What I was going to talk about today
My original talk today was going to be a summary of trends and influences in the visual arts and museum sector, from the perspective of Aotearoa New Zealand, as a director and as a member of the Museums Aotearoa board.
But when I sat down to write that talk, it didn’t feel very urgent. Instead, I’m taking this opportunity to try to organise the thoughts I’ve been having recently about the changing cultural moment that museums – and specifically, in my case, art museums – are working in.
Please bear with me, as this territory is complex, and I am still struggling to find the language needed to turn what I am sensing into something I can clearly explain.
Four case studies
2017 and the beginning of 2018 saw a series of controversies play out in contemporary art galleries – situations where artists, activists and indigenous groups protested museums’ activities and decisions. These events have given rise to freshly invigorated discussions about censorship, cultural appropriation, and the power imbalances that pervade society and museums.
To give a brief rundown of a few of the most well-known examples:
Let’s start with Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold, which was to be installed in a massive revamp of the famous sculpture garden at the Walker Arts Centre in Minneapolis.
The work was based on gallows used in seven state-sanctioned executions conducted around the world between 1859 and 2006. This included the largest mass execution in the history of the United States, in 1862, in which 38 Dakota Sioux men were hung in Mankato, Minnesota, an hour’s drive from the museum.
The Dakota community learned of the sculpture only when promotion of its installation began. Dakota people assembled to protest at the construction site, and after a series of facilitated meetings, the museum’s director Olga Viso and the artist agreed that the sculpture and its IP would be handed over to tribal elders to dispose of as they wished.
The museum had failed to conduct any discussions with Dakota groups prior to this. The work had originally been commissioned for documenta 2012, and in an open letter of apology Durant wrote:
I made Scaffold as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists. It has been my belief that white artists need to address issues of white supremacy and its institutional manifestations.
Whites created the concept of race and have used it to maintain dominance for centuries, whites must be involved in its dismantling. However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people.
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Second, Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, included in the Whitney Biennial.
This abstract painting is based on posthumous images of Emmett Till, the black American teenager who was brutally lynched in 1955 after a white woman falsely accused him of flirting with her. Till’s mother, Mamie, insisted that his body be presented at his funeral unembalmed and undoctored; photographs from the funeral ran in two African-American publications.
Schutz’s painting had been shown in Berlin without comment before being presented at the Whitney.
The work triggered a vast array of responses, centred on who has the right to work with which stories and histories, and where the line lies between censorship and perpetuating violence.
Parker Bright, a black artist, conducted a series of peaceful protests in front of the painting, standing before it blocking other visitors’ view, wearing a t-shirt that read "Black Death Spectacle”, livestreaming his protest on Facebook.
British artist Hannah Black posted a widely-circulated open letter online that demanded the work be removed and destroyed. "It is not acceptable for a white person to transmute black suffering into profit and fun," she wrote.
When interviewed while still working on the painting in 2016, Schutz had said it had been made in the context of Trump’s presidential campaign and a media coverage of shootings of black men by police officers. She expressed hesitancy about taking the images of Till’s face as her subject matter, saying to The New Yorker writer Calvin Tompkins “How do you make a painting about this and not have it just be about the grotesque? I was interested because it’s something that keeps on happening. I feel somehow that it’s an American image.”
In a statement following the opening of the Biennial, Schutz said:
I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.
Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.The painting remained on display throughout the Biennial, with alterations to the wall label that noted the protests.
I find both the Sam Durant and the Dana Schutz examples compelling and concerning because in both cases, the artists were trying to use art to think through and present issues of violence, racism and oppression. These were not casually created or presented, or made by naïve people. They were presented at two of America’s leading contemporary art museums. The art works had both been previously presented without controversy. The museums were seemingly unprepared for the response.
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Another example of the use of social media to protest art museums’ activities came in December last year. Mia Merrill started an online petition asking the Met to either take down Thérèse Dreaming, a 1938 painting by Polish artist Balthus depicting his 12 or 13 year-old subject in a dreamy-slash-suggestive pose, or to provide better contextulisation for the work.
Merrill noted that Balthus had a well-known tendency to form relationships with pubescent girls who he used as models and that that it could be argued that this painting romanticises the sexualisation of a child. She wrote:
Given the current climate around sexual assault and allegations that become more public each day, in showcasing this work for the masses without providing any type of clarification, The Met is, perhaps unintentionally, supporting voyeurism and the objectification of children.The petition is thoughtfully worded and Merrill is clear that she is not asking for the work to be destroyed or even necessarily taken down – just that visitors be given more information about the background of the artist who made it.
As with Hannah Black’s open letter, Merrill’s petition occasioned reams of online coverage. Jonathan Jones, an art critic for The Guardian, wrote that if we started removing art from museums that depicts sexual violence – or simply sexual and gender power imbalances –we’d rapidly start running out of things to show. He argued:
Merrill’s petition confuses acts and images in a way that is deeply dangerous. Art and life are related, but they are not the same. A painting is not an assault. It’s just a painting – even when the content and style seem utterly offensive, you can walk away, leaving it to gather dust on the museum wall.Philip Kennicott, the Washington Post art critic, wrote, more cogently:
... the petition goes wrong when it argues that the painting should be removed from view now because of the larger and still unfolding scandals of sexual abuse in the media, entertainment, arts and political worlds. Now is precisely not the time to start removing art from walls, books from shelves, music from the radio or films from distribution. The focus should be on the social structures that perpetuate abuse and the people, mostly men, who commit it.
We must deal with sexual harassment and sexual abuse without losing all that was gained during the sexual liberation of the last century. And we are at a critical moment in that process. Men who would lose everything if their past abuses come to light would love to see this cultural firestorm snuffed out before they are exposed. But there are forces, particularly on the academic left, that reflexively resort to censorship as a quick and easy solution to social oppression.
The danger in the wings is a new Puritanism that would only increase the shame surrounding sexuality (a convenient weapon wielded by abusers) while undoing the painful, 20th-century process of deregulating sexuality from religion and heterosexual male power.
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This year, a fresh controversy has broken out around senior American artist Chuck Close, after a number of women have alleged he harrassed them when they were modelling for him. A New York Times article by Robin Pobegrin and Jennifer Schuessler collected responses from a variety of museum leaders on whether, like Balthus, Close’s work should be taken off display or displayed with a warning.
Jock Reynolds, the director of the Yale University Art Gallery, is quoted as saying:
How much are we going to do a litmus test on every artist in terms of how they behave? Pablo Picasso was one of the worst offenders of the 20th century in terms of his history with women. Are we going to take his work out of the galleries? At some point you have to ask yourself, is the art going to stand alone as something that needs to be seen?And Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s chairman for modern and contemporary art, said:
By taking action in the form of canceling an exhibition or removing art from the walls, a museum is creating an understanding of an artist’s work only through the prism of reprehensible behavior. If we only see abuse when looking at a work of art, then we have created a reductive situation in which art is stripped of its intrinsic worth — and which in turn provokes the fundamental question of what the museum’s role in the world should be.All this has got me thinking
And this is what I am thinking about these days. The fundamental question of what the museum’s role in the world should be. And especially, I have been thinking about that line that has often been trotted out when museums face controversy over the artists that they show and collect: that museums are safe spaces for unsafe ideas.
The Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, is quoted this month in an article by Julia Halperin looking back on 2017’s controversies, saying:
It’s about a contest of ideas—and this is where ideas are displayed and contested and seen, and it’s also, to a degree, safe territoryAll these works – Sam Durant’s Scaffold, Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, Balthus’s Thérèse Dreaming, and yes – Chuck Close, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin; all these works are unsafe in some way. For several decades now we have acted as if somehow museums are a neutralising force, a separate space into which people can enter and somehow engage differently with these works and these ideas than they would elsewhere. And to some extent that is true, and that is what we have taught our audience to expect: it is true, because we have made it so.
But what these examples all show is that museums are still capable of doing violence – unknowingly, or thoughtlessly, or because we value the presentation of art and art history over the individuals, communities and cultures who may have been harmed in its making, and may continue to be harmed in its public display.
We are missionaries for contemporary art, with all that implies – and I think that this the most pressing issue for us to grapple with at this moment.
References that informed or are cited in this talk
Carey Dunne, Why the Rijksmuseum Is Removing Bigoted Terms from Its Artworks’ Titles, Hyperallergic, 22 December 2015
Courtney Johnston, Weekend reading, 15 October 2016 (a round-up of pieces on the protests over Kelley Walker's 2016 survey exhibition at CAM, St Louis)
Randy Kennedy, White Artist’s Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Draws Protests, The New York Times, 21 March 2017
Calvin Tompkins, Why Dana Schutz painted Emmett Till, The New Yorker, 10 April 2017
Olga Viso, Learning in Public: An Open Letter on Sam Durant’s Scaffold, Walker Art Centre, 26 May 2017
Sam Durant, Statement on Scaffold, 27 May 2017
Andrea K. Scott, Does an offensive sculpture deserve to be burned, The New Yorker, June 3 2017
Courtney Johnston, Long weekend reading: The Scaffold issue, 4 June 2017 (a round-up of coverage of Sam Durant's The Scaffold)
Courtney Johnston, Weekend reading: the Confederate statues edition, 18 August 2017 (a round-up of coverage of the protests around, the removal of, and counter-protests against the removal of, Confederate monuments)
Mia Merrill, Metropolitan Museum of Art: Remove Balthus' Suggestive Painting of a Pubescent Girl, Thérèse Dreaming, Care2 Petitions, Decemeber 2017
Philip Kennicott, This painting might be sexually disturbing. But that’s no reason to take it out of a museum, The Washington Post, 5 December 2017
Gina Bellafante, We Need to Talk About Balthus, The New York Times, 8 December 2017
Jonathan Jones, Arguing over art is right but trying to ban it is the work of fascists, The Guardian, 8 December 2017
Lauren Elkin, Showing Balthus at the Met Isn’t About Voyeurism, It’s About the Right to Unsettle, Quartz, 19 December 2017
Robin Pobegrin and Jennifer Schuessler, Chuck Close Is Accused of Harassment. Should His Artwork Carry an Asterisk?, The New York Times, 28 January 2018
Cody Delistraty, The Problem With Chuck Close, The New York Times, 30 January 2018
Linda Holmes, 'A.P. Bio' And The Complications Of Context, N.P.R., 1 February 2018
Courtney Johnston, In this current climate, 6 February 2018 (a round-up of coverage on Chuck Close, and also the temporary removal of John William Waterhouse's Hylas and the Nymphs (1869) from the Victorian galleries at Manchester Art Gallery by artist Sonia Boyce)
Julia Halperin, How the Dana Schutz Controversy—and a Year of Reckoning—Have Changed Museums Forever, Artnet News, 6 March 2018
Various authors, Museums and #MeToo, Walker Art Centre, 7 March 2018
Susan Goldberg, For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It, National Geographic
Siddhartha Mitter, After "Open Casket": What Emmett Till teaches us today, The Village Voice, 12 March 2018
Priscilla Frank, The Museum World Is Having An Identity Crisis, And Firing Powerful Women Won’t Help, HuffPost, 20 March 2017
And a holding place for related discussions after I wrote the talk
Charlotte Higgins, ‘The vitriol was really unhealthy’: artist Sonia Boyce on the row over taking down Hylas and the Nymphs, The Guardian, 19 March 2018