This past year has been the culmination of a reckoning for the institutions of the art world, particularly museums. The current delaying of a proposed Guston retrospective brings up again the question of what are museums actually for and how do they function as places where culture is supposed to happen.
There is a lot of talk around the spaces I’m involved with of “hosting the debate” when it comes to conflict and disagreement about works of art. The current social strife has put the lie to museum’s actual capacity to do this: “debates” happen far more quickly than museum programming ever can be organized or structured around and “hosting” assumes that museums are neutral platforms rather than social actors themselves. They are places where certain things can happen and certain other things cannot. As social instruments they stand against change much more than they stand as tools for change. They are ponderous, and in the west, their efforts to shift their message from “worship the treasures we have amassed” to “appreciate the range of human creativity” have failed to change what the essential experience of museum going is. Appreciation is not so very far from worship, and both imply an attitude of servitude on the part of viewers.
Which brings us back around to Guston and the decision to delay the show for four years. The ostensible reason is that because Guston was white the display of his Klan images would be another example of museums displaying and capitalizing on black pain and suffering, without listening to the black people who have actually suffered. I don’t disagree with this in principle, but I do ask what the delay is actually going to do, other than to wait until people are not so direct on their confrontation of institutions that they increasingly see as oppressive. Presumably the people who arranged this show knew the content and knew the conflicts when they started. The catalog contains a number of “responses” from artists that address the complexities of race in Guston’s work already. Why is this okay in a book and not in a museum?
It’s because museums have remained temples in people’s imagination – they are not forums, they are not town halls, they are not sidewalks and they are not bulletin boards. This means that they are particularly bad at presenting works that are internally conflicted, that contain within themselves contradiction. And that is what these Guston paintings are. Guston was a white artist making art about race in a way that revealed his own self loathing, his own disgust with what white people were capable of. And in museums we worship genius unironically. We appreciate, we value. So when when it comes time to deal with race, the onus is put on people of color to describe their suffering and uplift so that a public can value it and in valuing it insulate themselves from the reality of experiencing a particle of the discomfort they have imposed on others. Museums imagine that the simple display of that valuing will shift them from be institutions of oppression to engines of equity. But racism will never be undone until white people acknowledge publicly that they are doing wrong. Until they admit they have been living a lie built on other people’s suffering. And by them I mean me. Half of my family is white and they and I have benefited and continue to benefit from a system of racial injustice that structures all of our current reality. Maybe that is what makes me attuned to the self loathing in Guston’s work. Internalized racism flows through mine and I continually grapple with it. I will say that it is the hardest thing to make legible to other people in displaying my work. And museums still haven’t come close to experiencing that self loathing.
Showing the works of people of color, hosting discussions and forums are programmatic solutions to what is not a programmatic problem. But I have learned from my time in working in and with non-profit arts institutions that they reach for the programatic solution first for the simple fact that it is the easiest, the least painful one for funders and boards and the many professionals that work in these institutions. These past years have shown us that people are done with settling for the scraps of programming. The times demand structural change.
It is not enough to simply value BIPOC people’s words and acts. Institutions need change the way they do business AND acknowledge that they benefit from racism and colonialism. Showing a white person attempting to do that now would jump start those conversations in a way that would be uncomfortable and discomforting for the white people who go to museums and the white people who run them. It would mean taking the work seriously and opening institutions up to real change. It seems to me that it is the fear of that change that is making these institutions back off now. Punting the whole issue for four years isn’t going to make any of the change less urgent. Nor will it make the institutions better equipped to make those changes. They called the show Philip Guston Now. They’re acting like it’s called The Show will Come Out Tomorrow.