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Why You Can’t Put On a Philip Guston Show

Post #1873 • September 26, 2020, 6:32 PM • 3 Comments

The four museums involved in an upcoming Philip Guston exhibition have postponed it until 2024 due to reasons. According to a statement signed by Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, Frances Morris, director of the Tate Modern, Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston:

After a great deal of reflection and extensive consultation, our four institutions have jointly made the decision to delay our successive presentations of Philip Guston Now. We are postponing the exhibition until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.

We recognize that the world we live in is very different from the one in which we first began to collaborate on this project five years ago. The racial justice movement that started in the U.S. and radiated to countries around the world, in addition to challenges of a global health crisis, have led us to pause.

As museum directors, we have a responsibility to meet the very real urgencies of the moment. We feel it is necessary to reframe our programming and, in this case, step back, and bring in additional perspectives and voices to shape how we present Guston’s work to our public. That process will take time.

Collectively and individually, we remain committed to Philip Guston and his work. We plan to rebuild the retrospective with time to reconsider the many important issues the work raises.

This show has been years in the planning, the result of a true collaborative spirit among us. We plan to present a reconsidered Guston exhibition in 2024 and will work together to do so.

How did we get here? Via three and only three ways. One, the visual arts cultural class—artists, critics, curators, institutional bureaucrats, the whole crew—have spent a half-decade or more taking seriously the complaints of activists who hate the museums, spit on the sanctity of private experience, believe that free speech, capitalism, and European art are cover projects for white supremacy, and regard universalism as a joke.

Two, they have abandoned the idea that political pressure to remove art from exhibitions ought to be fought at any cost. (This is because the religious right gave up on that effort and the godless left started doing it instead.)

Three, they have spent the last six months countenancing, and in many cases encouraging, the removal, defacement, and wanton destruction of public art objects, prompted by motivations that, despite being secular in nature, would be comprehensible to the Taliban. They were at least mildly in favor of it as long as the vandalism was directed at monuments to Confederate soldiers and Christopher Columbus. When the rioters continued on to monuments to Union soldiers, abolitionists, suffragists, founding fathers, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and this blameless elk, they shrugged and logged back into their social media accounts for another tiresome round of hashtag activism.

That’s it. That’s the entire explanation for why you can’t put on a Philip Guston show for the foreseeable future. Anybody who is telling you different is gaslighting you. This is a beer stein filled to the top with 200-proof Cancel Culture. It has nothing to do with Trump and everything to do with an art world whose spines, collectively and individually, are made out of Jell-O.

I warned you that this was going to happen back in 2014.

For a long while I’ve been trying to interest my friends in the art world to get behind freedom of speech in a bigger way, to recognize that the very health of the marketplace of ideas depends on its openness to entry and its freedom of transaction. That means putting up with crazy talk, but it’s worth it because innovative thought sometimes hails from the margins. This usually doesn’t persuade anyone who isn’t already liberty-minded to begin with.

So next I resort to self-interest. We creative types rely on that openness to function. If we don’t stand in defense of hate speech—not the content, just the right to express it—any mechanisms for cutting it off will eventually be used against us. If injured feelings take on the seriousness of injured bodies, we will become a society that pulls art off of walls, cancels performances, and strikes essays from public view.

Sadly, this usually doesn’t work either because the targets of accusations of hate speech typically lean right, and the art community leans left. There are exceptions, but they aren’t numerous.

And now here we are. Hey, I tried.

There’s a lot of suppressio veri going on with this story, so let me connect a few dots for you. The Art Newspaper obtained a quote from Robert Storr, who wrote the exhibition catalogue.

According to Robert Storr, author of a recent Guston biography, “the prompt was push back from staff about an anti-lynching image from the 1930s, which was in effect the predicate for all of Guston’s later Ku Klux Klan imagery”. Storr adds: “If the National Gallery of Art, which has conspicuously failed to feature many artists-of-colour, cannot explain to those who protect the work on view that the artist who made it was on the side of racial equality, no wonder they caved to misunderstanding in Trump times.”

In Trump times, complaints about the very existence of Klan imagery hail exclusively from progressive activists. “It is past time that Indiana University take a stand and denounce hate and intolerance in Indiana and on IU’s campus,” read a 2017 petition demanding that a mural by Thomas Hart Benton, in which Klansmen loom ominously in the background, be removed. (It was not, finally, but the university no longer uses the room with the mural for classes.)

But, I hear you protest—Guston hated the Klan. No matter, so did Benton. Context doesn’t matter to the activists, and the museums know this. It didn’t matter to the vandals who defaced the 54th Regiment Memorial here in Boston or the ones who ripped down the Hans Christian Heg statue in Madison. And what the Tate, the NGA, and the MFAs Boston and Houston are envisioning is the 2017 protests against Dana Schutz at the Whitney, plus the 2019 protests against Warren Kanders at the Whitney, multiplied by the new iconoclasm that has resulted in the removal, defacement, or destruction of 300 art objects. It would not surprise me if the insurers have decided that the museums are going to have to hire a private army to keep the works safe, and consequently the exhibition is no longer financially feasible.

[Update 2020-09-27: In fact, these particular directors at the NGA, the MFA Boston, and the Tate have all had to endure protests at their respective institutions during their tenures. With experiences like those, they need not consider the Whitney in order to imagine what might happen, though they certainly could. I myself witnessed Teitelbaum's efforts to accommodate the Kimono Wednesday protestors in 2016, and how they responded with unmitigated spite.]

Too, note that this push-back hails from staff at the NGA. This is entirely consistent with what happened to Shaun Leonardo at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland back in March.

We received feedback from a few voices in the activist community who advised that this presentation at moCa could stir trauma, leading to pain and harm. This was echoed by moCa staff members.

“Caved to misunderstanding” is a harsh way for Storr to put it. I wonder who could communicate understanding to activists who have no interest in obtaining it.

Here’s who approves of the postponement: the Ford Foundation. As the New York Times reports:

But the National Gallery had the support of its board of trustees, including Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, the philanthropic giant. Mr. Walker said in an email that if the museums had not taken a step back to rethink the exhibition, it would have appeared “tone deaf.” He added that the National Gallery’s director, Kaywin Feldman, had surveyed the trustees, and said that there was unanimous support for the postponement.

“What those who criticize this decision do not understand,” Mr. Walker said, “is that in the past few months the context in the U.S. has fundamentally, profoundly changed on issues of incendiary and toxic racist imagery in art, regardless of the virtue or intention of the artist who created it.”

At any rate, the Ford Foundation went all in on woke aesthetics this year, so this statement does not come as a surprise from Walker. [Update 2020-09-26: Dana Gordon in the comments points out something that didn't fully sink in the first time I read it: Walker is accusing Guston of trafficking in "incendiary and toxic racist imagery." This is the kind of woke philistinism that now guides the country's largest philanthropic organizations. Note, not even the director of the Ford Foundation can be made to care about mitigating context.] Back at the Times:

A spokeswoman for the National Gallery, Anabeth Guthrie, said the directors consulted a range of employees at the four museums, including staff in interpretation, education, and community partnerships.

In their joint statement, the directors of the four museums said that “additional perspectives and voices” would be necessary before the show could go on, and that such a process would “take time.” Yet the curators — Harry Cooper at the National Gallery, Alison de Lima Greene at the M.F.A. in Houston, Mr. Godfrey at Tate Modern, and Kate Nesin at the M.F.A. in Boston — had already brought together a wide range of contributors for the show’s authoritative catalog, which is already in the shops.

The curators, as well as artists such as Trenton Doyle Hancock and Glenn Ligon, who are Black, and the cartoonist Art Spiegelman, who is Jewish, all offered perspectives on Guston’s personal experiences of confronting the Klan in his youth, and on the formal and political innovations of his cartoonish Klansmen.

How cute—the ink-stained wretches at the Times think that context matters to the activists. No, the activists are going to accuse the museums of tokenism and take to screaming in museumgoers’ faces like they were dining outdoors in Washington, D.C.

As I have had cause to point out a couple of times recently, the bylaws of the United States section of the International Association of Art Critics exhort us into “acting on behalf of the physical and moral defense of works of art.” The organization folded on this issue like a cheap futon. They said nothing at all about Dana Schutz or Shaun Leonardo or anyone similarly embattled, they have been as silent as stones about the politically motivated destruction of public art this year, and they may as well not comment on the Guston cancellation because they were complicit in it through malignant neglect. [Update 2020-09-28: But they should anyway. See Comment #3 below.] Instead they’ve run not one but two panels in the last few months dealing with diversity in a field that is so wrecked that the half-dozen people remaining who work at it full-time, to say nothing about all the other writers who rely in one way or another on academia, are in danger of losing their jobs in the next 24 months. The organization seems determined to fail at its core functions with a maximally diverse membership.

(Diverse only in terms of identity, of course. Parties involved with the panels have exhibited acute hostility to diversity of political views. I have receipts. I obtained them in exchanges not meant for public consumption and I treat them accordingly, but the longer that AICA-USA blows off its own mission and refuses to take the above issues seriously, the less I care about anyone’s potential embarrassment. This is especially the case since I discovered, a month after it happened, that following one of those exchanges, someone writing in the hysterical style of John Corso-Esquivel’s petition AICA-USA Must Hire an Independent Anti-racism Consultant defaced my Wikipedia page, saying that my writing archive contains “radical right-wing polemics” and attempting to link me to the alt-right on account of my once citing Ernst Nolte with insufficient disdain in 2016. This is the kind of baby-brained, petty nonsense that goes on in the name of progressive justice.)

Even if the bylaws did not state any such thing, the associated attitude ought to be second nature to writers who claim to care deeply about art. But it is not, and disappearing along with it are a lot of similar attitudes that we need to continue civilization.

I harbor no illusions about my bizarre place in the universe. If in 2014 the only libertarian art critic that you can name is telling you that calamity is on its way, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he sounds like Chicken Little. I get it. I’m hoping that now that a major exhibition by a major artist, someone of enormous importance to me and a lot of other people besides, has been postponed for three years because the political and cultural climate is impossible, you’ll listen to me when I tell you that calamity just walked right up to you, kicked you in the shin, and dared you to do something about it.



Dana Gordon

September 26, 2020, 7:55 PM

Note that Darren Walker said that Guston's work is "incendiary and toxic racist imagery." I guess he doesn't know much about art but he knows what he likes.



September 27, 2020, 8:59 AM

Dana's comment is incorporated in an update overhead.



September 28, 2020, 8:45 AM

I have changed my mind about this:

...and [AICA-USA] may as well not comment on the Guston cancellation because they were complicit in it through malignant neglect.

Better late than never. In light of the Guston cancellation (and yes, a three-year postponement of a large-scale exhibition with a published monograph and fully arranged loans is a cancellation), AICA-USA should issue a statement acknowledging its complicity in Cancel Culture through the action and inaction of its leadership and many of its own members. It should condemn the destruction of art and the vandalizing of museums and galleries over the last six months, and condemn the notion that such acts are valid forms of political protest. It should acknowledge that its leadership and many of its members nurse political prejudices that are just as fueled by hatred and ignorance as anyone else's racial prejudices. It must re-commit to liberty of conscience, freedom of expression, and the civil debate about competing ideas, in recognition that no single human mind holds a monopoly on the truth and good people can disagree about its components. It should lament the state of affairs that make the Guston exhibition impossible, take its share of responsibility for contributing to them, and resolve to use its combined knowledge and powers of argument to mitigate them, starting immediately. It must blast the increasingly common idea that images can cause harm, in any nontrivial sense of the word harm. It should admit that it has done a poor job of following its own bylaws regarding these issues, and pledge to remedy that, after years of inexcusable silence as political activists pressured both public and private institutions to take art off of display and often succeeded. While committing to continue its recent attentions to diversity, it must state its intention to expand them to include diversity of thought until its membership reflects the broader population not just with respect to race, sex, gender, and other components of identity, but also politics, religion, ethics, and other core components of human existence.



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