This feels like a moment for testing, prodding, questioning. Will the old stars still have luster? Will old styles of provocation still have the power to unsettle us? Will investments made before the pandemic in new buildings, new programs, new blockbuster exhibitions seem worth it?
If I could hopscotch around the world, I would check in on a raft of exhibitions and projects, some of them already open, others still in the offing. But the question would fundamentally be the same: Does this point to a better world, a more equitable, just and fair world? Or is it business as usual?
Let’s start in Egypt. By August of last year, the authoritarian leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi had arrested more than a dozen people for criticizing his government’s response to the pandemic. During the crisis, Egypt mostly carried on with massive investments in infrastructure, including two new museums. In April, in a surreal spectacle complete with specially built trucks, music, lighting and military pomp, 22 mummies from the main archaeology museum in Cairo were paraded three miles through the streets to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. And at some point this year, another massive new museum in Giza, devoted to ancient Egyptian treasures, is scheduled to open. When it does, it will be the largest archaeological museum in the world.
The pandemic was good for authoritarian governments, which used the crisis to consolidate power, arrest opposition, close the free press and articulate new myths of their own competence. The new museums in Egypt are a major testing ground of authoritarian cultural power. The themes, motifs and aesthetics on display when the Grand Egyptian Museum opens this year will tell us a lot about how culture will be used by nondemocratic governments around the world.
I’d also like to visit an important show at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, called simply “Slavery.” Running through Aug. 29, the exhibition is an attempt to probe the human cost of the wealth on which Dutch society is built, wealth that came from trade and colonial ventures, including 250 years of slavery. It surveys narratives recounting Dutch involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, as well as slavery in Dutch colonies in Africa, Asia and South America.
This is an important example of a major legacy institution shining a light on part of its darker history, but there is substantial debate today about whether established museums can reform themselves or need to be dismantled or fundamentally repurposed. This isn’t relevant just to museums or other cultural institutions. It is the same question that democracies face culturally, especially those whose long-standing stability and prosperity is grounded on colonial appropriation, cultural theft and genocide. Among the institutional initiatives included in the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition is the use of some 70 new labels throughout the museum to elucidate the hidden or little-known connections of historic artworks to slavery.
Is that enough? Do institutions seek merely absolution or some deeper change? And what is required of the audience, the tourist throngs that flock to the Rijksmuseum to see the Rembrandts and Vermeers and the masters of the Dutch Golden Age? What would genuine reformation of the audience look like, and how might we measure it?
One way is by tracking the expansion — if any — of audience taste, curiosity and habits of learning and participation. You can’t chart the evolution of audience taste simply by seeing exhibitions or even by eavesdropping in the galleries (though this does give you some fascinating data points). So it will be years before we know the true impact of a series of important exhibitions featuring the work and sometimes the legacy of people of color, female artists and LGBTQ creators. But all of those are high on my list.
I’ve already seen the Julie Mehretu exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (through Aug. 8) and the Senga Nengudi show “Topologies” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (through July 25), both women of color, from different generations. The two shows are bracing, at turns thrilling and quietly absorbing, and both in different ways help rewrite the recent history of contemporary art. But I also want to see “Dawoud Bey: An American Project,” also at the Whitney (through Oct. 3) and such smaller interventions as the Wangechi Mutu installation “I Am Speaking, Are You Listening?” at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (through Nov. 7).
The testing, probing and rethinking that will matter isn’t limited to new work, new visions, new voices. It was a truism of the old art world, perhaps a conceit or maybe a genuine truth, that it forced us into uncomfortable places, challenged assumptions, refashioned basic ways of seeing. The cataclysm of the past 15 months or more calls everything into question. What of the old icons, the voices that made us feel somehow transfigured? How will all of that seem to us today, and tomorrow?
I would end this journey (only to begin it anew) with the Barbara Kruger exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago (Sept. 19-Jan. 24). For decades, many people of my generation have turned to her text-driven work as a breviary of cultural and political insight. Her aphoristic distillation of capitalism, racism, misogyny and other cultural blights defines a certain kind of progressive thinking that is common in large tracts of the arts world. And it does no disservice to Kruger, 76, and in no way minimizes the value of her work to acknowledge that her art became a kind of label, happily worn to mark identity and allegiance, but often in superficial ways. We took her art, composed of crystalline jeremiads rendered in bold sans serif fonts, and slapped it on our refrigerators.
If anyone can make sense of what has happened to us over the past few years, especially during the pandemic, Kruger can. But what matters more is whether the truths she puts forward will be operational in the world or contained within a hermetic, intellectual game we call contemporary art. I want to see Kruger’s work now because I feel I have been waiting a lifetime for her indictment of America to finally be heard and internalized, and everyone is eager not just for the verdict but for some restorative justice.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled artist Wangechi Mutu’s first name. The article has been corrected.