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Somebody Wants Art Removed From A Smithsonian Exhibition, and It's Not the Catholic League

Post #1756 • July 30, 2015, 8:37 PM

Jillian Steinhauer, named by AICA-USA (of which I'm a proud member) as the Best Art Reporter of 2014, has made an extraordinary entreaty of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

I am writing to you today with a simple request: take down the pictures of Bill Cosby in your current exhibition Conversations. Remove the portraits of him and the quotes by him, the lines of wall text that make Bill Cosby sound like a kind-hearted family man. Because Bill Cosby, contrary to what the television show had us believe, is not a kind-hearted family man. He is, I believe, a sexual predator and a serial rapist.

There are ample reasons to believe this, spelled out in a heartbreaking New York Magazine exposé. These are only allegations until tested in a court trial that may never come to pass, but what allegations, and what a sickening pile of them. If true, Cosby is a reprobate's reprobate.

Nevertheless, Steinhauer's (simple?) request is disgusting, and the pushback I encountered on social media for saying so tells me that a wide swath of art critics who should know better have lost sight of some important principles.

Criticism doesn't have much business invading the sovereign waters of normativity. Clement Greenberg was accused constantly (and wrongly) of saying that art ought to do this or do that or go in such-and-such direction and you can still find people who are angry at him for it. Criticism belongs in the realm of the positive and venturing outside of it tends to result in broad declarations that don't hold up broadly.

That goes double when it leaves aesthetics as well. I'm not convinced that Steinhauer is even doing cultural criticism here. It's more of an ethical complaint in a cultural context, except that the ethics are so poorly argued that it doesn't scan as such. She claims, in summary, that the portrayal of Cosby in the exhibition is so belied by the portrayal of Cosby in the New York piece that the museum should 1) demonstrate recognition of and faith in the accusers 2) by removing images of and quotes from Cosby from the exhibition.

There may be something to #1. #2 is absurd and dangerous.

It's absurd because it's the kind of politician's syllogism that has become a staple of contemporary social justice warriorship. Why does removing the images of Cosby demonstrate that the museum is taking the accusers seriously? Because Steinhauer says so. She could have asked for apologetic labeling to be added to the exhibition. For that matter she could have asked for Johnnetta B. Cole's resignation.

(I happen to think that if for some reason the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art were a white man, that's exactly what would be happening now. See, for instance, Tim Hunt. But as Steinhauer well knows, accusations of progressive wrongdoing are noncommutative and who can demand what of whom is a complex consideration. How her open letter didn't come off to anyone as whitesplaining is a mystery to me, but it's not my ethos.)

The requested gesture is symbolic, hence more or less arbitrary. There's the hoop, and now it matters, at least to Steinhauer and her supporters, whether the museum jumps through it. One recalls Trannygate from last year:

This student became so incensed by our refusal to say "How high?" when this student said "Jump!" that this student stormed out of the seminar. In tears. As one does when one doesn't get one's way. In college.

It's dangerous because we have an art critic requesting an act of censorship. I don't know what else to call it when you demand that art be taken down because you object to its being up. I repeat, knowing that the subjects of my criticism here are determined to get me wrong, that these objections are substantive and grave. But there is a bright line between condemning the work in an exhibition and condemning the very display of work in an exhibition, and Steinhauer is on the wrong side of it. Do we art critics no longer subscribe to the notion that art put on display ought to stay on display regardless of outside objections to its aesthetics, politics, or morality? Because if not we're on the same side as the Catholic League circa 2010.

I specify the date because when Bill Donohue wrote a letter [PDF] this month to the chairman of the Milwaukee Art Museum regarding its exhibition of Niki Johnson's Eggs Benedict, the portrait of Benedict XVI made out of condoms, he left aside the issue of public funding of the museum to talk about the propriety of certain public figures expressing what he characterized as bigotry. The Archbishop of Milwaukee had this to say:

Some may want me to be more upset at the museum for their callousness—calling for boycotts, suppression of donations or picketing. God, religion and faith have been insulted by others throughout the ages and by autocrats and movements far superior to our little local museum. But, still God rules supreme, the Church is here and will be until the end of time, and faith continues to inform and form.

One gets the sense from the Archbishop that there are greater forces in the world than outrage. It's a lesson we all could stand to learn a little better.

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