-Western art, chronically marginalized, that is especially vulnerable.
Lack of visibility tends to lead to lack of financing, which translates into slow, halting research, leaving vast amounts of foundational field work barely started. All the while, time is taking its toll. Cultures are vanishing and changing form in urbanizing Africa. Ancient monuments are crumbling in India. Vital aesthetic traditions in China are fading fast. As an additional handicap, again, contrary to multiculturalist expectations, the numbers of new graduate students in most non-Western fields have not grown significantly in decades.
To simplify a complicated story, the flow stopped in the 1980s. The supply of objects that met Western requirements of value — age, evidence of ritual use, beauty of a kind that fit modernist criteria — came to an end. Art-wise, Africa was farmed out. With the new scarcity, prices soared; the days of buying and discovery more or less ended. Private collections went to museums, where they were — and are — occasionally refreshed by new additions. Meanwhile scholars were beginning to examine other, more accessible African genres: photography, film, sign painting, fashion, much of it being created in the present.