Last Monday, September 29, the National Gallery in Washington DC announced that a traveling exhibition of the works of Philip Guston, known for blunt depictions of the Ku Klux Klan and other forms of racism in the US, would be postponed until 2024. Initially, the retrospective collection, ironically titled Philip Guston Now, was to be shown at the National Gallery, The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) locations in Boston and Houston, as well as internationally at London’s Tate Modern. The joint statement, signed by the directors of all three establishments stated that “after a great deal of reflection and extensive consultation, our four institutions have jointly made the decision to delay our successive presentations of Philip Guston Now. We are postponing the exhibition 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.”
The decision was implied to come as a result of the frequent subject matter of Guston’s work being white supremacy and the KKK. The statement went on:
“As museum directors, we have a responsibility to meet the very real urgencies of the moment. We feel it is necessary to reframe our programming and, in this case, step back, and bring in additional perspectives and voices to shape how we present Guston’s work to our public. That process will take time.”
While this delay is not the first of its kind, the timing and reasoning behind this particular decision has been predominantly met with blowback. Former curator at Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth Michael Auping remarked on the irony of the postponement, saying that “if ever there was a poignant time to have these Guston images shown, it’s now.” On Wednesday, over 100 artists, curators, critics, and dealers signed an open letter in The Brooklyn Rail condemning the decision and demanding the exhibition run as planned. The letter, available to be signed by anyone publicly, pointedly stated that the decision was another example of museums’ “longstanding failure to have educated, integrated, and prepared themselves to meet the challenge of the renewed pressure for racial justice that has developed over the past five years.”
Philip Guston, himself a Jewish artist, was associated throughout his career with leftist movements, focusing much of his work on topics of anti-racism, including many depictions of hooded KKK members. The simplistic style with which he painted Klan members was often interpreted as a comment on the straightforward, explicit evil that faced the country. Guston in fact called the hooded figures in his many works self portraits: “I perceive myself as being behind the hood.” Just as it has become apparent that a major step in supporting the Black Live Matter movement should be acknowledging both our personal privilege and our own biases and contributions to a country of hate, no matter how uncomfortable.
That discomfort is exactly what caused the show’s organizers to misguidedly pull the plug this year. They are afraid that the stark images of such a recognizable hate group might be interpreted as tone-deaf, a sentiment not entirely undocumented. Guston’s intent is shockingly relevant today, which is what makes the show’s delay so perplexing.
Besides being generally ill-conceived, perhaps innocently but more likely strategically, there are harmful implications in this decision. Most notably, it is not up to a museum to determine how any art they choose to display should be interpreted, just as it is not the job of a library to gatekeep how its books should be perceived. The current plan it seems, in the simplest of term, is simply to wait until racist rhetoric has gone away, or is at least less of a taboo amongst public discourse, in order to present the collection as a retrospective of historical racism, rather than the bold American self-portrait that it was intended as.
The Gaurdian writer Sebastian Smee likened the hope to shape our public interpretation of these works to the propaganda circuits of Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Germany. While the simile is harsh, it is not without justification. The point of propaganda is to shape public opinion, so the notion that the show organizers are essentially attempting to control when they believe Guston’s work will miraculously become palatable to the majority of their patrons smacks of oppressive thought control. There is a reason the name of the show is Philip Guston Now: to examine his work that so confronted white supremacy in the context of present-day culture. Leaving aside the issue of varied interpretations, the intent behind the majority of Guston’s work was actually quite clear, even explicitly stated by the artist and corroborated by numerous influential critics.=
Michael Auping in his statement commented on the intense bubble of corporations that are consistently terrified of offending the public, remarking “I’m sensing uncertainty and paralysis in a lot of cultural institutions, given all the changes that are happening…they don’t know where to go—they’re afraid to make a commitment, and they’re afraid to be called out on something.” And that inability to make a statement is not only troubling but damaging. Even from an emotionless, blandly corporate perspective, showing this artwork in 2020 would surely be more PR boom than bust for each of these museums.
In today’s culture war and spotlight on issues of racial injustice, to postpone the show because it might be interpreted “the wrong way” not only undermines the entire concept, but sends the message that its organizers wish to remain apolitical and free of potential contention. In the world of art, especially in 2020, that just isn’t an option. It is baffling to say the least, and nothing short of disappointing.
Put bluntly, the decision to postpone was a mistake, and the exhibition should be reinstated. We need confrontational work like this right now in the world of not only art, but entertainment and pop culture. We should feel uncomfortable viewing evil in the face and realizing that we see more of our reflection staring back than we would like to admit. That discomfort is what ultimately leads us, in baby steps, to progress. Disturbing is disturbing, but right now necessary. Museums especially need to examine their roots in, as the Brooklyn Rail’s open letter called it, “their class and racial foundations.”
If now was not the time to display controversial work that directly confronts racism in the United States and continues the still-needed conversation surrounding Black lives in America, then when is? If we sit around waiting for conversations about race to all sound the same — to become more assessable to every citizen of the planet — then we are doomed to stay progressively stagnant, or worse, repeat history. This was a huge opportunity to highlight art that directly tackled issues of white supremacy to the public in a modern light, and examine the degree of progress (or lack thereof) that we have made. Instead, these institutions took the cowardly way out, and they are on the wrong side of history for it.