Thursday, October 1, 2020

Open Letter: On Philip Guston Now

We were shocked and disappointed to read the news that the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and Tate Modern, London, had postponed by four years their planned exhibition Philip Guston Now, which had already been delayed until 2021 by the COVID-19 lockdown. The reason for the postponement? The explanation given by the directors of the four institutions in their announcement expresses anxiety about the response that might be unleashed by certain paintings in which Guston depicts Ku Klux Klansmen, and their preference to “reframe [their] programming and … step back and bring in additional perspectives and voices to shape how [they] present Guston’s work to [their] public.” These institutions thus publicly acknowledge their 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. And they abdicate responsibility for doing so immediately—yet again. Better, they reason, to “postpon[e] the exhibition until a time” when the significance of Guston’s work will be clearer to its public.

The best riposte to the museum directors’ failure of nerve is conveyed by quoting Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, as reported in the New York Times: “My father dared to unveil white culpability, our shared role in allowing the racist terror that he had witnessed since boyhood, when the Klan marched openly by the thousands in the streets of Los Angeles. As poor Jewish immigrants, his family fled extermination in the Ukraine. He understood what hatred was. It was the subject of his earliest works. […] This should be a time of reckoning, of dialogue. These paintings meet the moment we are in today. The danger is not in looking at Philip Guston’s work, but in looking away.”


Rarely has there been a better illustration of “white” culpability than in these powerful men and women’s apparent feeling of powerlessness to explain to their public the true power of an artist’s work—its capacity to prompt its viewers, and the artist too, to troubling reflection and self-examination. But the people who run our great institutions do not want trouble. They fear controversy. They lack faith in the intelligence of their audience. And they realize that to remind museum-goers of white supremacy today is not only to speak to them about the past, or events somewhere else. It is also to raise uncomfortable questions about museums themselves—about their class and racial foundations. For this reason, perhaps, those who run the museums feel the ground giving way beneath their feet. If they feel that in four years, “all this will blow over,” they are mistaken. The tremors shaking us all will never end until justice and equity are installed. Hiding away images of the KKK will not serve that end. Quite the opposite. And Guston’s paintings insist that justice has never yet been achieved.

In the face of an action such as that taken by these four august institutions, we ask ourselves, as private individuals, what we can do. We can speak out, certainly. But we must do more. We demand that Philip Guston Now be restored to the museums’ schedules, and that their staffs prepare themselves to engage with a public that might well be curious about why a painter—ever self-critical and a standard-bearer for freedom—was compelled to use such imagery. That does not permit the museums to fall back on the old discredited stance: “We are the experts. Our job is to show you what’s of value in art and your part is to appreciate it.” It means that museums must engage in a reckoning with history, including their own histories of prejudice. Precisely in order to help take that effort of reckoning forward, the Philip Guston Now exhibition must proceed as planned, and the museums must do the necessary work to present this art in all its depth and complexity.