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Flagellants in the Museum

Post #1879 • November 13, 2020, 1:32 PM

I post today to note the arrival of a bounteous gift of background that illuminates the circumstances described in “Some Context Regarding Max Hollein” last year. As you may recall, the new Met director had taken it upon himself personally to assure that the art of Europe and its descendant traditions in America will not henceforth be discussed in overly laudatory terms.

While a regal suit of armor was ostensibly made for Henry VIII’s great campaign to conquer France, for example, Mr. Hollein said, “the truth is, he had gout and could barely walk. There was no way he would ever wear that armor, let alone go into war. It was propaganda. Like George Bush standing on the aircraft carrier, it’s being used for messaging.”

And so on. This is obviously a second-rate mind repeating second-hand ideas, because that is all that the art bureaucracy will tolerate. When the Met’s chairman of the Department of European Paintings took to Instagram to praise Alexandre Lenoir for “battling the revolutionary zealots bent on destroying the royal tombs in Saint Denis” and lamenting “how many great works of art have been lost to the desire to rid ourselves of a past of which we don’t approve,” the implied but obvious reference to statue-toppling in 2020 prompted the bureaucracy to crush him like a bug. (“There is no doubt that the Met and its development is also connected with a logic of what is defined as white supremacy,” mewled Hollein to the mob. “Our ongoing efforts to not only diversify our collection but also our programs, narratives, contexts and staff will be further accelerated and will benefit in urgency and impact from this time.”) This is yet another culture cancellation that AICA-USA should have protested but did not.

Enter a first-rate mind, Pascal Bruckner, whose “The Flagellants of the Western World” just graced the digital pages of Tablet. Bruckner, like Bernard-Henri Lévy, is one of the nouveaux philosophes who broke with Marxism. He has the capacity to understand the issues properly and the backbone to critique the germane concerns. “Flagellants” deals with colonialism, opposition to which is the force that moves Hollein.

A distinction must be made between colonialism, which for us moderns is wrong in principle, like fascism and communism, and colonization, which was diverse and complex, both harmful and beneficent, the story of which emerges from the painstaking work of historians who respect facts and nuances. Colonization did not in all cases prevent the establishment of ties or the maintenance of relations of mutual esteem and friendship a half-century after independence. “Colonialism,” by contrast, is a bit like the draft effect of a cloud after a storm: It never ends; like God, it is invisible but omnipresent.

Even so, how do the consequences fall so heavily on Europe and America, with Europeans like Hollein making an example of themselves with the flogger? Bruckner answers, ego.

Proud to beat its breast ostentatiously, the Old World assumes the universal and apostolic monopoly on barbarism. Its aim is no longer world conquest but to break with history, which nevertheless persists in showing its head on the continent in the form of Islamist attacks directed from the Middle East, the crisis of migrants flocking to its gates, and the aggressiveness of the neo-sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is openly threatening Greece, Cyprus, and France, and is recolonizing Libya, which was only yesterday a possession of the Sublime Porte.

I had to look it up: it’s a metonym for the Ottoman Empire.

But we athletes of contrition believe that we deserve whatever happens to us: The duty of penance is without end and will cease only once the accursed West has been wiped away like a stain from a stainless surface. And yet we have known since Freud that masochism is just inverted sadism, a desire to dominate that is turned against the self.

Europe remains messianic in a masochistic key, militant about its own weakness, an exporter of humility and wisdom. Its apparent scorn for itself is a thin disguise for a major infatuation. The only savagery it acknowledges is its own; it’s a point of pride which Europe denies to others by explaining away their evil actions as products of extenuating circumstances. It sports its malfeasance the way others wear their ribbons and medals.

I commend the whole article to your attention, but I’d like to highlight an important conclusion, that this masochism serves no good cause, not even that of justice on behalf of the oppressed.

History is no longer divided, if it ever was, between sinful nations and angelic continents, accursed races and sacrosanct peoples, but rather between democracies that confess their errors and dictatorships (theocratic or autocratic) that hide them, while cloaking themselves in the trappings of martyrdom. There are no innocent nations, there are only states that do not want to know the truth.

I won’t spoil its magnificent closing paragraph, but it’s my message as well. To it I add that the institutions will lose their few allies if they persist in siding with their enemies. That goes for Hollein, Kaywin “Guston appropriated black trauma” Feldman, Darren “Guston dealt in racist, toxic imagery” Walker, and a whole lot of other art bureaucrats who are taking decolonialism in its American manifestations to the bank. (Fatou Diome, quoted in the article: “The refrain about colonization and slavery has become a business.”) Aside from their short-term personal gain, all this is accomplishing is agreement between extremists in political camps that otherwise oppose one another that the institutions are hopelessly culpable and sclerotic, and it is time for them to die. I find myself wondering whether they are entirely mistaken.

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