Philip Guston (1913-80) was one of the great American post-war figurative artists. A major retrospective to be shown at the National Gallery in Washington, the Tate Modern, Boston and Houston, was initially postponed because of Coronavirus. It has now been put on hold again till at least 2024. According to a joint statement signed by the directors of all four museums, the exhibition was being delayed “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 statement continues: “We recognise that the world we live in is very different from the one in which we first began to collaborate on this project five years ago. The racial justice movement that started in the US and radiated to countries around the world, in addition to challenges of a global health crisis, have led us to pause.”
Apparently, there was concern that “painful” KKK imagery “may be misinterpreted and the resulting response overshadow the totality of his work and legacy, especially since it is known that Guston was an ardent supporter of racial equality and opponent of discrimination,” a National Gallery representative said.
Guston was a great artist, deeply political, the son of Jewish refugees from the Ukraine. His works are held and exhibited at a number of major art museums. His daughter, Musa Mayer, has condemned the decision of the four museums: “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.”
One art historian told the New York Times, Guston’s paintings were “thoughtfully created in identification with history’s victims,” adding that “[i]t should be part of one’s attitude to see them as opportunities to think, to improve thinking, to sharpen perception, to talk to one another,” and not “to grimly proceed with one’s head in the sand, avoiding difficult conversations because you think the timing is bad.”
These words could not be more timely. On both sides of the Atlantic we need “opportunities to improve thinking, to sharpen exception, to talk to one another.” We should welcome, not evade, “difficult conversations” about racism and prejudice. Our culture, and especially our publically funded central cultural institutions, are running for cover at a deeply worrying time. Universities are becoming bastions of group-think, busy signing petitions condemning academics who dissent from prevailing views. Publishers have refused to print books which they think might cause offence. Now four major art museums postpone an exhibition because “painful” imagery “may be misinterpreted” and have decided that they should wait “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.”
This is the language of cowardice. These museums don’t want demonstrations, negative media attention or boycotts by major donors worried about the museums exhibiting works that feature hooded figures from the KKK, even though these works clearly condemn those figures and the vile racism they represent.
Interestingly, this casts light on the golden age of American art and literature after the war. Very different figures like Leonard Bernstein, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Philip Guston and Jasper Johns worried over what it meant to be American during the 1950s, ‘60s and beyond. Johns painted his famous image of the American flag, Bellow began his breakthrough novel, The Adventures of Augie March, with the words, “I am an American, Chicago born”, Roth’s Mickey Sabbath wraps himself in the American flag and one of Bernstein’s most famous songs in West Side Story is America:
“I like to be in America,
Okay by me in America,
Everything free in America.”
They produced the great new American art — its novels, paintings and music — but they also saw a dark side of America. The flag on the little post office blown up by a terrorist in Roth’s American Pastoral, the destruction of American neighbourhoods in novels by Bellow and Roth, the KKK figures in Guston’s paintings.
In the run-up to this year’s US Election, America has never seemed so divided. Which imagery and what kinds of art speak to this division and make us think about what’s happening to America? Do we meet the challenge of this art or do we bury our heads in the sand and worry about how activists and rioters might react? Do we stand by our values and say this is what our universities and museums are for or do we, in Yeats’s words, “lack all conviction”? Here and in America we are being tested and this decision about the Guston retrospective shows we are failing badly.