Knowing that I’m sticking my head into a lion’s mouth, I feel compelled to strongly disagree with sanctimonious art critics, artists and scholars who have piled on (here, here, here, here and here) against what to my mind was a regrettable-but-necessary decision by four seasoned art museum directors to postpone (not to cancel) their jointly planned Philip Guston Now retrospective.
This cautious move is not, as widely characterized, a cowardly act of censorship; it’s a matter of responsible stewardship during a time of volatile protests that have sometimes turned violent and destructive.
Although the museum directors’ joint statement did not specify what caused them to push the “pause” button, the sticking point was widely believed to be Guston’s off-puttingly comic depictions of Ku Klux Klansmen. The indispensable Peggy McGlone confirmed that theory in her report for the Washington Post:
National Gallery of Art Director Kaywin Feldman said…that the exhibition’s works depicting Ku Klux Klan hoods—more than two dozen such images in all—were seen as troubling in light of the country’s current racial unrest. A second, more pragmatic reason for the delay is the difficulty moving loaned artwork during the pandemic, Feldman said.
In condemning the postponement, critics have been blind to the elephant in the room, which was vaguely alluded to in the explanation issued by the heads of the four museums organizing the show—Feldman of the NGA; Frances Morris, Tate Modern, London; Matthew Teitelbaum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Gary Tinterow, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
They indicated that they still do plan to host the exhibition at a future (as yet unspecified) date, with modifications taking into account recent developments. They explained the reason for revising the show this way:
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 [emphasis added].
But directors discreetly declined to define that difference, other than to take note of “the racial justice movement that started in the U.S. and radiated to countries around the world.”
To put it more bluntly—our nation has been seized by an epidemic of civil unrest, some of it escalating into violence and destruction that could spread to museums. Under these unprecedented circumstances, the first responsibility of museums is to protect and preserve the collections in their care, even if that means temporarily insulating objects from getting caught up in the flames of protest. (This was left unsaid by the museums; it’s my own informed assumption.)
Given the proliferation of recent demonstrations that have devolved into destructive rampages, it is not being overly alarmist to fear that Guston’s cartoonish depictions of Klansmen could provoke potentially destructive attacks on institutions that could be perceived (rightly or wrongly) as racist. Pondering the subtleties of artistic interpretation is not a high priority for passionate activists.
For the purposes of insuring the safety of these or other works, it doesn’t matter that Guston’s intentions in using Klan images were the opposite of racist (as many critics have noted). Born Phillip Goldstein, he was Jewish—a member of one of the groups targeted by Klansmen and other white supremacists. Many American Jews, including other famous artists of Guston’s generation, anglicized their names, sometimes to avoid possible discrimination.
If Guston’s paintings were physically attacked, it wouldn’t be the first time: The Museum of Modern Art’s gallery label for one of the Gustons (shown below) in its 2006 show, Against the Grain: Contemporary Art from the Edward R. Broida Collection, said this:
Hooded Klan figures first appeared in Guston’s works after one of his Los Angeles murals was vandalized by the Ku Klux Klan in 1933 [emphasis added].
Of these figures, Guston said, “They are self-portraits. I perceive myself as being behind the hood….The idea of evil fascinated me….I almost tried to imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be evil?”
Clearly, the curators of the four museums involved in organizing the upcoming show want the potentially problematic paintings to be seen. Harry Cooper, head of the National Gallery’s department of modern art, is particularly knowledgeable about the Klan pictures: In November 2003, when he was curator of modern art at the Harvard University Art Museums, he lectured at the Metropolitan Museum on the subject of Guston’s KKK imagery, in connection with the Met’s showing of the previous big Guston retrospective, organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Another of the curators for the upcoming show, the Tate’s Mark Godfrey, has publicly opposed the decision to delay it. As reported by The Art Newspaper, Godfrey posted this on Instagram about the postponement:
It is actually extremely patronizing to viewers, who are assumed not to be able to appreciate the nuance and politics of Guston’s works [emphasis added].
NUANCE? These critics need to dismount from their high horses and get real: There’s been scant “nuance” in the heated rhetoric that has characterized our “Black Lives Matter” vs. “Law and Order” moment. As Tuesday’s incoherent and rancorous Presidential “debate” made painfully clear, we may need a cooling-off period before rational discourse may resume. (As I write this, the news has just broken about President Trump‘s positive Covid test, with its unknown impact on plans for future debates, let alone the election.)
The opening of the Guston show has now been twice delayed—first due to the Virus Crisis and now because of concerns about how to “contextualize” the Klan images. Like other critics, I’m not convinced that adding more consultants and interpretative materials is needed, except to provide a plausible rationale for the show’s delay, at a time when rescheduling may be prudent for reasons of safety.
In their joint statement, the four presenting museums said that they would “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….We plan to rebuild the retrospective with time to reconsider the many important issues the work raises.”
When I asked for specifics about what the “reframing” and “rebuilding” might entail, an NGA spokesperson replied: “We do not have anything to share at the moment.”
As you can see, among the catalogue’s many outside contributors is Dana Schutz, whose “Open Casket” painting of the mutilated Emmett Till was embroiled in its own heated controversy when displayed three years ago at the Whitney Biennial. (Here’s what I had to say at that time about the Schutz contretemps.)
As it happens, the next Whitney Biennial has now also been delayed, for pandemic-related reasons, and will open in April 2022.
Although it’s been reported that the revised version of the Guston show would open in 2024, an NGA spokesperson told me this yesterday:
I would pause on publishing any dates at this time, as we are working out that exact information.
While I may be sticking my head in the lion’s mouth by bucking the overwhelming consensus of cultural commentators, I’d say that those who insist not only that the show must go on, but that it must go on right now are sticking their heads in the sand. In these edgy times, exceptional care must be taken to safeguard cultural objects that could become trigger points.
That said, there’s a possible bright side to all this: If the exhibition is postponed until the virus threat recedes, with museum attendance returning to near-normal, many more people will ultimately get to see “Philip Guston Now” than would be able to see it now.
At that point, the exhibition could be retitled: “Philip Guston, Finally!”
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