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September 3, 2017 11:14 am

Art and Political Discourse

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I am a member of the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and I have always believed that public art galleries and museums should be neutral on matters of politics, even if individual artists obviously are not.

Before the last century, museums and galleries in the free world displayed art without political judgment. Their values were aesthetic. But with the rise of both fascism and communism, art became a propaganda tool.

On a visit last week to MoMA, I was upset to see how the museum has allowed politics to cloud its aesthetic judgment — and betray its mission.

Upon entering the museum, I saw a really impressive exhibition on the fourth level, featuring the multitalented American artist Robert Rauschenberg — which I heartily recommend. Then I went up one level to look at the display of modern art in MoMA’s permanent collection.

I was immediately struck at how the greatest artists of the 19th and 20th centuries were mixed in with some decidedly third-rate artwork. For example, there was an embarrassingly bad painting by the Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid (known for her design rather than her art), next to a work by Picasso. At first, I thought this was a mistake. But then I saw that the museum had purposefully put up artwork from very average artists from the Middle East next to accomplished artists from the West, with a note saying:

This work is by an artist from a nation which would be denied entry to the United States according to recent presidential executive orders. This is one of several such art works from the museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum as they are to the United States.

The note clearly refers to Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” (which I believe is an inaccurate phrase, because Egypt, Turkey and the four largest Muslim countries in the world are excluded from the ban).

The problem is not just that museums are taking political stands; it is that they are being allowed to define the parameters of legitimate and fair political debate.

For example, it is OK — according to the Whitney Gallery — to exhibit paintings of Israelis brutalizing Palestinians, but not acceptable to depict Palestinians murdering Israeli children. It is OK to condemn white nationalists, but it is too taboo to criticize extremist elements of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Iranian journalist Neda Amin fled to Turkey after being told that her life was in danger for expressing opposition to Iran’s government. She was tipped off that she was going to be arrested by Turkish authorities, and the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul granted her a special tourist visa to enter Israel and seek asylum. Will MoMA say anything about artists from countries that permanently refuse to allow Israelis to enter altogether? Perhaps they should intersperse Picasso with some Israeli painters, and put a note underneath saying how they are banned from Muslim countries.

We are currently witnessing a very serious ideological battle in the so-called civilized world over truth and facts. People trumpet only the opinions that they agree with, and tailor what is shown to the public to support their agenda.

Where does this all end? Shall we unwrite the American Constitution because it was written by slave owners? Isn’t there a difference between those who fought for the South on purely political grounds? Surely that is a different case than those justices on the Supreme Court who supported the Dred Scott decision in favor of slavery.

I do indeed object when places like Ukraine erect statues commemorating Ukrainian heroes who happened to be mass murderers of Jews. I object to academics who praise Martin Heidegger and other Nazi supporters, even if they were brought to America and paid and praised for their contribution to rocket science.

Most free societies are now comprised of citizens of conflicting narratives, religions and cultures. Inevitably, there will be differences. We should tolerate all who express different opinions (short of advocating violence and murder). But then how do we react when one culture’s hero is another’s criminal? Should one put up a statue or name a square to glorify a freedom fighter who will be also be regarded as a terrorist who murders in the pursuit of a cause? Nowadays, the least historically minded can always turn to the Internet to see an alternative narrative.

If we are so easily offended, let us remove all Greek and Roman statues from public spaces, for they all approved of slavery. Most Christian monuments praise men who persecuted Jews or other Christians. If we are going to remove simply on the basis of cultural difference, we should remove all. Is there any politician who has ever been all good and not bad?

It can be argued that statues should exist only in museums, where there is context and information — and not in public places, where one cannot avoid the offense. Once, statues were designed as objects of worship. Then they became tools for propaganda — or tools to celebrate or inform. Perhaps we should now abandon public statues as an archaic art form of communication.

We who abhor violence have to struggle all the more for intellectual honesty and objectivity. Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia University, has just published a book criticizing the liberal left for betraying its liberal values — The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. For this, of course, he has been attacked by many on the academic left for betrayal and trolling. That’s precisely how they always deal with views they don’t like.

Lilla has encapsulated the prevailing attitude on campuses by saying that once it was: “I may disagree, but let’s sit down and talk about it.” Now it is: “I object to your views. They offend me and make me uncomfortable. I do not wish to discuss it. Get out!” Clearly, we cannot look to academia for truth. The Psalms were right when they said, “Truth springs from the ground upwards.” Not the other way around.

One used to look to universities and cultural institutions like museums and galleries to be objective and balanced. No longer. They have now become tools of political correctness, name-calling and pushing an agenda.

I am bitterly disappointed that MoMA has sunk to such petty political righteousness. I expected better. But it is a sign of the times. As a well-known songster once sang: “We shall overcome.”

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