National Gallery postponement of Philip Guston show was a terrible mistake

Why? Because they want to protect the public from having to interpret Philip Guston’s art (which includes cartoon-inspired depictions of figures wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods) for themselves.

Never mind that Guston, who was Jewish and died in 1980, had a powerful record, going back to his youth, of anti-racist actions and imagery. Never mind that two of today’s leading African American artists, including Glenn Ligon and Trenton Doyle Hancock, have contributed essays to the catalogue (Ligon even praising Guston in his essay as “woke”). And never mind that it’s absurd to require artists to pass such litmus tests in the first place.

Call me naive, but I didn’t anticipate this. Yes, I can see all the forces in the culture leading to it. But the decision is simply wrong — and a legitimate cause for outrage.

Consider the rationale: In a prepared statement, the leaders of these four museums, Kaywin Feldman of the NGA, Matthew Teitelbaum of the MFA Boston, Gary Tinterow of the MFA Houston and Frances Morris of Tate Modern, said they had decided that the Guston show should be postponed “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.”

I have read some unfathomable doublespeak coming out of museum PR departments in my time, but this is by far the most ludicrous. The show is titled “Philip Guston Now.” The idea that work with a powerful message of social and racial justice — as they themselves put it — should have to wait until some future when they think our current tumult and confusion has been magically cleaned up is truly Orwellian. (Note who gets to decide.)

But if you think that reeks, the other part of the rationale — that the art will be ready to be shown only when it can be “clearly interpreted” — is beyond bizarre. It is a statement that sounds as if it comes from the mouths of people who hate art — or else from some kind of malfunctioning algorithm — because it is utterly antithetical to what art is about.

Have Shakespeare’s meanings become clear yet? What about Rembrandt’s? Are we still waiting around for Toni Morrison’s rather wordy and overelaborate sentences to let themselves be “more clearly interpreted?” Oh, we are? Better cancel them, until they learn to cooperate.

The statement doesn’t say so, but the Guston show is being postponed because of the aforementioned cartoonlike figures with Klan-like hoods. These feature in works that have ended up being Guston’s most critically acclaimed and influential.

In this period of racial reckoning, anyone can see the potential problem. But the best kind of art always presents some kind of problem. So let’s talk about why he might have used such imagery.

Of course, the “why” in art is not always easy — even to the artists who made it. But here’s an idea : It might have to do with the fact that Guston was an anti-racist, that he hated racism, that he wanted to show its evil, and the potential for evil in all of us.

Again, who can know a dead artist’s heart? But in this case, we have some pretty solid evidence.

When he was 18, Guston and a friend, Reuben Kadish, painted a mural and went to a rally in Los Angeles. This was the 1930s. The rally was a fundraiser in support of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African American teenagers in Alabama who were falsely accused of raping two White women.

The protest painting was not great art. It was a portable fresco, and it depicted a Klansman whipping a Black man roped to a stake. A troubling image — the 1930s were a troubling time; lynchings were still taking place — it was obviously a reference to the outrages committed against the Scottsboro Boys.

This was 90 years ago, before the explosion of mass media, way before the Internet. So Guston, still a teenager, wasn’t familiar with today’s (important and legitimate) critique of our culture’s casual exploitation of images of violence against Black people, which has become both repugnantly normalized and, for Black people especially, traumatizing.

But this early work is not in the show, and the reason it’s not is important. Back then, Guston had recently joined a John Reed Club, a gathering place for Marxist-aligned artists and writers. After the rally, he stored the panels at the club. Los Angeles police then raided the club, discovered the painting and destroyed it, firing bullets into the Black figures’ eyes and genitals.

This deeply disturbing incident — disturbing to almost all of us, even today — presumably offered Guston a powerful lesson in the connections between state-sponsored violence, white supremacy and censorship.

Nothing is straightforward, but you can see why those images might have lingered in his mind and taken on an accumulation of meanings.

For a while, Guston continued to paint political images, a few of them showing figures in hoods. And then he became an abstract expressionist.

Abstract expressionism was the dominant avant-garde style of the post-war period, and Guston, who had been a close friend of Jackson Pollock’s in his youth, became one of its most acclaimed practitioners. But by the end of the ’60s, the world was experiencing the kinds of upheavals, protests and violence that have caused many people to compare it with today.

Guston began questioning the worth of abstract art. “What kind of man am I,” he asked, “sitting at home, reading magazines, going to a frustrated fury about everything — and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue?”

So he stopped painting abstractions, and turned to figurative images. Inspired both by the immediacy of underground comics and by the bold, solid forms of Italian Renaissance art, these new paintings — the ones on which his reputation now rests — addressed the fraught comedy, pathos, fear and brutishness of the human condition.

Out of a belief, perhaps, that postures of power and thuggish attempts to inspire fear are best laughed at (something comedians, both Black and White, do every day of the week), Guston populated his paintings with those clunky figures with Klan-like hoods, looking at once menacing and risible, frighteningly stupid and indelibly pathetic.

These paintings are, like all art, open to interpretation. You can adore them, as many of the world’s most dynamic young painters do. (Guston’s return to figurative imagery was a game-changer, opening up untold vistas for contemporary artists, even — ironically — for abstract artists. Mark Bradford, for instance, a politically active Black artist, represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2017 with a painting that was an homage to Guston.)

Alternatively, you can be disturbed by them. Or: You can adore them and be disturbed by them. Or, hey, you can just not like them. Take your pick. Welcome to art, everyone! Welcome to life.

But “clean interpretations”? They don’t exist. And we should beware of people who think they do.

In their joint statement, the four directors pompously invoke their “responsibility to meet the very real urgencies of the moment.” But as leaders of art museums, their responsibility is to show faith in the capacity of great art to speak to “the urgencies of this moment.”

They clearly have no such faith.

We are in the middle of a culture war. Everyone knows that. It’s a good time to question your faith. But it is not a good time for institutions to make false moves, because much is at stake.

Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation and one of the National Gallery’s trustees, said he supports the decision to postpone, arguing, “By not taking a step back to address these issues, the four museums would have appeared tone deaf to what is happening in public discourse about art.”

From someone who has been such a force for good in the art world, this is deeply disappointing. Given the financial power of the Ford Foundation and Walker’s bona fides, I can only wonder who on the board might have been willing to argue against him, had they been so inclined. But what does he mean when he refers to what is “happening in public discourse about art”?

In the art world, the culture war is playing out as a question of how big a role art can and should play in bringing about certain kinds of social change. Many on the left want our idea of art to become so instrumentalist — so subservient to political imperatives — that they are willing to jettison large parts of what art means to people who love it and truly need it. I am referring to its ambiguities, its contradictions, its connection to the richness and freedom of our inner lives, to beauty and pain, and its ability to speak to confusions within and without. I’m talking about all the things you find in Toni Morrison, in Frank Ocean, in Anton Chekhov or Alice Munro, in Shostakovich or Duke Ellington, in Romare Bearden or Philip Guston.

This Guston decision feels big — like the first significant marker in an accelerating attempt not so much to respond to the “public discourse about art” as to alter our whole conception of art.

But it’s not actually a first, is it? We’ve seen it before, in Nazi Germany, in Stalinist Russia and in many other places where those in power, or those fearful of power, thought they could control the human heart and bend society their way by restricting what we see and how we express ourselves.

Such people are always wrong. History continuously proves them so.

What is at stake is not just the arts, or even the human heart. What’s at stake is also political, in the immediate sense. I’m talking about the upcoming election. Because nothing invites a backlash from reasonable people on the left, in the center and on the right — people whose votes Democrats will need if they want to beat Trump — more than the left’s efforts to control and foreclose upon free thought.

Not to see this is the worst kind of political naivete.

Guston once said that painting is “a kind of war between the moment and the pull of memory.” He might also have mentioned the pull of the future. When, in the future, people look back on this truly dismaying decision, I’m pretty sure they will shake their heads. How, they will ask, could the well-meaning leaders of these four major museums be so spineless, so patronizing and so wrong?

Correction: A previous version of this story said Mark Bradford represented the United States at the last Venice Biennale. It was actually the 2017 Venice Biennale.

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