Illiberalism In The Art World

Large Scale Sugar-Coated Sculpture Displayed In Brooklyn's Former Domino Sugar Refinery

Art critic Jerry Saltz worries that “the decency police” have taken over his field. He ponders why “there’s enormous controversy going on around anyone deemed not to have one’s sexual and racial political papers totally in order, using the ‘proper’ words and designations”:

When I wrote that I didn’t like phenom Oscar Murillo’s gallery-filling David Zwirner chocolate factory, it was said on Twitter that I had “a brown problem”; others threw the word racist around. When I loved Kara Walker’s large sugar sphinx in Brooklyn and wrote that I thought the sculpture should be made into a great float and pulled across the country as a reminder of America’s original sin of slavery, I was said to be “disrespecting” Walker. Amazingly, these comments didn’t stop after Walker herself wrote on Facebook, “I like what Jerry Saltz wrote.” No matter. I was now a “certified racist.”

Since then, I’ve become “sexist,” an “abuser of women,” and a “pervert” for posting on Facebook a graphic picture of a woman’s thrashed behind. The photo was a self-portrait from one of my Twitter friends’ feeds. It’d been posted proudly by her. No matter.

I got scores of Facebook messages from horrified “friends,” and tweets like, “What was Jerry Saltz thinking!” People stormed off the internet in disgust; letters were written to my editor demanding that I step down and asking me to “explain myself.” The strange thing was that I’d already posted dozens of similar and in fact far more graphic images on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram — images from medieval illuminated manuscripts featuring men being castrated, tortured, and set upon by demons, each posted with some idiotic caption like, “This is what art critics do to bad artists.” These images delighted everybody (or seemed to). But when I switched the gender of the “victim” (now female) and the medium (now photography), all hell broke loose, and the decency police descended.

I’ve never said I have good judgment or that my id is pure. But I’d hate to think what these people would say about Humbert Humbert or Raskolnikov. Still, I couldn’t help notice that the next week, when I posted a more explicit image of a rape, hundreds of people on my Facebook “liked” the picture (and over 2,500 on Instagram). It was a detail of a Bernini sculpture. Medium counts. And so does Facebook, apparently (of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, Facebook is by far the most conservative).

He concludes:

If there are only a handful of acceptable ways to express yourself, no one is really expressing themselves at all.

(Photo: People view Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”, a sphinx made partially of bleached sugar on display at the former Domino Sugar Refinery in the Williamsburg neighborhood of the Brooklyn on May 10, 2014. By Andrew Burton/Getty Images. Dish coverage of the sculpture here.)