The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can artists right the ills of an unjust world by staging museum protests?

Activists gather in May outside the Whitney to demand that the museum’s board dismiss Warren B. Kanders, the majority owner and CEO of Safariland, which has supplied tear gas that has beenused around the world. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images)
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America’s art museums are becoming sites of protest, increasingly led by ­artists. This is putting museums and their financial backers under ethical scrutiny — a very good thing. But it also risks turning complex issues into self-congratulatory spectacles.

This past week, artists have been withdrawing their work from the Whitney Biennial to protest the presence of Warren B. Kanders on the Whitney Museum’s board. Kanders is the majority owner and CEO of Safariland. Tear gas supplied by Safariland has been used around the world, including last year — shockingly — against asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In an article titled “The Tear Gas Biennial” published last week in ­Artforum, activists Hannah Black, ­Ciarán Finlayson and Tobi Haslett called for artists in the biennial to withdraw their works. Within days, four artists heeded the call, citing the Whitney’s failure to respond “meaningfully” to calls for Kanders to leave the board. Four more artists with work in the show followed suit over the weekend.

The Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, released a statement expressing respect for the artists’ decision. Last winter, in a letter to staff and trustees, he noted that, although the museum has a role in giving a platform to “unheard and unwanted voices,” it “cannot right all the ills of an unjust world.”

The question for many artists has become: Which ills can they try to right?

Moral decisions emerge from private reckonings, from individuals listening to their conscience. It takes courage to act on such reckonings.

But there are also the pleasures of righteousness.

Weinberg is in a bind. He runs a museum that actively promotes liberal causes. This year’s biennial was heavily political and, for the first time, majority women and artists of color. The museum has been brave. It invited the present trouble by including the activist video — “Triple-Chaser” by Forensic Architecture — that crystallized the protests against Kanders.

The drama is still playing out. But the underlying tension here is obvious. America’s great cultural institutions were built and sustained by extremes of private and corporate wealth. Capitalism has always sought to mitigate its worst excesses by recourse to moral money laundering. In the United States, this queasy-making arrangement has relieved governments of the burden of supporting cultural organizations (outside the District, anyway). Overseas museum directors, who spend their lives groveling before increasingly populist and philistine governments, envy this setup. But for American museums, it’s a Faustian bargain, and it’s hardly surprising that, periodically, we have second thoughts.

Such reckonings are valuable. But a bit of self-reflection and a little less naivete might lead the art world away from the moral vanity of righteous gestures and toward the fight for actual ­solutions.

Our global predicament is sufficiently dire and urgent that we need to face it honestly. There are many industries easy to loathe, including Big Pharma, Big Tech, fossil fuels and transportation. But, let’s be honest: If you drive a car, if you fly, if you are on Facebook or Instagram, if you use plastic or painkillers or antibiotics, you have relied on these companies. You are implicated.

Many of us try to assuage our guilt. We separate the recycling. We retweet. We vote. Brave souls do more, often out of the public eye. But let’s be clear: The idea of moral purity in the arts is a fantasy. We are not going to return to innocence by hanging out with like-minded people at the Whitney as we contemplate a biennial where some of the works are poignantly missing.

I hope the drama at the Whitney has positive outcomes. But it is not a revolution. It is a spectacle. It comes in the wake of protests against the Sackler family, whose company, Purdue ­Pharma, played a critical role in the opioid crisis. Those protests, initiated by the photographer Nan Goldin, have had major repercussions. Several international museums, including the Met, the Tate and the Louvre, have announced they will no longer accept money from the Sacklers. This is great news in the fight against toxic philanthropy. The way Purdue Pharma peddled and profited from OxyContin even after the drug was known to be wreaking havoc is a clear-cut case of corporate evil.

But there’s a bigger, more complicated picture. Data recently released by The Washington Post has revealed that Purdue Pharma was responsible for supplying 3 percent of the prescription opioids that flooded the market between 2006 and 2012. Among the six companies that distributed 75 percent of the pills during that period were CVS, Walgreens and Walmart.

Walmart money is behind Crystal Bridges, the Arkansas art museum founded by Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart’s founders. Walton is the second wealthiest woman by net worth in the world. Should artists be showing at Crystal Bridges? Should the whole museum be closed? What about all the good work it has done supporting ­female artists and artists of color?

Capitalist societies make it tough on people with a moral conscience. Conflicts and contradictions are everywhere.

Displays of moral righteousness — lately described as “virtue-signaling” yet often deriving from passion and genuine pain — sometimes overlook inconvenient details. Protesters calling for the removal of Arthur M. Sackler’s name from the gallery of Asian art on the Mall and from Harvard Art Museums in Massachusetts, for instance, appear unmoved by the fact that Arthur M. Sackler died before OxyContin was released into the market. That doesn’t mean he was blameless. Far from it. But he didn’t have the opportunity to make the wrong call in the moral choice that other members of his family faced and failed.

Activists can’t always concern themselves with ethical subtleties. They are savvy about how publicity works, and pragmatically opportunistic in the pursuit of what they feel is right.

On the scales of cynicism, their approach is mild compared with the brutality of corporate spin. But when righteousness turns into competing spectacles, everything becomes about “optics” and it’s easy to lose track of reality.

I admire the protesters who have written essays, signed letters and, in some cases, withdrawn their art. They have been accused of hypocrisy: of pulling out only after the reviews were published and their dealers had successfully monetized their appearances in the show. I think that’s unfair.

But in the present global context, earnest political gestures at art museums can look flimsy, like a game inside a game. Though they may be the best we can do for now, I’m suspicious of the warm moral glow such gestures produce. It suggests that we haven’t yet grasped the reality and scale of our current problems, or art’s fragile relationship to real-world politics.

The right in America distrusts government, and the left distrusts corporations. But we are going to need both to combat our present ills. If there is a useful lesson from the opioid crisis, for instance, it is surely that we should have a smarter drug approval system and tougher laws to prevent egregious profiteering by drug manufacturers, doctors and distributors. Even absent a working moral compass, those companies should never have been allowed to destroy the lives they did.

Likewise, we should recognize that innovative companies, in tandem with scientific research, have improved the world before and must do so again. Solar power, for instance, is about to transform the world’s economy as it becomes cheaper than power created by burning fossil fuels. We are in a global emergency: We should help the companies leading the way here — some of them oil companies — to hurry the process along.

I’m an art critic. My own naivete about politics is bottomless. But if art has taught me anything that’s applicable to the political sphere, it’s the precious value of reality, and the danger of cheap rhetoric. If we genuinely want to fix problems, we could start by rising above tweetstorms, and above the tempting pleasures of righteousness.

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