Put aside, at least for now, the calumny that Guston’s imagery is “toxic.” Put aside that it is wrong to censor any artist, toxic or not. Just on its face, Mr. Walker’s stance would exclude from our museums many of the open letter’s signatories, whose “virtue or intention” is not in question. Mr. Taylor, who has painted wrenching scenes of police brutality, or Pope.L, whose performances have regurgitated prejudices of Black men in messy and abject forms, might both be barred from exhibiting publicly if Mr. Walker’s doctrine became the norm. (I don’t even think the National Gallery’s current, excellent show “Degas at the Opéra” — with depictions of what we would now call child prostitution, by the “toxic” Impressionist par excellence — could survive such scrutiny.)
Museums have faced frequent calls for accountability lately, but remember, the postponement of the Guston show is not a case of overreaction to protest. There has been no public outcry, and no contention that the curators sold the work short. This is a precancellation: a case of institutions running scared from phantasms, recoiling from their missions, assuming that their public is too clueless to look and think. Guston’s Klan paintings indeed require interpretation, education and public outreach — but that is precisely the job of museums at all times. It should not require four years of runway, and for the National Gallery and its partners to say it does counts as a breathtaking admission that they are not up to the job.
For as the artists suggest in their open letter, the reason to reinstate “Philip Guston Now” is not, or certainly not only, because he passes some anti-racist litmus test. It is to continue and accelerate the transformation of our museums into institutions that can do justice to the work of all artists and the experiences of all publics. A museum unequipped to exhibit Guston will never be able to show truly “problematic” artists like Paul Gauguin or Francis Picabia — but just as inevitably it will fail Mr. Barney’s mythopoetic melding of bodies, Ms. Jonas’s culturally hybrid meditations on gender and climate, Ms. Piper’s exacting probes of self and stereotypes.
Really, a museum unequipped to exhibit Guston is barely a museum at all, or else only a museum in the most derogatory sense: a dusty storehouse of dead things.
This week, at the first presidential debate, the incumbent was asked if he would condemn white supremacy outright. His response was to tell one of these white supremacist groups to “stand back and stand by.” It was only the latest reminder that our art institutions cannot afford anything less than a united front against racism and anti-Semitism, and should not be spooked by their own shadows when actual hatred is already at the gates. It’s not too late to reverse this decision, which is shaping up to be an even worse misdeed than the 1989 cancellation of Robert Mapplethorpe’s “The Perfect Moment” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art: worse because the censorship has come not from philistines outside the museum’s walls but from those within.