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Resistance Insistence: Museums (& CultureGrrl) Grapple with Political Turmoil UPDATED

If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. —the late Heather Heyer

Like most of you, I’ve been “paying attention” all week—upset and obsessed with the Charlottesville explosion and its toxic fallout. I’ve finally emerged from my apartment complex’s fallout shelter.

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I haven’t felt up to tweeting, let along posting, on my usual subject—the artworld—since a few hours after I tweeted this about my last blog post on the demonstration in Pittsfield protesting the Berkshire Museum deaccessions:

In a riveting call to action at yesterday’s memorial service for Heather Heyer, her mother used the pulpit to exhort a nationwide audience to “channel that anger…into righteous action.” Many museum professionals are likely to answer that call.

Screenshot from ABC News video of Heather Heyer’s mother, after her address at yesterday’s memorial service

Even before Saturday’s horrific game-changer, some art museums—including major “establishment” institutions—had begun dropping their guard, casting aside their habitual reluctance to risk offending the more conservative members of their culture-loving base and taking political stands.

In a designation that gained no traction, I had dubbed last spring’s Whitney Biennial, The “Resistance” Biennial, for  forefronting “racial tensions, economic inequities and polarizing politics” (in the words of the museum’s own description)—a provocative stance for a museum, about which I had some ambivalence. Now, it seems, Resistance Exhibitions are poised to become the norm, and my own ambivalence has been overcome by my revulsion for a president who, by his words and actions, seems perversely determined to legitimize and embolden the most dangerous, hateful elements of our society.

Museums and their audiences must take care not to contract the disease of virulent intolerance. I’m thinking, in particular, of the still festering controversy over one of the Whitney Biennial’s Dana Schutz paintings—the semi-sculptural portrayal of a gruesome, mournful subject—murdered, mutilated black teenager Emmett Till, viewed in his open coffin, his face swollen with built-up layers of paint and disfigured with a gash into the canvas:

Dana Schutz, “Open Casket,” 2016
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

That painting, to me, was both artistically and politically potent—a standout of the Whitney show. That white artists should be denied the right to address the injustices and atrocities inflicted on blacks—the apparent argument of Schutz’s detractors—seems to me the narrowest, most self-defeating form of political correctness. The campaign to squelch Schutz continues at the Boston ICA (which rightly defended itself and the artist in this statement by director Jill Medvedow).

The battle could soon move to the Midwest, where the Cleveland Museum of Art is planning its own Schutz show at the Transformer Station, a contemporary-art outpost in Ohio City, run as a joint project with museum trustee and donor Fred Bidwell. A CMA spokesperson said that the museum is “developing an exhibition with the artist that will be unique to Cleveland” (dates to be determined). Schutz has local ties, having received her BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art.

My own feelings about the wrongheadedness of Schutz’s tormentors and my support for those who have chosen to show her work haven’t been altered by the polemics. Nearly 80 artist-members of the National Academy (of which Schutz is a member), including several well-known black artists (i.e., Kara Walker, Jack Whitten, Dread Scott), apparently agree with me.

Meanwhile, the Whitney Museum is upping its own political game with a show opening tomorrow—An Incomplete History of Protest, 1940-2017, drawn from its permanent collection. For its part, the Guggenheim, in a blog post today, is trying to recast “America,” the functioning Maurizio Cattelan 18-karat gold toilet (to Sept. 15), as a commentary on Trump. (That’s not how it was originally characterized.)

Maurizio Cattelan, “America,” 2016, installed at the Guggenheim Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Museum of Modern Art seems to have stopped agonizing over alienating those of its visitors and supporters who are Trump backers. Back in January, MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry, answered my question about his museum’s response to growing political tensions by expressing concern about walking the “fine line” between “asserting the values that we believe in and…becoming partisan.” But soon after, his museum inserted in its galleries and lobby eight works from its collection by artists from countries whose citizens were being denied entry into the United States under Trump‘s travel ban.

More recently, in Unfinished Conversations: New Work from the Collection (now closed), MoMA gathered works that addressed “current anxiety and unrest around the world’ and explored “themes of social protest”:

Eric van Lieshout, “Untitled,” 2014, Museum of Modern Art
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Since Anne Pasternak came on board as director, the Brooklyn Museum has been a hotbed of hot-button shows (such as the current Legacy of Lynching, to Sept. 3) and installations, notwithstanding a comment by Alicia Boone, associate curator of public programs, that “as a museum, we’re non-partisan.”

Here’s a highlight from We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85 (to Sept. 17):

Faith Ringgold, “For the Women’s House,” 1971, New York City Dept. of Correction, Rose M. Singer Center
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Coming to Brooklyn from the Tate Modern, Sept. 7, 2018  to  Feb. 3, 2019, is Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, 1963-83, which also travels to Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR.

The old-school Philadelphia Museum will go rogue with Philadelphia Assembled (Sept. 10-Dec. 10), which “tells a story of active resistance and radical community building,” as described in the listing for on the museum’s Upcoming Exhibitions webpage. Touted as “the first exhibition of its kind at the museum,” it is being “realized in collaboration with a network of creators and activists from across Philadelphia.”

I’ve just scratched the surface of Resistance Exhibitions in or near New York City, and haven’t even touched what’s going on elsewhere. I suspect that more and more museums will pile onto this fraught political moment by shoehorning into their schedules and galleries shows ripped from the headlines and assembled on the fly, without the usual lead time.

So consider this post a work-in-progress: If you send me links to information about current or upcoming “resistance” shows at US art museums (by clicking the “CONTACT” button, above), I’ll update here with a live list.


Another Country, Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, to Jan. 7

Kara Walker: Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Oct. 13, 2017-Mar. 11, 2018

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