On Abolishing the Museums; Or, Imagine You're a White Woman
Post #1894 • June 7, 2021, 12:42 PM
Imagine that you're a white woman in 2021 in America. Consequently you're the most pathetic creature walking the earth. Not to me! I believe in existential equality. I hold that you, like everyone, are a spark of light in God's infinite luminosity. Rather, your progressive cohort thinks that you rate lower than dog food. Psychiatrist Aruna Khilanani, lecturing recently at Yale's Child Study Center, said, in so many words, that she wants to unload a revolver into your head. She even hates the way you eat.
For example, for white women, I do help a lot with passive-aggressiveness — not being able to use their voice, say things, feeling like there will be a negative consequence. White people have an intense level of guilt. I have never seen a level of guilt that I see among white people. I mean, white people don't eat bread. Think about that. There have been wars all over the world over grains and bread and only here, white people are depriving themselves. Think about that shit. Everyone has this gluten allergy and you're like, what the fuck is a gluten allergy? That's a psychosomatic symptom. If you actually talk to a GI doctor, they're going to say, “Well, there’s Celiac and there's everything else” with a wink, and you know what the “everything else” is. It’s all the guilty gluten people.
[The interview at that link is worth your time as a spectacle of expert-level manipulation. It is basically this, over and over:
Dr. Khilanani: [says something incendiary]
Interviewer: Well, that was incendiary.
Dr. Khilanani: It's interesting to me that you had an emotional reaction to that. What does that say about you?
That right there is talent. Dr. Khilanani was born to manipulate people. A friend of mine who is following this story suspects that she's Brahmin. There's a phenomenon of Brahmins directing their energies into particularly imperious forms of social justice, without altering their native feelings about the lower castes. That goes for the Boston-style Brahmins as well.]
According to Dr. Khilanani, you're not afraid of having your career or social circle destroyed because it might go public that you're not on board with every aspect of progressive ideology, even as it wiggles into new shapes like liquid mercury. You're merely afraid of being judged. What does that say about you?
Vilification of white women has been going on since the pundit class excoriated you for getting Trump elected. Since you voted for Clinton you didn't take it personally. But things have been different ever since a serial malcontent who had eaten enough fentanyl to euthanize a giraffe died under the cruel knee of a serial malcontent whose Democratic Party overseers ignored seventeen prior incidents of misconduct whilst on police duty. Now you have no credibility whatsoever. You are connected, if only by free association, to the sordid history of anti-black prejudice in this country. Your white silence is violence. Also you should be quiet and let women of color speak. Obviously contradictory directives like these and others turn social justice into a social minefield. (The essay at the latter link quotes a line from Pat Parker, "The first thing you do is to forget that I’m black. Second, you must never forget that I’m black." Cue the knowing nodding of white heads, pretending to have penetrated this race koan.) But you bear it because you don't want to be one of those white women who, you know, notices this.
Imagine further that, unlike other white women, your mediocrity burst into full bloom as soon as you could adequately fill the cup of a brassiere. You were one of the creative kids at school but your ambition to make things was too slight even to justify the study of graphic design. Besides, you figured out in your freshman year of high school how to get an A on a paper. It wasn't especially easy. In fact it was pretty boring. But the method was provided up front and all you had to do was follow it. Paragraph One, state a thesis. Paragraphs Two, Three, and Four, affirm the thesis with evidence drawn from three different sources. Paragraph Five, restate the thesis. Such formulaic competence was enough to get you into an art history program at a university of repute.
Art history turned out to be as fulfilling as a two-week attempt at lesbianism. The political ambiance of the Department of Art History was another story. Teachers said "fuck" in class and talked heatedly about artists like Janine Antoni as if they influenced the lives of normal people. Your otherwise secular existence soon filled with a polytheistic pantheon of postmodern feminists: Lorde, Butler, Gablik, Spivak. You read them mostly in the form of excerpts and you skimmed a lot, but no matter. You started proudly repeating that Artemesia Gentileschi was a better painter than Caravaggio, as if you had ever thought of what that might mean, exactly, or held any further opinions about the Italian Baroque.
This education prepared you for nothing. (That was not entirely the fault of the education.) But your ability, honed in high school, to discern what the power structure required of you enabled you to intuit how to get an A on a university-level paper: Simply absorb your teachers' radical politics (actually, nothing about them was radical, they were conformant as far as academia was concerned) and declaim accordingly at whatever page length was assigned. Ironically, that was easier than the high-school five-paragraph essay, it was just more time-consuming.
You likewise discerned that all the juice, the oomph, the quick of the current moment lay in the new politics of identity. Viciously declarative, revisionist in the faux-revolutionary way that feminist art history is revisionist, it didn't need to be intellectually defended if you invoked it with enough vigor. This played to your strengths, such as you had them. You were incapable of top-tier scholarship. The horrifying economics of advanced studies in the humanities threatens to flatten anyone not destined for academic stardom. The whole system was a patriarchy anyway, or so you told yourself when you washed out of the PhD track.
Nevertheless you are obliged to remain art-adjacent. Tackling politics more broadly would require knowledge of history to which you were never exposed. You are, after all, still a white woman. Your low-status identity in the progressive hierarchy doesn't let you opine on general political matters, as you can't cite "lived experience" in ostensible support of your remarks. (The news about Jessica Krug hit you hard. You're not enough of a climber to fabricate a higher-status identity from scratch and ride it all the way to a professorship at George Washington University, but you understand her motivations only too well.)
What to do? As before, you scry the zeitgeist for instructions. You take the example set by Cancel Galleries and run with it. The result is "We Should Abolish Museums Now." Your new bio at Hyperallergic reads,
[So-and-so] is a recent graduate of NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study where she created a concentration in Art Stewardship and Museum Abolition. When she isn't writing or thinking about art, [so-and-so] writes poetry, reads, and chats with her friends.
Even I admit that there's something beautiful about so enthusiastically embracing your banality that your author's bio lists chatting with friends as a notable feature of your life. You are a spark of light in God's infinite luminosity! I stand by that. Alas, you still kind of suck.
The subtitle of "We Should Abolish Museums Now" is "That is, we should remake and reimagine the museum." We haven't even gotten to your byline and you have already chickened out. This is sad, but you're only following the model of the activists who called for abolishing the police and then backpedaled to say that what they really wanted was police reform. The police abolition hardliners were so appalled by the squishes that one of them took to the New York Times to say "Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police," spouting the kind of revisionist history in which the Times has come to specialize. (See, e.g., the 1619 Project. The essay at the prior link about police abolition asks "What about rape?" in a police-free society. The answer, "The current approach hasn’t ended it," is frighteningly inadequate.) You're a squish. This is why the higher-status identities in the progressive hierarchy hate you—"white women sold us out again" and all that. If you want to avoid their withering judgment—which, remember, Dr. Khilanani says is your core motivation—you are going to have to be as batshit as Dr. Khilanani. "Yes, I Mean Literally Abolish the Museums."
Instead you let a woman of color say it for you. "Today is a good day for museums to die," proclaims the introductory quote. This is the utterance of one Dr. Porchia A. Moore, whose WordPress instance describes her as an "international keynote speaker, strategist, facilitator, educator, and activist-scholar working in and working with institutions wanting to achieve deep inclusion." Deep inclusion may very well mean that your museum is reduced to a crater and the permanent collection is now decorating the several homes of Patrice Cullors. But you don't see it that way. You see it as a bold statement by a woman who got a PhD in Being Black and is now a professional Black Person. Not even many black people (lowercase) entirely understand what's going on with these characters that populate social justice Brahminism. But you believe that in a perfect world, such scholars would occupy every position from the White House Chief of Staff to the head of your local school board. That would fix things up for sure.
The new museum requires an ethical reorientation from our old ways of thinking, a divestment from a conservationist and capitalist ideology, and a centering of voices previously silenced by the colonial project. People and art deserve a better form of art stewardship.
I'm not going to go through this essay line by line. It's all boilerplate cant that a thousand other white women could have written. If a reader can get through this sentence without rushing ahead to the period...
I am for the elimination of the violence that the museum has consistently deployed against Black bodies, Brown bodies, gender non-confoming bodies, colonized bodies, queer bodies, immigrant bodies, disabled bodies, poor bodies, as well as violence against the cultures that these bodies create and move through.
...then she (the essay is primarily written for other politically compliant white women, secondarily for POC activists in earshot) is as boring as you are. ("Gender non-confoming," sic erat scriptum.) The style is the declarative one that you learned at university. You don't bother to anticipate any reasonable objections to your claims because you have no inclination to entertain them. You could no more carve a copy of Canova's Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss than you could formulate a non-lethal alternative to the capitalist order, or a workable system to supplant "conservationist ideology." You seem to suggest that we should rent out cultural patrimony to the surrounding community until it is too dinged-up to circulate, like it was a Ford Focus from Hertz. We've already established that your acumen for making things is lackluster. This is how you describe yourself:
As a reformed art historian and a White woman who likes to look, I know that the museum and its accompanying conversations can be stimulating and engaging for viewers. I move through museum spaces quite freely; I find deep pleasure in their halls. But that pleasure comes at a price I am no longer willing to pay. In order to move with intention, to create a caring and loving space for engaging with art, I ask myself and my peers to think deeply about what we are protecting when we protect the museum.
One, "reformed" is certainly a gentle way of putting "failed." Two, you're not a White woman, you're just a white woman. Even the New York Times says so. Three, "likes to look" is right up there with chatting with your friends. It distinguishes you from no one and you sound like you're trying to prove that you're not a robot. "I interact with companions for fellowship! I feel satisfaction when I direct my organs of vision at art objects!" Four, expanding on Three, you describe pleasure, moving freely, caring, loving, and thinking in a manner that suggests that you know that you're supposed to be experiencing them, but do so only an an ersatz manner. I get this from (among other things) the repetition of "deep" and "deeply," as if you could make us believe you by way of adding emphasis to declaration. You don't, say, thrill at the dappled textures in Bonnard's Before Dinner at the Met or something specific like that. (Now I'm implicitly telling you how to fake it better. Perhaps I shouldn't. But in fact I've set a trap for you. Think about that, deeply, before you conclude that you've discovered another instruction from the zeitgeist.)
An aside, this business about "deep pleasure" seems familiar. I know it as a line from William Corbett, with whom I connected briefly when he contributed the introduction to the anthology of comics poetry that I publish. That poetry you write when you're not thinking about art or chatting with friends must be... Well, let's not go there.
Take it from someone who makes things: My problems with the institutions are perhaps even larger than yours, though they're not the same ones. But there's a big difference between declaration and construction. Any clever college graduate can call for divestment from capitalist ideology or what have you. You have added to the towering landfill of essays that read, in essence,
The prevailing order is wrong. We should do away with it and replace it with something better. I have no idea how to construct a better order. My track record of making things is nil. But here are some minor examples I like that were implemented by other people. The better order will be based on stuff like that somehow.
Construction is specific. It requires consideration of hundreds, even thousands of detailed choices, many of which are challenging to execute, mutually exclusive, order-dependent, and non-retractable. Failures compound faster than triumphs and come more naturally. Most annoyingly, the choices cause the discovery of aspects of the domain of construction which make earlier choices look faulty in hindsight. Throwing in with abolition may link you to a community of apparent right-thinkers. (Though, honestly, they still hate you and they're going to turn on you one day. To me you're God's light. Somehow so are they, as I have to continually remind myself.) But you're working from a list of complaints and your alternative is missing specific correlations to reality as it actually exists. Your efforts are going to go the way of a band that picks a name before it plays any music.
Abolishing slavery was a great idea because Americans had a template in liberal universalism by which they could integrate the noble and beleaguered children of Africa into American citizenship. (That they botched it repeatedly while following an otherwise correct course testifies to how messy real human lives are. Criticize the track record—it certainly warrants criticism—but do not presume that you would have done better. You would not have.) Abolishing the police is a lousy idea because there is no workable template for ensuring order against violence without some kind of militia. The recent crime spikes in the wake of various defunding movements speak for themselves. (The police abolitionist hardliner linked to above is under the impression that you could flood the lower classes with capital and crime would disappear, but the police are a racist gang and should be scrapped in any case. Under the influence of people like her, $1 billion was struck from New York City's police budget and the results were tested out on this baby.) The call to abolish the museums, particularly coming from you, is an example of the latter kind of abolition. Just because you make nothing doesn't mean that you're entitled to make a mess.
I have two bits of advice. One, get out of art and art-focused activism, and enroll in law school. Your sensitivity to injustice and acumen for discerning cultural norms (however stilted your performance of them) will serve you well there. The field requires you to simulate passionate advocacy on demand, and that's pretty much your entire deal. It will oblige you to work harder than you ever have in your life, but it will spare you from the decades of ineffectual misery towards which you're headed. Everyone from the neo-Jacobins to the conservative vitalists agrees that the institutions are corrupt. You're cheering for the motion of a river that is already heedlessly throwing you down the rapids. The museums are having a credibility crisis because art is having a credibility crisis. While that puts the museums in jeopardy, the art magazines, Hyperallergic more than any of them, could blow away in the next thunderstorm. Save yourself. Those of us who make things do so because not making things, for us, is a kind of death. You need not bother with art. You're not one of us.
Two, anyone who really cares that you're a white woman doesn't really care about you. You are a spark of light in God's infinite luminosity. Treat yourself and everyone else accordingly and all will be well.