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The End of the Woke-Wealthy Truce

Post #1842 • August 10, 2019, 2:46 PM

For a long time now, the contemporary museums have operated under an arrangement in which they take money from rich donors and use it to put on exhibitions that reflect progressive values in one way or another. Usually this is some kind of supposed assault on conventional taste (read: yet another Fluxus-y gesture repackaged as the cutting edge), but is often expressly political, whether anti-capitalist, identitarian, pro-environment, anti-conservative, or what have you. The situation relied on a truce in which the donors would not interfere with the activities of the artists and the artists would not complain too loudly about the activities of the donors.

That arrangement took a big hit recently when a group of artist-activists obliged Whitney Museum board member Warren Kanders to resign. His crime was partial ownership in a company that has sold, among other things, tear gas. Tear gas has been deployed against immigrants crossing our southern border. Brian Allen has the conservative take:

Kanders’s resignation will end nothing, for the protesters will prove insatiable. They won’t be satisfied by a single scalp and will seek out more targets at every museum with a trustee whose career, beliefs, family, or philanthropy conflict with left-wing ideology.

The Whitney leadership has handled this badly. Perhaps the museum’s most ill-advised move was to provide a prominent gallery in the Biennial for a group of British journalists called Forensic Architecture—specifically to attack Kanders. Forensic Architecture is a London investigative collaborative that studies debris at war sites to determine the accuracy of official accounts of conflict. It has produced some fascinating work. The Whitney, though, let the group show a film about how tear gas produced by Safariland, which Kanders partly owns, was used at the Mexican border. The film provides lots of bright colors, menacing noise, and graphs—but nothing remotely proving that Safariland did anything illegal or even unusual.

Giving Forensic Architecture a platform might have started as a PR stunt, a wink at protesters: hey, we’re not all bad, guys, and we’re letting you air your grievance—and in the galleries that Kanders himself helped pay for, sanctioned by a board of trustees that Kanders sits on! But it wound up making the Whitney look unsure, insincere, and easily rolled....It was only a matter of time before Forensic Architecture would quit the Biennial in protest and grab more headlines. Sure enough, their moment came last week, when they announced that one of their unnamed British researchers, living and working in Gaza, found a bullet in some debris that she traced to Safariland....The thought of some daffy Miss Marple spending months sifting through debris in a Gaza ghetto and finding a Safariland bullet seemed to test the far boundaries of relevance to Kanders’s service on the Whitney board. Kanders, understandably, had finally had enough.

Ben Davis has the progressive take:

Even Decolonize [This Place], with its uncompromising position, dropped its original call for artists to boycott after participants in the show objected that such a move amounted to silencing artists of color and placing an undue burden on them (objections alluded to in “The Tear Gas Biennial”). In fact, after a backlash over an initial round of reviews that called the Biennial “safe,” Decolonize added to their protest a statement making the case for artists staying in quite clear: “Your presence is monumental, and you are sculpting the future of the arts landscape.” Instead, it denounced critics of the show—encompassing, for instance, the Times’s Holland Cotter, whose review was quite clearly sympathetic to the anti-Kanders campaign—as agents of white supremacy trying “to separate us from each other in the name of art and protest.”...

Kanders’s resignation is an immense symbolic victory, rendering the life of a war profiteer that much more unpleasant and unacceptable in the public square. But it remains, in broader terms, a victory mainly of symbolism: It does not hurt his company’s bottom line. Meanwhile, for artists, it opens up structural questions that will cut across the entire system of arts and culture, throwing out immense centrifugal pressure, opening up all kinds of tensions that run between and through institutions and anybody connected to them. The potential for this to radicalize the conservative side while diffusing and splintering the efforts of the radical side has to be stated, particularly given the debates about focus and who gets to speak that linger, I think, basically unresolved beneath the surface of the celebration.

Here is my take on the politics of our border with Mexico.

1. I invite you to defy a border checkpoint in, to pick somewhere, Pakistan, and see if they deploy non-lethal weapons on you.

2. The conservative position that the state has both the responsibility to assure the basic welfare of immigrants and the privilege to decide whom to allow over the border is philosophically coherent. The libertarian position that the state has neither the responsibility to assure the basic welfare of immigrants nor the privilege to decide whom to allow over the border is philosophically coherent. The left-liberal position that the state has the responsibility to assure the basic welfare of immigrants but not the privilege to decide whom to allow over the border is feelings all the way down.

3. The Trump administration's immigration policy mostly continues Obama's, with similar results right down to the deaths at the border, the detentions, the deportations, and the use of tear gas on the civilians crossing over. The main difference is what has become known as the family separation policy. While galling, it attempts to put a stop to the heinous practice of using children to short-circuit the detention process for adults who are unrelated to them.

4. Left-liberal interest in immigration circa 2019 exists almost entirely as a reaction to Trump. Jamie Kirchick:

With his every utterance and action, Trump inspires a Pavlovian response from his critics, who feel that anything he supports must be opposed, and anything he opposes must be supported, to the hilt and in abundance, causing them to embrace some of the worst of their own camp. Trump is like Newton’s Third Law of Physics, inspiring an equal and opposite reaction with absolutely everything he says and does.

5. If immigrants were crossing our southern border in significant numbers for the purpose of becoming Republican voters, the wall would have been built ten years ago, it would run from La Jolla to Corpus Christi, it would be fifty feet high, deep, and thick at all points, and it would have a million volts running through it.

You can imagine how highly I regard this effort to remove Kanders. But now that the activists have a confirmed kill, this is just the beginning. When I first started thinking about this a week ago, my premonition was that this effort to purge boards and donor rolls would eventually extend to become commensurate with the priorities of Occupy Wall Street. No one's money would be sufficiently clean.

It turns out that I wasn't thinking big enough. Minds given over to this situation see it as a chance to rid the world not just of class enemies, but ideological enemies as well. Whitney Mallett (I swear that I did not make that up) and Katy Schneider wrote a listicle for Vulture, "Ranking New York’s Most Toxic Museum Boards."

As [Michael] Gross puts it, “Even if you disagree with someone’s politics or you think they’re utterly deplorable, if they’re willing to give great gobs of money to expand your cultural institution, is it right to refuse that?” The activists think so. As Decolonize told us, “We savor the fact that these violent oligarchs are now sleeping with one eye open, and we would welcome further action against them (Kenneth Griffin, Nancy Carrington Crown, Pamella DeVos, we see you!).”

Who counts as "toxic" in this article? The conservatives and libertarians, naturally. Also "toxic" are a whole range of business activities that were fine so long as Obama was in office but now are unacceptable: private prisons, defense contractors, suppliers for nuclear power plants, pharmaceutical companies, banks. Vulture charmingly mentions,

Then there’s fashion designer Pamella DeVos (of those DeVoses), who has dressed the First Lady and given to conservative causes.

"Dressing the First Lady" is apparently toxic. Then we get to this gem.

...though she isn’t a [Guggenheim] board member, the Young Collectors Council co-chair Tiffany Zabludowicz has an influential art-world family that could be a liability. Boycott Zabludowicz has highlighted the family’s historic connections to arms dealing and its funding of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre.

Imagine thinking that it's toxic to be related to people who support an organization that advocates for the State of Israel to England, a country whose mainstream left-leaning party is a haven for antisemitic slimeballs, not that ours is not.

As someone who spent a few years watching Art World Social Media freak out about the 2016 election results, I have no respect for its newfound distaste for arms dealers. The anti-war left went utterly quiescent for the whole time Obama was in power, and his administration spent every single day of his eight-year tenure involved in an armed conflict somewhere around the world. He is the first U.S. president in history to accomplish that. And his would-be successor is an even bigger hawk than him. I admit that when Gary Johnson made his famous Aleppo gaffe, it was hilarious and unpresidential and that Gary maybe needed to lay off the edibles. But I maintain that I would prefer a president who didn't know what a leppo was to one who knew exactly what Aleppo was and wanted to go bomb the hell out of it. Hillary Clinton was calling for the bombing of Syria as recently as April 2017. She was sorry that Obama wouldn't let her institute a No-Fly Zone over a broken country which has not attacked us and in which we have no military interest. This is the woman whose Department of State oversaw the sale of billions of dollars' worth of fighter jets and other materiel to her friends in Saudi Arabia, who used it (and continue to use it) to slaughter Yemenites by the thousands.

But she's not president, and now manufacturing military equipment is "toxic." Meanwhile, as of this week, Trump still wants out of Syria, which would be a far bigger blow to arms dealing than hounding Warren Kanders off of a museum board. Ben Davis was right to call that a symbolic victory. It symbolizes the art world's politics as an incoherent, willfully ignorant, principle-free morass of petty ambition and posturing.

And here's the juiciest tidbit in this veritable buffet of irony: activists like Decolonize may finally accomplish what conservatives have desired for decades, to punish the museums for promoting progressivism and its associated grievances. The activists have at last punched a hole in the fuel line that makes their clown car keep tooting along. Theirs is an opportunity to wreck the entire system. If they succeed, and they reduce the museum world to a shadow of its former self, one thing is as certain as night follows day: they will blame the ruin on Donald J. Trump.

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