Illiberalism In The Art World, Ctd

by Dish Staff

Elizabeth Nolan Brown highlights a case of political correctness gone awry at the University of Iowa, where a sculpture of a Ku Klux Klansman was labeled “hate speech” and taken down because apparently the very shape of a racist symbol, even when used to make an anti-racist statement, is now deemed too offensive for college students to handle:

Created by Serhat Tanyolacar, a UI visiting professor and printmaking fellow, the klansman sculpture was decoupaged in newspaper coverage of racial tension and violence throughout the past 100 years. The piece was meant to highlight how America’s history of race-based violence isn’t really history and “facilitate a dialogue,” as Tanyolacar told university paper The Gazette. But no matter: After several hours, UI officials decided that the display was “deeply offensive” and needed to be removed. …

To me, this case provides a good reference point for why we shouldn’t curtail freedom of expression even when it comes from despicable groups like the Klu Klux Klan. When you start casting for exceptions to the First Amendment, you never know what kind of other speech—perhaps speech designed to address the very problems you’re fighting against—will get caught up in the net. Unfortunately, the kids and faculty at UI seem to have learned a different lesson: reacting to the statue as art or as a political statement was a reflection of cluelessness, insensitivity, and white privilege.

Tiffany Jenkins picks up on a similar trend of art censorship in Europe:

The travelling Exhibit B, by the white South African artist Brett Bailey, is a recreation of a human zoo from the 19th century that features 12-14 African performers from the host city and a choir of Namibian singers exhibited as artifacts. It’s meant to provoke a conversation about slavery, colonization, and present-day racism, but many protesters accuse it of being racist itself. In London in September, the Barbican pulled the entire run of Exhibit B after a petition calling on the arts center “not to display” the work achieved 22,988 signatories and criticized Exhibit B as “simply an exercise in white racial privilege.” …

Such debates aren’t new, of course, but there are important differences between the demands for censorship of the past and those of the present. Historically, those calling for censorship were often concerned that an artworkperhaps of a sexual naturewould have a coarsening effect and a negative moral impact. Today’s activists have a different rationale. They argue that they are the only ones who have the right to speak about the experience depictedand thus, have the right to silence those who have no comparable experience. So those protesting Exhibit B suggest they, as members of the black community, are the only ones who can create an artwork exploring slavery and colonization.

Previous examples of illiberalism in the art world here and here.

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.)

Getting Schooled On Athens


Mary Elizabeth Podles walks us through the characters and meaning of Raphael’s brilliant fresco, giving it a theological gloss:

Plato points to heaven; Aristotle points to earth. Plato’s drapery swirls around him on the diagonal; Aristotle wears the colors of earth and water, and his folds fall in a much more orderly pattern of horizontals and verticals. Plato is old; Aristotle is a man in his prime. Plato stands almost on tiptoe; Aristotle is firmly planted on the ground, perfectly balanced but, like a Classical statue, full of potential movement. Plato’s followers are young and passionate; Aristotle’s are older and more sharply contoured, more precise.

So the poetical and heavenly strain of Platonic discourse is balanced by the lucid clarity of Aristotelian investigation. But still, they are linked, the two streams merge:

Plato, whose main concern was ethics, holds a discourse on nature, and Aristotle, whose main interest was the natural world, holds his treatise on ethics. They stand in an archway in a colossal, unfinished building: is this overarching architecture a portrait of the new St. Peter’s rising next door?

The School of Athens is on the opposite wall from the Disputa, and so would have been read as the other side of the dialectic: Classical philosophy, the highest manifestation of the natural religions on one side, and Christian theology on the other. If the Disputa is the apse of a basilica, is this picture not the nave, so that the philosophy of the ancients becomes the path that leads to the altar where philosophers and theologians meet, where all human thinking finds fulfillment?

You can see a close-up of the work, including labels for all the key figures depicted, here.

(Hat tip: Micah Mattix. Image of Raphael’s The School of Athens, circa 1510, via Wikimedia Commons)

“The Death Of Klinghoffer” Lived

John Adams and Alice Goodman’s 1991 opera explores the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound American Jew who was killed during the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by members of the Palestine Liberation Front. The Metropolitan Opera’ new staging of the play opened on Monday night, but long before the curtain was drawn, the drama had already begun, as the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations (and some guy named Rudy Giuliani) protested the Met’s decision to stage a show that they claim has anti-Semitic overtones and tries to justify an act of terrorism:

Angry protesters gathered across from the Met on the opening night of the opera season last month; a pair of public talks with members of the “Klinghoffer” creative team were quietly called off; and Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said that he had received threats related to the production. He recently sent an email to the opera’s cast expressing regret that they had been subject to “Internet harassment” and defending the work from its critics, according to a copy obtained by The New York Times. Many Jewish leaders, including liberals and conservatives, are finding themselves drawn into the debate. The Met’s attempts to calm things by canceling a planned transmission of the opera to movie theaters around the world this fall accomplished little — and may have fueled more criticism. Now “Klinghoffer” threatens to become the Met’s most controversial company premiere since 1907, when Strauss’s “Salome” was deemed outrageous and banned for decades.

Alex Ross, vitally, reveals the hateful illiberalism of the opera’s prime critic:

The most aggressive rhetoric came from Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a money manager who has also worked as a political operative. A few years ago, Wiesenfeld won notoriety for seeking, unsuccessfully, to deny the playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree, on account of Kushner’s criticisms of Israel. Wiesenfeld led the “Klinghoffer” rally, and he had much to say. “This is not art,” he thundered. “This is crap. This is detritus. This is garbage.” He declared, as he did at an anti-“Klinghoffer” event last month, that the set should be burned. He made a cryptic joke to the effect that, if something were to happen to Gelb that night, the board of the Met would be the first suspects.

Burning the set?

Paul Berman, in his review of the opera, gets why it’s so controversial but doesn’t quite agree with the protesters:

I can see why, in gazing on what they have wrought, Adams and his librettist must feel that, all in all, they have been badly misunderstood by their detractors, and that, in fact, they have presented a subtle and nuanced picture, not romantic, not apologetic, but intent on showing why, at times, decent people do sometimes sink into degraded hatreds and gratuitous violence.

And yet, in regard to seeking out everyone’s humanity, The Death of Klinghoffer seems to me to run aground on a philosophical shoal. Everything in the opera hangs on the validity of the “root cause” explanation—on the assumption that Palestinian terrorism and violence result from the dispossession of 1948, which means that reasonable or “human” traits attach to even the ugliest aspects. But something in that assumption ought to be questioned. Many millions of people and entire ethnic and religious groups were displaced and exiled in the course of the turmoil that accompanied the end of World War II, and not all of those millions responded by forming terrorist movements, and this reality may suggest that something else, apart from suffering and dispossession, is required for terrorist crazies to emerge.

But Frank Rich rolls his eyes at the scandal, noting that the opera’s loudest critics haven’t even seen it:

Klinghoffer has zero anti-Semitism. It does have what Justin Davidson of New York has accurately described as a “clumsy libretto” — dramaturgically diffuse, often lyrically banal — though it is far more lucid in this gripping, beautifully sung Tom Morris production than it was in Peter Sellars’s original at BAM. Not for a second does the opera present the terrorists as anything other than cold-blooded killers — in Adams’s score and the staging as well as in words — and not for a second does your heart fail to go out to their victims, led by Leon Klinghoffer. The performance ends with a wrenching solo by the widowed Marilyn Klinghoffer — “They should have killed me / I wanted to die” — and, as Alex Ross of The New Yorker tweeted Monday night, “In the end, the protest failed completely. Marilyn Klinghoffer had the final word, and John Adams received a huge ovation.”

Moustafa Bayoumi argues that the opera is problematic, but not for the reasons the ADL asserts:

Palestinian history in Klinghoffer is staged as Muslim only – and only as fundamentalist Muslim, which is wrong and dangerous. The group that carried out the Achille Lauro operation, the Palestinian Liberation Front, was a Marxist-Leninist faction, an offshoot (twice removed) of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which was led by the Christian Palestinian George Habash. But if you watched Klinghoffer, you’d have no idea Marxist Palestinians even existed, or that Christian Palestinians were at the forefront of much of the Palestinian national movement. … Klinghoffer wants to collapse the complexities of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians into a timeless religious battle between Muslims and Jews.

Adam Shatz is on the same page:

[Y]ou could make the case that if The Death of Klinghoffer caricatures anyone, it’s Palestinians, not Jews. The ‘Chorus of Exiled Palestinians’ that opens the opera features a group in Afghan-style clothes, evoking the vanished paradise of pre-1948 Palestine and the Nakba that robbed them of their land and future. Dressed in black and virtually indistinguishable, they’re designated mourners of Palestine, an undifferentiated mass united in suffering and thirsty for revenge. The women are all covered in full abayas, which is unusual among Palestinian women today, and was even more unusual in 1985.

Art In The Age Of Instagram

Peter Schjeldahl scoffs at New Portraits, the new Richard Prince exhibit that consists of Instagram pictures printed onto canvas:

Possible cogent responses to the show include naughty delight and sincere abhorrence. My own was something like a wish to be dead—which, say what you want about it, is the surest defense against assaults of postmodernist attitude. Come to think of it, death provides an apt metaphor for the pictures: memento mori of perishing vanity. Another is celestial: a meteor shower of privacies being burnt to cinders in the atmosphere of publicity. They fall into contemporary fame—a sea that is a millimetre deep and horizon-wide.

You needn’t visit the show to absorb its lessons about the contagion of social networks. But there’s a bonus to viewing the images as material stock in trade, destined for collections in which they will afford chic shocks amid somewhat subtler embodiments of the human spirit. They add a layer of commercial potency to the insatiable itch—to know oneself as known—that has made Instagram a stupefying success.

But Jerry Saltz defends Prince’s “genius trolling”:

With these new works, the protests against him center on three things. First, he’s making money from these things, a lot of money, and given how easy they seem to be to make, that seems like theft, or at least a con; second, he’s using other people’s Instagram feeds without their permission; and most prevalently, he’s a lech for looking at and making art with pictures of young girls. Never mind that all these images shadow us everywhere now and already exist in a public uncopyrighted digital realm. And yes, he’s making money. About $40,000 a pop, to the best of my knowledge. And even though the thought of an artist raking it in at such rates when so many other artists — many of them as well known as he is — can barely get by and sell next to nothing makes me hate our current bifurcated top-versus-everyone-else system even more, the guy is a famous artist in his mid 60s. If anyone deserves it, he does.

As for him “stealing other people’s pictures,” my view of an artist using other people’s Instagram pics is no different than an artist using any other material. By now, we have to agree that images — even digital ones — are materials, and artists use materials to do what they do. Period. In my way of thinking, too many artists are too wed to woefully outmoded copyright notions – laws that go against them in almost every case. … Prince’s new portraits number among the new art burning through the last layers that separate the digital and physical realms. They portend a merging more momentous than we know.

And Rhett Jones appreciates what Prince brings to the images through his comments:

These comments appear to be mostly tongue in cheek, like “I remember this so well (tent emoji) glad we had the tent” under Kate Moss posing with her legs spread. The frequent use of emoji adds an extra graphic layer. The comments themselves create another level of participation in the work. If nothing else, you can’t say Prince didn’t add anything this time. His name’s right there. He’s saying something. …

Your average Instagram comment isn’t, “ah yes post-modern redux meets Warhol celebrity-bacchanal meets Benjamin’s age of mechanical reproduction flipped back on itself.” You say “I’ve never seen a tat like that.” Then you click like, because you like it, and sometimes that’s enough.

The exhibition runs through October 25th in New York City.