“In a recent interview,” Walker wrote on Twitter, “I used the term ‘tone deaf’ inappropriately & out of context from its literal definition. I am deeply sorry for using this ableist language and apologize to the millions of people with disabilities and the disability community.”
That’s not exactly the apology many in the art world were waiting for. (In an open letter published Wednesday, hundreds of prominent artists, critics and historians — among them Ellen Gallagher, Zoe Leonard, Martin Puryear, Darby English, Joachim Pissarro and Fred Moten — demanded that the museums restore the show to their schedules.)
What’s more, Walker’s apology has left me so confused. Was he apologizing to tone-deaf people, or to deaf people? Because they’re completely different.
“Tone deaf” means “relatively insensitive to musical pitches,” according to Merriam-Webster. Deaf means “lacking or deficient in the sense of hearing.”
Of course, humans have traditionally been allowed to use phrases outside their literal definition, and just as we can say, for instance, that an apology “fell on deaf ears” without causing offense, “tone deaf” also can mean (and I quote, again, from Merriam-Webster) “having or showing an obtuse insensitivity or lack of perception particularly in matters of public sentiment, opinion, or taste.”
It was this meaning that Walker clearly had in mind when he told the New York Times that if the directors of the National Gallery, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts and London’s Tate Modern had not postponed “Philip Guston Now,” they “would have appeared tone deaf to what is happening in public discourse about art.”
Is this “ableist” language? (“Ableism” is discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities). Does using the phrase “tone deaf” warrant an apology of this kind? And what does Walker’s evident belief that it does warrant one suggest about the assumptions, the mind-set of those who decided to postpone the exhibition?
I’ve been thinking about it myself . . .
Compared with the rest of my family (and I share this embarrassment in the hope that others might feel empowered to do similarly), I myself am a little tone deaf. When I try to sing “Yesterday,” for instance, I can’t seem to find the note that starts the phrase “All my troubles seemed so far away.” I watch others and it’s amazing — and frankly a bit unfair: It just comes to them naturally. They don’t even have to think.
Was Walker apologizing for using “tone deaf” on behalf of people like me? I’d love to know. I pondered the question as his first tweet turned into a four-tweet mea culpa. Tweet No. 2 read:
“Since becoming the president of the Ford Foundation, we have committed to advancing justice and dignity for all people. Through this process, I have been on my own change journey to learn & understand more about the critical nature of justice and disability.”
Tweet No. 3: “We are taking steps to center disability in all of our programmatic work to address inequality, our operations and hiring practices, but this is not enough. My use of this phrase as a pejorative was insensitive & undermines our intent to advance justice & inclusion.”
Tweet No. 4: “I am deeply sorry and personally pledge to do better.”
It takes empathy, magnanimity and grace to make a public apology, and I am all for it when it’s called for. But a sense of perspective can also help. Context is everything.
For instance, what else might have been worth addressing in his tweets? Which aspect of Walker’s statement in support of postponing the Guston show might have caused more upset?
Was it the part where he used a term for having problems discerning pitch, which some deaf people might have mistakenly construed as a reference to them? Or was it the part where he offered his support for censoring one of America’s most influential artists, in the process disappointing art lovers around the world, putting freedom of artistic expression in jeopardy, and sending a chilling signal to artists about what will be permissible and what won’t?
We live in a democracy, and it’s okay to have different opinions about Philip Guston and his imagery. Even though he was an avowed anti-racist who has influenced some of today’s most brilliant and politically engaged Black artists, some people are not going to like some of his imagery.
But that goes for a lot of art, and even a lot of great art. What you do, if you’re running a museum and have decided this artist deserves such a show, is what museums are supposed to do: You educate. You inform. You honor the nuance. You don’t just accept, you commit to complexity. Not later, in 2024, but precisely now, when nuance and complexity are being violently expunged from the public sphere and people are shouting slogans and utter garbage, even on the stage of a presidential debate. You offer context. You provide warnings and ways out — not just to the public, but also to museum staff who might not feel okay with the imagery.
All of that is doable. All of that should be done.
What you don’t do is give up on art.
“Tone deaf” has its second meaning (with its implications of not being able to read the room) because the literal meaning — a difficulty distinguishing between sonic frequencies — refers to a phenomenon that is about how hard it can be to discern nuances. A phenomenon that is all about how things change according to context, and how, because context is always changing, so are the things themselves — sometimes subtly, sometimes massively.
Science can teach us about this. So can music, self-evidently.
But what else can help us learn as we struggle with the maddening reality of things not being absolutely clear, straightforward or fair, and with all the terrible feelings that come with being an adult in a chaotic, grown-up world?
Art can. Art can take us on this “change journey,” to invoke Walker’s term.
“To know and yet how not to know,” Guston once said, “is the greatest puzzle of all. We are primitives in spite of our knowing. So much preparation for a few moments of innocence — of desperate play. To learn how to unlearn.”
Words are slippery. If one removed the context and superimposed another context, one could object to Guston’s use of the word “primitive” here. But this is where it becomes important to listen to one another in good faith and treat adults as adults.
What Guston was getting at with these words was just what he was getting at with his art, and it is profound. He had a mind — and a level of wisdom — that I want more exposure to, not less.
If nothing else, “Philip Guston Now” would provide an antidote to the kind of infantilizing mind-set that led Walker, a man I admire tremendously, to apologize so fulsomely and absurdly for using the term “tone deaf” when he should have been — at the very least — acknowledging the sadness, incredulity, worry and disappointment caused by his support of a chilling decision.
Enough with apologies. Please, just show the art.