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Context Cancellation

Post #1876 • October 23, 2020, 12:13 PM


The typical Ben Davis missive consists of several fat layers of tendentious nonsense. But on occasion they serve to insulate a point of some merit, and his essay on the Guston cancellation is one such example.

First, let's strip away the blubber. The following four blockquoted paragraphs are consecutive in the original piece.

“It’s not a good time for rational discussion,” [NGA director Kaywin] Feldman said of the timing for the Guston show. But it’s not a great moment to be perceived as “canceling” a show either. “Cancel culture” is the most emotionally resonant issue that the extreme right has going for it as it fights to woo people in these turbulent times. A solid majority of the US public thinks it is a problem: 56 percent of Americans think it is a “very big” or “somewhat big” problem, including 79 percent of Republicans, 58 percent of independents, and 47 percent of Democrats. This is why Trump and his allies harp on it so much.

Correction: not perceived as “canceling” a show, but witnessed in the act of no-scare-quotes-needed, straight-up canceling a show. An indefinite postponement (2024 was just spitballing, Feldman is now messaging a legitimately outraged public that it might happen sooner) on an exhibition originally scheduled for six months from now, with major loans arranged and a catalogue published, is a cancellation.

No-scare-quotes-needed Cancel Culture is possibly not the most emotionally resonant issue at the moment for the right, extreme or otherwise, given the smorgasbord of woe on offer: progressive-led rioting in progressive-led cities, the allegedly unbiased media lapsing into partisan mendacity, calls to defund the police, Big Tech persecuting anyone who threatens the progressive brand as their principals perjure themselves to Congress that they are doing no such thing, and possibly a half-dozen other concerns. Laid on top of them all is the bare fact that for five years, Democrats and their fellow travelers have harped on Trump's mental unfitness for office, his demeaning remarks about women, and his compromising entanglements with business concerns in semi-enemy autocracies. They have capped them off by selecting a presidential candidate who has had two aneurysms and is in obvious mental decline. He is the subject of a sexual assault allegation as credible as any directed at Brett Kavanaugh—accused of actually committing an act that Trump merely if obnoxiously said to be in the realm of the possible—and has a creepy propensity for sniffing girls. He also has compromising entanglements with business concerns in semi-enemy autocracies. But the Cancel Culture stuff is pretty bad.

The point missed by framing Cancel Culture as a narrative trope that the extreme right exploits for political gain is that disdain for it extends throughout the right, the libertarians, the centrists, and sizable portions of the left-liberals—rightfully, because it is an actually extant and dangerous phenomenon. Even the World Socialist Web Site is calling the Guston cancellation “blatant censorship.” That is why those polls look like they do.

Ben Shapiro, the to-my-ears repellent and mediocre conservative commentator whose slogan is “facts don’t care about your feelings,” has grown unimaginably popular for pointing out the seeming contradictions of social-justice culture. The New York Times noted that Shapiro got more interactions on his Facebook page in August than the main pages of ABC News, NBC News, the New York Times, the Washington Post and NPR combined.

Not seeming contradictions of social-justice culture, but actual contradictions of social-justice culture. I don't follow Shapiro (Davis thinks he's repellent and mediocre, which prompts me to assume that he's alluring and brilliant) and I doubt that Facebook page interactions signify much of anything. But you'd have to be as dense as a granite counter top not to notice the irony when Ibram X. Kendi condemns interracial adoption as practiced by Amy Coney Barrett, and white nationalist Richard Spencer basically agrees with him. We get a fresh batch of new contradictions like that every day. Surely they're not all contradictions in appearance only.

To be clear, I do think some of the “cancel culture” scare is just powerful people whining about being criticized online. When the National Review writes, of the Guston affair, that “[t]oday, the Cancel Culture is the Ku Klux Klan, this time with college degrees,” that’s as warped an alternate-universe view, in its way, as the idea that Marina Abramović is a high priestess of Satan—the author knows that the KKK actually murdered Black people, right?

Davis is aware that the Klan actually ripped down an exhibition of Guston's work in 1930, right? So the comparison isn't so far off when you consider that Feldman accomplished via bureaucracy what the Klan accomplished by vandalism. It attests to the power of the paintings that they discomfit the white fascists and the woke fascists alike. Does calling Feldman a woke fascist sound excessive? I might have been persuadable on the point until she said to Hyperallergic that “Guston appropriated black trauma” in order to make his Klan paintings. The characterization is grotesque. It's as if the Klan was holding bake sales for B'nai B'rith while they terrorized black Americans, thus forcing Guston to borrow someone else's agony for the sake of his studio practice. Somewhere in there is the presupposition that white pain, and Jewish pain in particular, isn't real. (Folded into it is the presumption that we Jews exemplify whiteness in the worst possible ways.) So I stand by her being a woke fascist, and if her last name wasn't Feldman I'd be wondering what kind of unmitigated bigot is running the National Gallery these days.

If some of no-scare-quotes-needed Cancel Culture is “just powerful people whining about being criticized online,” I'd like to know what remainder of it is people who are not public figures getting their lives destroyed for offending the ever-shifting mores of social-justice zealots. I'm thinking of, among many other cases, the Latino utility worker who lost his job this summer for unwittingly making an “okay” hand gesture. Let's say it's half and half—how many of the latter is Davis prepared to brush off on account of the former?

But halting a show by a white artist about how the Klan is bad for being racially insensitive is custom-designed to make the “facts don’t care about your feelings” crowd look like the reasonable defenders of nuance. As A. Sivanandan long ago argued, redirecting so much liberal energy into the terrain of symbolism “played into the hands of the Right and provided them the modicum of truth necessary to sustain the Loony Left image in the public mind.”

Not look like the reasonable defenders of nuance, but legitimize them as the brave defenders of nuance as various progressives try to raze nuance to the earth and then salt it. On a related note, I question whether the Loony Left conception is merely an image, or if there's something objectively screwy about Darren Walker that prompts him to accuse Guston of employing “incendiary and toxic racist imagery.” (The aforementioned National Review writer purports to like and respect Walker. But after characterizing the Guston show as “tone-deaf,” Walker was either moved or prompted to apologize to the disabled. Even Davis thought it was weird. It's equally possible to see Walker as a kind of mannered creature cursed by fate to strike performative social-justice poses in unending succession, or to imagine his behavior being shaped by woke dingalings on Twitter who watch his every move with malicious opportunism.)

The toughest layer of lard lies around one of the two points that Davis thinks the rest of us are missing—regarding context.

The importance of context is one of the big themes of contemporary art: context makes meaning. But the museum has lost its ability to control context. The gallery experience and professional art discourse don’t center the “cultural conversation” anymore; the trending social media conversation clearly dominates. Whatever conversation is happening online is, effectively, the overriding context and provides the “real” meaning for the largest and therefore the most decisive audience.

The term “context collapse” is used to refer to the situation, characteristic of social media, where you cannot control the interpretive context for an utterance or an image. Nuance does not work well here. Any free-floating meaning is bound to be filled in by whatever community it intersects with. Original intention is easily overwritten....

Unfortunately, while the now paper-thin membrane between art spaces and the news renders the museums’ postponement of Guston understandable, this same situation also renders the museums’ proposed solutions long shots. All of them—including the addition of a Black curator—center on forms of contextualization.

None of this is wrong, but the framing makes it seem like the germane context collapsed passively, like a bridge in a windstorm. On the contrary, contemporary progressivism is a large-scale, protracted assault upon, and takeover of, context. See my 2019 post Some Context Regarding Max Hollein. For that matter, see my 2016 post Among the Cultural Authoritarians, in which Decolonize Our Museums was heard to demand that of the MFA Boston that “the history of art, particularly, the story of its first acquisition, be properly acknowledged and framed as a way to begin reframing the history of the art.” Social media itself wasn't the cause. The cause was what progressives did with social media, namely, to blast away any and all resistance, whether it took the form of people, data, narratives, or ideas. It's not context collapse so much as context cancellation. Woke fascists did to context what they did to that utility worker.


This brings us to the point of Davis's essay in which I actually learned something.

The increasing spiral of scrutiny makes me think of the essay “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” by the late queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. It’s a dense but important read, informed by psychoanalysis, and I’ve been struck by how much it resonates with the widely shared sense of how unwieldy social-media politics has become. Writing in the 2000s, well before the social-media age, Sedgwick was trying to show the problems with the tendency towards what she called “paranoid reading” across a variety of leftist academic discourses, from Marxist criticism to feminist studies to New Historicism to queer theory.

A “paranoid reading” was any style of interpretation in which, no matter the object at hand, the exposure of its secret negative side would recur as the main point of interpretation. To be clear: Sedgwick was a lefty. She was very much not making the argument that culture wasn’t full of hidden structures of oppression and power. She was saying that the impulse to point out what was “problematic” was a particular theoretical style people absorb in a variety of academic settings, that created a particular climate of reading and receiving culture, with a particular structure and set of consequences that were worth understanding.

Among other things, “paranoid reading” was characterized by exactly the kind of anticipatory quality we now see in the museum discussion: “The first imperative of paranoia is There must be no bad surprises.” The worst thing, within this style of reading culture, is to have been accused of having missed evidence of something bad, and failing to flag it for others; therefore, the paranoid reader shaped their own personal aesthetic reactions on behalf of an imagined third party. The style lent itself to the kind of argument based, not around the fact that an association is there, but that someone else might make an association.

This strikes me as enormously apt.

But the domination of the paranoid style, Sedgwick also thought, tended to make gear-switching between critical and sympathetic postures more and more difficult: “Reparative motives, once they become explicit, are inadmissible in paranoid theory both because they are about pleasure (‘merely aesthetic’) and because they are frankly ameliorative (‘merely reformist’).” Sedgwick never explains why paranoid theory might have gained so much purchase in the arts and humanities, which you would think might be more invested in celebrating the “merely aesthetic.” I think that it might have to do with disciplinary insecurity—under attack and afraid of being painted as frivolous, it’s easy to reach for theories of unbending seriousness.

You could put it that way. I basically did already:

Since Manet’s Dead Toreodor from 1864-5, to pick something, we’ve had 155 years of various modernisms requiring the defiance and re-establishment of conventions. After Pop, the last hegemonic style, the process accelerated as stylistic hegemony diffused into multiple, smaller streams. Now we can’t even locate the dominant art of our age. We may have exhausted the defiance-convention cycle itself through repetition and overmining.

I suspect this because art is so eagerly reaching outside of art for its current conventions. Namely it has latched on to a loose collection of political concerns that its adherents try to brand as Social Justice. I regard that as an insult to social justice. It rejects a vision of common humanity that necessitates social justice in the first place. It substitutes for it a cynically and dishonestly described power dynamics that is leading us straight into autocracy. As such I prefer to call it Woke Ideology.

Sedgwick's (or maybe Davis's) observation about the Imagined Third Party jumps out at me as especially significant. An Imagined Third Party seems to loom in Feldman's calculations. According to the associated reporting, the Guston cancellation originated with staff at the NGA, who raised concerns to Feldman that putting the Klan paintings on display would be traumatic. These people have never come forward to speak for themselves, and Feldman obviously won't (and shouldn't) name them. But what seems to be happening is organizational concern on behalf of black Americans who lived at the time of Guston's creation of his post-abstract works, who would not in a million years have characterized him as appropriating their pain for his art. That's an entirely contemporary conceit, projected back fifty and sixty years, essentially re-imagining how those people should have felt by woke standards.

Paranoid reading has taken over the arts and humanities because it has taken over progressive politics as a whole. As John McWhorter, who is black, wrote recently about Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug, who are not black despite efforts to reshape themselves as such:

Enlightened wisdom today is that, however black lives look from the outside, to go about as a black person in these United States remains an ongoing, almost daily, burden. Overall, we are to understand that the changes in the black American condition since 1968 have largely been rearrangements of the deck chairs on the Titanic. The point is usually made with statistics. Whites have about 10 times the wealth of black people—a gap similar to that in 1968. A black man has a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by a police officer. Partly because of disparities in healthcare, black people are three times more likely to get Covid and twice as likely to die from it.

However, the reality of black people’s daily existence rarely forces one to confront the differences between our lives and white ones. As even Ellis Cose—celebrated liberal journalist doyen of the black American situation—has noted, “In the real world such statistics are almost irrelevant, for rage does not flow from dry numerical analyses of discrimination or from professional prospects projected on a statistician’s screen.” Any observer can see that the openness of racism, and thus black people’s daily experience of it, has changed massively over the past 50 years. The braver observer may question the claim often seen on social media from black people that they experience racism “EVERY DAY! EVERY DAY!” Such an observer’s skepticism is correct. Dr. King did not fight in vain.

And it is for this reason that only today is a fashion emerging for white people to declare themselves black in “identity.” Dolezal and Krug gave up the white privilege that we are taught makes such a decisive difference. They did this to live as the people we are told endure such endless misery, to such a degree that we are to think of oppression as the essence of black Americans, as taught by primers such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility.

Which leads him here:

The sad thing is that there are black people who fake victimhood in the same way as Dolezal and Krug did, and for the same reason: seeking a sense of validation and group membership in noble victimhood. Only this could explain those insisting that Princeton University—with its battery of diversity programs, its stringent censuring of all communication possibly deemed racist, and its removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from an important building—is a racist institution that needs to deliver itself into the hands of a Star Chamber assigned to police for racist actions and statements. That performative nonsense comes from the same well as Dolezal’s phony reports of discrimination and Krug pretending to have been asked to clean up after a conference hotel meal.

This points to why the paranoid style took over progressive politics as a whole—it opens up access to power in a manner that the reparative style will never accomplish.

Margaret Thatcher famously observed that the problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other peoples' money. It looks as though that the problem with social-justice culture is that eventually you run out of other peoples' vicitimhood. That necessitates the Imagined Third Party, on whose behalf we must prevent the bad surprises. But it is the social-justice equivalent of money-printing, and it commensurately results in social-justice inflation. Finally you can't put on an exhibition of anti-racist paintings by an anti-racist artist because of anti-racism. Kaywin Feldman's account of credibility is now denominated in Venezuelan bolívares soberanos.


On the Guston cancellation, Peter Schjeldahl concluded:

Art goes on. Art that is transgressive will recur. But it will do so nakedly for anyone who chooses to characterize it, not only for those initiates who congratulate one another on their shared investment in standards of truth, beauty, and good conscience. Cold winds are blowing from the future onto aspirations to provide society, or even segments of society, with a capacity to bridge differences with mutual respect. I’ve often reflected that uses of “we” in critical writing are unavoidably presumptuous, though they are rhetorically meant only to invite, or perhaps to seduce, agreement. I’ve never felt less confidence in the pronoun, at a time of alienations that recall what W. B. Yeats perceived in another pandemic year, 1919: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

As I put it in Democracy Is Killing Art, 2015:

Here we have to confront the possibility that an egalitarianism which accepts multiple systems of belief is incompatible with a sense of civilization—not as an abstraction, but as a particular belief system to which one can ascribe and thus belong. I am not talking about belonging to civilization, but belonging to a civilization. Equality, democracy, social or economic justice of the remedial varieties, relativism, inclusiveness, and participation ultimately contradict that larger structure of continuity.

For that matter, a gaggle of lesser minds owes Jed Perl an apology for scorning this astute admission in 2014.

The erosion of art’s imaginative ground, often blamed on demagogues of the left and the right, is taking place in the very heart of the liberal, educated, cultivated audience—the audience that arts professionals always imagined they could count on. The whole question is so painful and so difficult that I have frankly hesitated to tackle it. It is relatively easy to point to the deformations of art at the hands of politically correct left-wingers and cheap-shot moralists on the right, as the late Robert Hughes did in the fast-paced, witty series of lectures that he published as Culture of Complaint in 1993. It is far more difficult to explain why people who pride themselves on their carefully reasoned view of the world want to argue that art is not a value in and of itself, but rather a vehicle or a medium or a vessel through which some other human value or values are expressed. That these thoughts are often voiced indirectly makes them no less significant. Indeed, such thoughts may be all the more significant because they are being expressed by critics and scholars who would deny that they are in any way discomfited by the unique powers of the arts. An illiberal view of art is gaining ground, even among the liberal audience. This is one of the essential if largely hidden factors that is undermining faith in our museums, our libraries, our publishing houses, our concert halls, symphony orchestras, and theater and dance troupes.

Davis, via Sedgwick, points out a path to recovery.

Alternatively, once you think about “paranoid reading” as a particular critical habit of mind, then maybe it’s possible to claim reparative alternatives without them being framed only as a conservative “return to pure art.” It is possible to think of art less as imposition of propaganda—good or bad—and more as an opportunity to build forms of dialogue about important matters that are less self-isolating. But frankly, I don’t know if professional museums (or professional art commentators) have the credibility to pull this off, given how high the stakes have become. For his part, Robin D.G. Kelley was calling for community-based study groups as the basis for “intellectual communities held together by principle and love” as the lever that might shift discourse in a productive direction.

Particularly those professional art commentators who don't evince the slightest respect for any conservative or libertarian walking the earth, I'm sorry to have to point out. But the problem is much bigger than that, because it will require people who are prepared to give up paranoid readings even if it means surrendering the associated access to power. And I think that a lot of people in the art world and beyond it are addicted to that power in a way that makes heroin look like chewable baby aspirin.




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