Art exhibit “postponed” because of hooded Klan figures in paintings

The tide of wokeism has come so far into shore that now it’s forbidden to even depict any subject that offends people, even if you’re depicting it to decry, criticize, and demonize bigotry or racism. Or, if you’re doing that, but are not of the “right” race or group to do it, you will still get criticized. That’s what happened, for instance, to artist Dana Schutz, who in April 2017 exhibited a painting at the Whitney Biennial Exhibition depicting the mutilated body of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered by racists in Mississippi in 1955. (His mother, to make a strong point about racial hatred, had an open-casket funeral that displayed his battered corpse.) Schutz’s painting was called “Open Casket.”

Schutz produced a powerful work of art underscoring that point, but she was criticized and demonized by many for her painting. Why? Because Schutz was white and Till was black. That’s all there was to the protests. Apparently, Schutz had the wrong pigmentation to give her artistic credibility. Some even called for the painting to be destroyed, while protestors stood in front of the painting to block people’s view and the painting was not included in a subsequent Schutz subsequent exhibit, being replaced by a placard (see my posts here and here). The behavior of protestors was itself offensive—and unhinged.

Now the New York Times reports the first kind of transgression: an artist decrying racism but, in decrying it, had to depict it in the form of hooded Ku Klux Klan members. The artist was Philip Guston, an influential Canadian artist who died in 1980, after having turned from abstraction to politically-themed representational paintings. And some of the things he represented, and hated, was racism. In some paintings it took the form of robed Ku Klux Klan figures, a group that hated both blacks and Jews (Guston was a Jew whose birth name was Goldstein, and he was also an anti-racist when it came to African-Americans). As the article below reports, this led to a three-year delay in a Guston exhibit scheduled for next year:

The exhibition had previously been described as including Guston’s small panel paintings from 1968 through 1972, a time period in which he was “developing his new vocabulary of hoods, books, bricks, and shoes.” Some of the figures in Guston’s works included cartoonish white-hooded figures smoking cigarsriding in a car, or, in one of Guston’s most well-known works, painting a self portrait at an easel.

As that article reports (click on screenshot below), the delay is solely due to Klan figures in some of Guston’s work:

An enlargement of the painting above:

A Philip Guston retrospective has been postponed until 2024. The delay may have been rooted in concerns that trenchant works like “Edge of Town” (1969), which was shown at the Museum of Modern Art, show hooded Klansmen. Credit: Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

 

The exhibit was scheduled for next year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Those are some major venues, but now the exhibit has been postponed for three years after that. The reason is given in a joint statement by the directors of the galleries, which includes this:

The statement:

After a great deal of reflection and extensive consultation, our four institutions have jointly made the decision to delay our successive presentations of Philip Guston Now. We are postponing the exhibition until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.

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. The racial justice movement that started in the U.S. and radiated to countries around the world, in addition to challenges of a global health crisis, have led us to pause.

As museum directors, we have a responsibility to meet the very real urgencies of the moment. We feel it is necessary to 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.

What, exactly, do they mean “at a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted”? THEY JUST INTERPRETED IT CLEARLY! What they mean is this, “We’re waiting three years to see if all this offense will die down.”

One would think that the resurgence of a racial justice movement would make the display of antiracist paintings even more pressing, but that’s not the way the world works these days. Even the depiction of a racist figure to denigrate it is off limits; it’s as if the museum directors (who are supposed to be advocates of free speech through art) wish to efface the idea that there even is or was racism!

Fortunately, sane people have pushed back on the delay, including Guston’s daughter as well as one of my Chicago colleagues:

Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, who wrote a memoir of her father, said in a statement that she was “deeply saddened” by the decision from the museums to postpone the exhibition, writing that her father had “dared to unveil white culpability, our shared role in allowing the racist terror that he had witnessed since boyhood.”

“This should be a time of reckoning, of dialogue,” she wrote. “These paintings meet the moment we are in today. The danger is not in looking at Philip Guston’s work, but in looking away.”

She noted that her father’s family were Jewish immigrants who fled Ukraine to escape persecution and that he “understood what hatred was.”

. . . and an art-history colleague here:

Darby English, a professor of art history at the University of Chicago and former adjunct curator at the Museum of Modern Art, called the decision by the museums to delay the Guston exhibition “cowardly and patronizing, an insult to art and the public alike.” He called the artist’s works “counterintuitive” and “thoughtfully created in identification with history’s victims.”

“It should be part of one’s attitude to see them as opportunities to think, to improve thinking, to sharpen perception, to talk to one another,” Professor English said of the works in an email. “Not to grimly proceed with one’s head in the sand, avoiding difficult conversations because you think the timing is bad.”

I must email English and thank him for his stand. I agree with every word of his statement. “Cowardly” and “patronizing” are especially apposite.

Finally, the Times notes two other instances (beside Schutz’s painting) of shows canceled or redacted because they depicted bigotry—in a negative way:

But art museums have in the last three years increasingly found themselves on the defensive for showing works that depict polarizing subjects and racial violence. Some observers have protested the showing of work considered traumatizing to communities scarred by that violence; others have objected that institutions put that pain on display gratuitously. Recently, some work has been removed from major exhibitions.

. . . [in 2017], in Minneapolis, the Walker Art Center, removed a work by the white artist Sam Durant, called “Scaffold,” a gallows-like sculpture intended to memorialize several executions, including the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Minnesota after the United States-Dakota war in 1862, after local Native American communities objected to it.

Just this summer, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland canceled an exhibition of the artist Shaun Leonardo’s drawings of police killings of Black and Latino boys and men after several Black activists and some of the museum’s staff members objected to it. The artist called the move censorship; the museum’s director, Jill Snyder, later apologized to Mr. Leonardo for canceling the show, saying “we breached his trust, and we failed ourselves.”

Nearly two weeks later, she resigned.

The words that now make art curators quail are these, “That art offends me!”  But that’s ludicrous, for art prompts emotion, and some of that emotion will be offense.

The history of art is littered with people who deemed art in a new style, or art that depicted “unpleasant” subjects, as unacceptable. This is just one more case. But in these cases the art that offends is art that agrees with the ideology of the offended! The offended are acting like spoiled children having tantrums, and we shouldn’t pay attention to their beefs, as they are prima facie unhinged. Nor should the curators truckle to the offended mob. That will lead to all art becoming bland, homogeneous, and afraid to tackle certain subjects. We’ll be left with galleries full of pictures of dogs playing poker (or is that an offense to dogs?).

h/t: cesar

41 Comments

  1. Posted September 26, 2020 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Ah, the lefty fascists strike again. Is there any party/movement in moden day that isn’t batshit crazy? Seriously though….I’m asking for someone.

    • Posted September 26, 2020 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      At this point I’m asking that too. All the while knowing I must vote and will vote for the only person we can vote for.
      Gah.

  2. Tim J Reichert
    Posted September 26, 2020 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Everyone watch The Producers quickly before it gets disappeared.

    “Springtime, for Hitler, and Germany.”

    Satire is dead and woke has killed it.

    • BJ
      Posted September 26, 2020 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      Funny you should mention that. Over the last month or so, I’ve been buying up box sets of my favorite TV shows and movies that have what’s now considered “problematic” content. Once I saw that shows as recent and progressive as 30 Rock and Community were deleting entire episodes from both streaming services and digital purchases, I realized I better snatch up previously produced sets of my favorite shows before the new, “purified” versions are released. 30 Rock completely memory-holed six episodes from its run. They only exist on older disc releases and illegal downloads now. The Office (American version) is “editing” some of their episodes.

      Man, 30 Rock was a great show. I’m glad I was able to pick up a complete set of it.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 26, 2020 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        You see that our boy Brendan Gleeson plays Donald Trump in the James Comey movie that premiers on Showtime tomorrow?

        • BJ
          Posted September 26, 2020 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

          Yeah. I can’t say I’m thrilled about it. You know I adore Brendan Gleeson, but I’ve never liked actors doing portrayals of big (in this case, in more ways than one!) political figures with very particular mannerisms. I trust Gleeson enough to make it just realistic enough and stopping before going into the bounds of parody, but the only portrayal in this realm I remember enjoying is Gary Oldman as Churchill. I found Frank Langella passable as Nixon, but he unfortunately fell into that trap I’m talking about in many moments. Oldman’s Churchill is the only one I found basically flawless. It both captured the man and never ventured into that territory of being an impression.

          Oh, and Julian Moore as Sarah Palin in Game Change. Ed Harris was fine as McCain in that, but he landed too far on the other side of the line, failing to really capture McCain’s essence. Still, ’twas a very enjoyable movie.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted September 26, 2020 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

            I thought Sarah Paulson was great as Nicolle Wallace in Game Change. Woody was also damn good as Steve Schmidt.

            And speaking of Gary Oldman, I thought he was great as Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK. When I ruminate on the people surrounding the Kennedy assassination — as I am frequently given to do — I’m not sure if the image in mind’s eye is of the real Oswald or Oldman.

            I generally agree with you about actors playing public figures but, off the top of my head, I can think of a handful of other exceptions. The Brit actor Michael Gambon was really good as Lyndon Johnson in Path to War. (Bryon Cranston played a pretty credible LBJ, too.) And Gary Sinise was great as the lead in George Wallace (a role he reprised in the Johnson movie Path to War). Also, David Oyelowo was great as MLK in Selma.

            As for Nixon, I liked John Cusack’s version in The Butler (in which I thought Jane Fonda was an inspired choice to play Nancy Reagan). FWIW, Dan Heydaya was pretty good as Nixon, too, in the comedy Dick.

            And, while I’m old, Beej, I’m not old enough to speak to how well Nick Nolte captured TJ in Jefferson in Paris. 🙂

            • BJ
              Posted September 26, 2020 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

              I agree with you about all those other actors in Game Change. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any of the other movies you mentioned, except for JFK (for which I’ll never forgive Oliver Stone, spreading conspiratorial propaganda so effectively that “back and to the left” has become a simple part of conspiratorially-minded people’s argot — but he’s Oliver Stone, so I’d expect nothing less) and Dick, and I agree that Dad Hedaya played the role perfectly for what the movie was.

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted September 26, 2020 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

                Also, now that I think of it, Josh Brolin was pretty good as Dubya in W..

                JFK was absolute crap history, but fine cinema. Quite the ensemble cast (though I thought Kevin Bacon stole the show in his quick turn as the male hustler “Willie” O’Keefe, as did John Candy as the corrupt lawyer “Dean-o” Andrews).

                Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison kinda reminded me of Eddie Albert in the old Green Acres sitcom — the befuddled straight man surrounded by a revolving cast of weird characters, like Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Bertram, and, of course, Joe Pesci as David Ferrie.

                And Sissy Spacek was complete window-dressing as Garrison’s wife, but I gotta say, she’s never looked better than in those flouncy pastel New Orleans get-ups — as tasty a confection as a platter of warm beignets from Cafe du Monde. 🙂

              • BJ
                Posted September 26, 2020 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

                The only comparable I can think of for Sissy Spacek when it comes to looks is Mariel Hemingway: she’s absolutely gorgeous in some flicks, and in others she looks downright weird.

            • BJ
              Posted September 26, 2020 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

              And what more can one say about Gary Oldman beyond “he’s a master”? From portraying historical figures, to drama, to comedic repartee and deep thought (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), to even upstaging Alec Guiness as Geroge Smiley, the man is one of the greatest actors to ever grace the screen or stage.

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted September 26, 2020 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

                First thing I saw Oldman in was as Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. Anybody can go from Sid Vicious to Winston Churchill has got some range.

              • Stephen Mynett
                Posted September 27, 2020 at 5:39 am | Permalink

                Oldman is good but difficult to say he upstaged Alec Guinness as Smiley, while he was very good in the role the film was a dreadful adaption of the book, the BC series was far better and stuck to the original plot.

                It is a shame the film was so bad as it would be good to see Oldman playing Smiley with a decent script to work from. The Honourable Schoolboy would be an interesting book to try, although from its length it would need to be a mini series, like the BBC Smileys.

              • GBJames
                Posted September 27, 2020 at 8:45 am | Permalink

                I’ve got the old Alec Guinness versions on DVD but haven’t seen the more recent Oldman film version of Tinker…. I think it is available on Netflix so I’m going to check it out. I hope I end up disagreeing with your opinion of it, Stephen. 😉

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted September 26, 2020 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      The satirical puppet show Spitting Image is making a comeback in the UK.

      Here’s the official trailer (warning: NSFW):

  3. Posted September 26, 2020 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Exhibit postponed on account of cowardice.

  4. BJ
    Posted September 26, 2020 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    A three-year delay just means “long enough for everyone to forget because we’re not going to do it.” Just like all the Amazon commercials I’ve been seeing lately, with the guy who’s the head of their environmental conscientiousness division (or whatever they call it), claiming that Amazon will be completely carbon-neutral by 2040. Twenty years from now, when nobody will remember that they said it.

  5. rickflick
    Posted September 26, 2020 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Good grief! I’d like to sleep for 5 or 10 years. Wake me when it’s over.

    • BJ
      Posted September 26, 2020 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      Imagine falling into a coma in 2010 and waking up today! You go to sleep with Obama as President, the economy recovering, and things seemingly generally pretty good; you wake up to “woke” culture and Trump as your President (among other things). And then you start learning more, like what happened with the Supreme Court in the last few years, the obstructionism of the Republican Senate under Obama and its rubber stamp for Trump, COVID-19…

      I can’t go on listing things.

      I’m too depressed now.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 26, 2020 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

        I feel responsible for triggering you. I should have kept my angst to myself. Sorry (I was born in Canada, so the “sorry” comes naturally). 😎

        • BJ
          Posted September 26, 2020 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

          Good thing you’re not my professor, or you would have been fired an hour ago!

    • jezgrove
      Posted September 26, 2020 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      “Wake me up when it’s all over”? I can’t promise that, but have this instead: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=NU9JoFKlaZ0

      • rickflick
        Posted September 26, 2020 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

        Maybe in 5 or 10 years, there will be no more wars. If that’s not the case, don’t bother to wake me. I’m getting pretty long in the tooth anyway.

    • GBJames
      Posted September 26, 2020 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      Jeeze. I read “Woke me when…”.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 26, 2020 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

        I almost wrote that.

  6. anthonyherbert2014
    Posted September 26, 2020 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I was lucky enough to see a Philip Guston exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England early in February this year.
    The exhibition explored Guston’s enduring sensitivity to the world around him and the tumultuous events that he lived through in the 20th century.
    Very sad that this should happen.

  7. dd
    Posted September 26, 2020 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Guston is one of the key artists of the mid/late 20th century.

    This so-called postponement is in fact a cancellation.

    Mark Godfrey of the Tate, the chief curatorial guide of the exhibition, has a private Instagram account. But he will quickly give you access. It is worth reading his statement.

    The directors of these museums were, as directors seem to be, spineless. But also insulting as they very subtly denigrated the curatorial work done as being narrow in its voice.

    Link to Godfrey Instagram account…

    https://www.instagram.com/p/CFjVJxsF4phR-wHt8bBi050b2X7ASd6-__A10U0/?igshid=1gphguiyd9jx3&fbclid=IwAR27Y2-KPN79D1vKD5Io7Ii4GN1r39hnn9E2YacNO3mXsQfOUSXk288BewY

  8. Posted September 26, 2020 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    When creatively identifying with people of other races becomes the #1 cultural sin, we’ve pretty much lost everything the Civil Right movement had attempted. It’s particularly disheartening that people who ludicrously call themselves “progressives” are leading this regressive stampede to undo everything that movement stood for.

  9. Posted September 26, 2020 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    “. . . [in 2017], in Minneapolis, the Walker Art Center, removed a work by the white artist Sam Durant, called “Scaffold,” a gallows-like sculpture intended to memorialize several executions, including the hanging of 38 Dakota men in Minnesota after the United States-Dakota war in 1862, after local Native American communities objected to it.”

    While I’m generally against these cancellations, this one sounds like it might have been the right thing to do. I can see that people might not want to have the execution of their ancestors paraded before their neighbors. Of course, the offended don’t need to attend but it does seem like they might have a valid case.

    • GBJames
      Posted September 26, 2020 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, but I think that’s silly. Which descendant gets to decide for the rest of them?

      • Posted September 26, 2020 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

        I can understand someone taking the opposite view, but your argument is what’s silly. That the decision has to be made for everyone is often the case. Decisions are made by groups all the time. Some like the result and others don’t.

        It’s surprising you would say this on the eve of an important election. Which voter gets to decide who’s President for the rest of us? I do, of course. 😉

        • GBJames
          Posted September 26, 2020 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

          Is there an election/poll of descendents that determines whether the art is acceptable or not?

    • Posted September 26, 2020 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

      You scuppered your own case, I think, when you said “the offended don’t need to attend”. Indeed! But then you suggest that because the offended might attend and be offended, NOBODY should get to see the art. As Hitchens said, though, “I’m offended is not an argument.”

      The argument is the artwork itself.

      • Posted September 26, 2020 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

        Is there no limit to that rule? Or when a large number of people take offense, and it is justifiable, can enough offense cause cancellation? I am certainly not going to argue the Dakotas’ case as I don’t know enough about it and they weren’t my ancestors.

        I suppose the real difference is that the complaint should be made as a request which will be weighed by appropriate parties and may or may not be honored. The Woke, on the other hand, seem to feel that all offense must be honored with no exceptions. That’s ridiculous.

  10. Posted September 26, 2020 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    So an exhibit of Norman Rockwell’s great painting “The Problem We All Live With” would be out of the question right now!

  11. Doug
    Posted September 26, 2020 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Ferris State University in Michigan has a “Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia” featuring anti-black items from America’s history, from lawn jockeys to KKK robes to “Whites Only” signs. The Museum is curated by an African-American sociologist. Remember that Obama poster that featured his image with the word “Hope?” They have a parody; it says “Rope” and shows him with a noose around his neck.

    I wonder how long this will remain open before the Wokies shut it down?

  12. Ray Little
    Posted September 26, 2020 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Jerry,

    It’s nice to be able to disagree with you for once. Never heard of Guston, though I’m a Canadian, and I think his art is negligible. His KKK pics make the klansmen look, um, sorta cute and harmless. Maybe the museum directors in charge noticed this and decided that Guston’s talent/genius/prominence was not worth the tsuris.
    Dana Schultz’s ‘Open Casket’ was presumably painted to sell, for money, and, I thought, intrusive, (and maybe few decades late). Once again, not that good an artist. She was not, and never will be, capable of adding anything at all to the atrocity that was Emmett Till’s death. I thought the young man who blocked people’s view was saintly, simply for not putting his boot through the canvas. I may have posted that last opinion before.

    • Mike
      Posted September 27, 2020 at 12:19 am | Permalink

      From the Guston wikipedia page:

      “Guston’s artworks are now held and exhibited in major collections worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago…the Metropolitan Museum of Art…the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA),…and the Tate Modern.”

      “In May 2013, the sale of his 1958 abstract expressionist painting To Fellini for $25.8 million set the auction record for a Guston work.”

      Whatever one thinks of his talent, it doesn’t seem accurate to call his art negligible.

      IDK about what kind of social license an artist needs to paint whatever s/he wants. A scientist doesn’t need social license based on her identity to ask questions or do experiments. We do need other kinds of permits and licenses, but they have nothing to do with the identity of the scientist. So it’s a foreign idea. Not saying it’s wrong, just strange.

  13. Posted September 27, 2020 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    Amazing how in 20 years or so this stupid censorious nonsense has “switched sides.”
    In those days a pig in a mayor suit named Giuliani made a big stink about “Piss Christ” a painting of middling value in the name of “decency”.
    Now, embarrassingly, it is the left in charge of this censorship.
    (sigh)
    D.A., NYC

  14. jezgrove
    Posted September 27, 2020 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    The Guardian‘s take on the issue is here: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/sep/26/sense-or-censorship-row-over-klan-images-in-tates-postponed-show

    • jezgrove
      Posted September 27, 2020 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      Oops, since today is Sunday it’s The Observer‘s take (same ownership, but the attempts to change the venerable Sunday publication’s title to The Sunday Guardian, or some such, have failed so far…)


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