That call by NGA Director Kaywin Feldman, made in tandem with the directors of three other major museums who were to host the traveling show, has received support from some. But it has ignited its own controversy, upsetting hundreds of leading artists who revere Guston, an artist whose bravery and self-searching insight made him one of the two or three most influential artists of the past half century. Earlier this month, many of America’s most celebrated contemporary artists signed a petition that called for the show’s reinstatement. “Rarely has there been a better illustration of ‘white’ culpability than in these powerful men and women’s apparent feeling of powerlessness to explain to their public the true power of an artist’s work,” wrote the authors of an open letter attached to the petition.
Is this a problem for the NGA?
It is. Art museums exist, perhaps above all else, to inspire the artists of today and tomorrow. Moreover, as it works overtime to diversify its programming, the NGA will want to work with some of the artists who signed the petition, among them internationally acclaimed Black artists Lorna Simpson, Mickalene Thomas, Julie Mehretu, Deana Lawson, Adrian Piper, William Pope.L and Henry Taylor.
Postponement of the Guston show by the NGA, Tate Modern, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston is the biggest art-world controversy since 1989, when the Corcoran Gallery canceled a traveling exhibition of sexually explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, sparking intense and long-running debates about free speech, obscenity and public funding for the arts. These debates were at the center of what became known as the Culture Wars. They left wounds that never fully healed.
And now the scab has burst open again.
Many of the petition-signing artists have earned acclaim by creating art that is controversial. That’s part of why people think it matters. These artists fear for the current and future viability of their work in an environment that gets more censorious each year.
But the artists are motivated by more than self-interest. They are concerned about the principle. And they are disgusted by institutional hypocrisy.
Many understand racism and institutional bias better than either I or the four White directors who postponed the show. Even those who have benefited from museum support are dismayed.
I asked Martin Puryear, who represented the United States at the 2019 Venice Biennale, and who is African American, about the Guston decision.
“I don’t understand what will be gained by pushing the date for this exhibition years into the future,” he wrote in an email. “Perhaps there are reasons I don’t know about, but for a museum to resist showing such pivotal work for fear of offending amounts to curatorial dereliction of duty.”
Feldman told The Post she can’t put on “Philip Guston Now” “without having an African American curator as part of the project.” She knows the NGA needs to diversify its curatorial staff (she has made progress in less than two years on the job), do better by its largely Black security force and generally re-examine long-held assumptions about race.
But postponing the Guston show is not a step in that direction. It’s a step into confusion and condescension.
It may be that a Black curator would have been useful on the curatorial team from the outset. But why, so many years into the show’s preparations, should so much suddenly hinge on this? The show’s catalogue already has brilliant, supportive essays by two of this country’s most celebrated and politically minded Black artists: Glenn Ligon and Trenton Doyle Hancock. How could a Black curator invited onto the project feel other than tokenized at this point?
Diversification is not an issue of window-dressing — of bringing on a Black curator to tidy up your own mess. It’s an issue of culture change. The most common complaint from people of color on staff at arts organizations, according to Carmen Morgan, director of the nonprofit consultancy ArtEquity, is: “ ‘I was being tokenized again.’ Or ‘I was the only one in a meeting, and everyone turned to me to answer the questions and speak on behalf of the entire community.’”
Such experiences, said Morgan, “can be extremely alienating, and the emotional labor that a lot of the staff have to perform is well outside of their job descriptions.”
To Charles Gaines, the celebrated Los Angeles-based artist and teacher, the postponement is related to museums’ wider failures.
“As institutions face social problems,” such as those highlighted by the killing of George Floyd, “they are ill-equipped to handle them because there is no diversity,” Gaines told me by phone. “They have to invent a population of Black people or minorities and create a narrative about how they’re going to respond. They can’t do it firsthand so they have to create it.”
Feldman has suggested that Guston’s use of Klan-like hoods is the equivalent of using swastikas. And yet many acclaimed, non-Jewish artists have used swastikas in their work, and swastikas, which are also a Buddhist symbol, are all through museums’ Asian galleries. People seem capable of understanding that those images need to be read in context, and no one worries about neo-Nazis finding solidarity with their cause while visiting the galleries.
When Feldman told The Post that “the Klan is a symbol of racial terrorism,” she was not saying anything we don’t know. But Guston’s work is in museums all over the world. So why has this not been an issue before? Why have artists and audiences of all racial backgrounds understood Guston’s artistically profound, anti-racist purposes without trouble, without protests, without feeling the need to cancel him?
The answer offered by Feldman — things are different now because America is different, after this summer of protest — is unconvincing. America is not actually all that different, except in the fantasies of some White liberals and admirably idealistic activists. Nor is it likely to be very different in 2022 or 2024, when the NGA says it hopes to go ahead with the show. It will probably still be what it is today and what it was in 1969, when Guston could no longer bear the racial tension and inequality and began painting his cartoony images.
What is changing, of course, is the (largely academic) discourse around what imagery is permissible and what isn’t — about where to draw the line between imagery that might do harm and imagery that might merely disturb or offend. It is not for me to decide where those lines should be drawn. But it is fair to ask what effect their constant redrawing might have on artistic expression, including on searching, self-lacerating, comical and consciously anti-racist art.
Gaines, who is African American, is skeptical about the existence of more than “a minority of people who would complain” about Guston’s paintings. Museums, he said, are too out of touch to “know what the general opinion about that is.”
Gaines’s critique closely tracks Feldman’s explanation for the decision (“It’s not about the artist, it’s about us,” she told The Post). But it has a sting in the tail.
Gaines believes that museums like the NGA currently have a bifurcated mission. On the one hand, they are charged with preserving and displaying artworks that meet the highest standards of artistic quality. “On the other hand, they are made up mostly of White people who are liberal in their intention, have an interest in advancing social causes and are against racism.”
These two missions conflict, he said, only because the institutions are not diverse in the first place. If the NGA had been showing more great Black artists and had a more diverse and equitable workforce, it would have no trouble fulfilling its artistic mission by thoughtfully presenting Guston’s complex, critical vision. (All great art is complex.)
But because they have failed for so long on the diversity front, their response to the current situation (and here is the sting) is self-interested panic. They won’t present Guston’s art, said Gaines, “because they’re protecting their own interests and using Guston as an excuse to gaslight that fact.”