I was in the basement of the Guggenheim Museum with a bunch of self-satisfied liberals, waiting for someone to say something relevant. I hoped someone would bring up the video of pit bulls chained to treadmills, running their hearts out as they strained to tear each other apart, or the terrarium of insects and reptiles that did, and the explosive protests over these artworks—including threats of physical violence made against curators and staff—that led to their being pulled from the exhibition “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World.” Or the Gulf Labor Coalition’s protests that dogged the museum’s proposed Abu Dhabi outpost and the art world’s often messy relationship to labor laws. Or the power of art and ideas, however controversial, and the import of upholding your convictions, of not giving in to pressure. Anything but the hour of book promo mixed with Obama nostalgia and Clinton what-ifs, along with the usual complaints about Trump, fake news, Twitter trolls, online negativity, divisiveness, and hate that I sat through—anything but that.
I was at the keynote panel of “Culture and Its Discontents,” a two-day public program that took place at the Guggenheim on April 6 and 7, organized “in response to vociferous cultural debates” that have erupted in physical and digital protests at US museums over the last year. Onstage were political commentator Sally Kohn, about to release her first book, The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity; Alyssa Mastromonaco, deputy chief of staff in the Obama administration; and artist Hank Willis Thomas. Guggenheim artistic director Nancy Spector joined them later. The conversation was jovial, friendly, and even occasionally funny, if also thoroughly frustrating in its willful avoidance of real issues.
The second day brought two more panel discussions moderated by radio host Brian Lehrer. First was a rather forgettable rehash of the Culture Wars that came down to a tepid reminder that we need to listen to the other side. It was followed by a rather sharp, if sensationally titled, discussion of “outrage activism” that discussed the weaponized “hamster wheel” of moral righteousness, the non-neutrality of social media platforms, cyberstalking and gendered harassment, the Democratic Party’s media strategies for preemptively dousing PR storms, and the rise of botnets. While enlightening, this conversation felt like a tangent that further shifted focus—and by extension, blame—from the museum’s activities to the amorphous, vitriolic online commentariat, and how they hurt the feelings of reasonable centrists. I was mistaken, of course, in expecting the forum to respond to the museum’s most recent controversy in any substantive way. The Guggenheim could have organized a roundtable with the protesters, as the Whitney Museum did following the criticism of Dana Schutz’s work for the 2018 Biennial, or hosted a thoughtful discussion about how it could, as a museum, become more transparent and responsive to its ostensible public. Instead, it breezed past the issues with a feel-good liberalpalooza.
To be fair, a few legitimate criticisms of the art world were made in passing. In the keynote, Thomas provided welcome relief from the extended us-versus-them navel-gazing by cautioning that many of the people who support the Guggenheim and other institutions of its ilk also supported Trump. His point felt especially resonant, given that we were all sitting in the theater of the Sackler Center for Arts Education not so long after protesters occupied the Sackler Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to condemn the Sackler family’s profiteering from the opioid crisis they engineered. Unfortunately, most of these attempts to link the conversation to its context quickly reverted to the message of the night: the attention economy is bad because it sows division. Mastromonaco compared the rapid circulation of online criticism to the “two minutes of hate” in George Orwell’s 1984, the daily spewing of invective at images of Oceania’s enemies. Anything oppositional was framed as bad. At one point, Kohn said to Thomas, “Your brilliance as an artist is how you manage to provoke in a way that is unifying.” That is to say, he doesn’t rock the boat too much; he doesn’t make people uncomfortable. (Another concept identified as controversial was an argument in Kohn’s book that everyone growing up in America inherits unconscious racist and sexist biases, a revelation for Mastromonaco.)
It was only in the audience Q & A following the keynote panel that someone brought up the Guggenheim’s recent animal-rights quagmire, asking whether the museum had, in the spirit of the conversation, reached out to the protesters to understand what was motivating them, and how these activists could express themselves more constructively. Spector responded by saying that the forum wasn’t an attempt to discuss what had happened so much as to find a way to move forward, adding: “It’s a bit difficult to respond to a force or swarm of electronic hate but we want to be an institution that’s accessible and open, and when conversations are civil and rational we’re here to have them.” No mention was made of her own eminently civil gesture of declining to loan a painting to Trump’s White House and offering to send Maurizio Cattelan’s gilded commode instead.
The civility discourse continued in a segment on the redemptive power of performative mea culpas. Mastromonaco related that the most hateful thing she had heard prior to this administration was Kanye West saying that George Bush hates black people (yes, really), an episode that Bush was “really hurt by,” and called “one of the darkest moments of his presidency” in his book. Upon recently revisiting the clip she realized Kanye had actually said Bush didn’t care about black people, and more important, had apologized on prime-time TV. Another example given in this vein of public self-flagellation was the Chick-fil-A CEO’s apology for his past homophobia, as if it had been about anything but the company’s bottom line. This emphasis on niceness found its nadir in a call for audience participation that rather clumsily inverted the “two minutes of hate.” Everyone was instructed to turn to a stranger and talk for two minutes about a time when they, too, felt othered. Yes, really.
As the evening wore on I got to feeling increasingly hateful myself. But I found this exercise especially triggering, to use another word that the forum eagerly misapplied. Undoubtedly, everyone has felt othered or discriminated against at some point in their life. But to spin this into a parable of shared empathy felt like an especially dangerous false equivalency. What it seems to do is position protest, whether against a person or an institution, as an attack upon civility, thus recasting the object of critique as a victim. Look, no one should have to face harassment, death threats, or doxing. But if the Guggenheim actually wanted to respond to the current culture of protest—and not just promote Kohn’s book—or grow into the civic institution it aspires to be, it should have invited protesters to the table. Then the event might have enacted ideals of listening and engaging in productive conversation with those outside the immediate bubble instead of using them as flimsy cover.