The new culture war

Jonathan T. D. Neil on what’s really at stake in the Whitney Museum controversy

By Jonathan T.D. Neil

Protestors occupy the lobby of the Whitney Museum in New York to demand the resignation of Warren Kanders, 5 April 2019. Photo: Perimeander / licensed to Creative Commons Tear-gas canister manufactured by Safariland, used against asylum seekers and migrants at the Mexico-US border, 25 November 2018. Photo: @VetsAboutFace / Twitter


What to make of the intertwining controversies surrounding the Whitney Museum’s harbouring of (now former) trustee Warren B. Kanders and the (too-white) critical reception of its biennial exhibition? Are these just epiphenomena of the national derangement that goes by the name of Trump? Or are they tremors of something deeper, a shift in the plate tectonics of art and politics in the US? What is for sure is that we are in the midst of a new culture war, but one in which it’s unclear, as yet, who are the righteous and who are the reactionaries.

Take the Kanders controversy: on one side stand the defenders of the museum – the Whitney in particular, but museums and cultural institutions in general – and what we can call the American model of museum funding, whereby a wealthy elite both ‘gives and gets’ substantial sums of money to their institutions of choice in return for social status and public recognition. The intent of such largesse, whether altruistic, aspirational or instrumentalised, is the stuff of society gossip. But from the perspective of the museum, that’s beside the point; the mission justifies the money.

Once you’re in the business of drawing up a list of morally acceptable monetary sources, you’re either sliding down some slippery slope to the pecuniary inquisition or hazarding moral compromise and contradiction

Upon realising that the money Kanders was giving to the Whitney was coming from his ownership of companies that produced, among other things, the tear gas used against migrant families and asylum seekers at the US–Mexico border on 25 November of last year, a large number of the staff at the Whitney signed a letter to the museum leadership ‘asking for Warren Kanders’ resignation’. The letter also demanded that the museum provide a ‘clear policy’ on ‘Trustee participation’, to which was added a nota bene asking, rhetorically, whether or not there was a ‘moral line’ to be drawn on such participation, before drawing that line at having museum staff ‘afflicted’ by trustees ‘whose work or actions are at odds with the museum’s mission’.

Now, for the curious, I recommend reading the Whitney’s mission; it’s unclear how Kanders’s work or actions could be at odds with it. (You can find the museum’s mission statement on the publicly available Form 990 tax returns required of all nonprofit institutions in the US; oddly, it’s not reproduced on the museum’s website.) Nevertheless, the signatories of the letter raise the key question that most defenders of the museum have been asking: where is that moral line? What makes some money immoral and other money not? Money from guns? Not acceptable. But bulletproof vests? How about money from cigarettes? No. But what about electronic cigarettes? Real estate developers that gentrify but also build low-income housing? A fossil fuel company that also builds wind farms?

Tear-gas canister manufactured by Safariland, from AR September 2019 Opinion Jonathan TD Neil
Tear-gas canister manufactured by Safariland found at the Mexico-US border, on 26 November 2018. Photo: @VetsAboutFace / Twitter

The strategy here is again rhetorical, for once you’re in the business of drawing up a list of morally acceptable monetary sources, you’re either sliding down some slippery slope to the pecuniary inquisition or hazarding moral compromise and contradiction. Which is why the ‘moral line’ question is really a false one. Answering it isn’t the point; all that matters is asking it. On the other side of this controversy, the future of the museum (the future of all arts and politics and, well, the future of the future itself) is tied up with the project or process of decolonisation. For some context, consider the op-ed that Olga Viso, the former director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, published in The New York Times last spring. ‘Decolonizing the Art Museum: The Next Wave’ reckoned with a different controversy from a year prior concerning Sam Durant’s Scaffold (2012), a sculpture that aggregated replicas of gallows that had been used in US state-sanctioned executions. The largest execution, of 38 Dakota men, had taken place in Minnesota in 1862. Scaffold was originally shown in Europe, where its lethal referents could be read abstractly. The Walker acquired the work in 2017 as a marquee piece for the museum’s sculpture garden, where the Dakota community in Minnesota could entertain no such abstractions. After considerable protests, negotiations and media campaigns, Scaffold was removed from the museum’s grounds and dismantled. In a further gesture of what Viso would identify as ‘empathy’, Durant transferred to the Dakota elders his intellectual property and moral rights to the work, at once a gift and, if not a destruction, then a disavowal of his art.

Viso places this episode within a wider history of struggles by museum professionals, artists and activists since the 1980s to ‘expose’ the ‘power structures of white establishment culture, corporate America, and the federal government’. The art market is indicted as an additional ‘colonizing force’, such that today, according to Viso, there are ‘two incompatible art worlds: one committed to inclusion, artistic freedom and change, the other driven by money and entitlements’. (Incompatible? The last 200 years of artmaking would suggest the opposite.)

Viso ends her piece with the following entreaty: ‘The next wave of decolonizing America’s art museums must succeed, because to lose our capacity for empathy in a democracy is not an option’. Viso is not wrong, but for the partisans of decolonisation, it’s not our ‘capacity’ for empathy that is central, but rather who is owed it. According to Decolonize This Place, one of the engines of activism at the centre of the Whitney protests, decolonisation is a ‘perspective’ that, properly deployed, recognises ‘that the settler-colony of the United States was founded on the theft of land, life, and labor over 400 years’, and thus decolonisation ‘necessitates’ the ‘abolition of prisons and police, borders and bosses, empires and oligarchs’, what is elsewhere identified as the ‘dynamics of contemporary racial capitalism’.

If racial and ethnic identity are inextricable from the process of decolonisation, then the process should require that every player be so identified

Though both Viso and Decolonize This Place position racial justice as crucial to the decolonial project, the latter is careful to point out that racial and ethnic identity cannot be taken as a proxy for a commitment to decolonisation. And yet race and identity remain, if not central, then at least priority categories for the ‘solidarity between struggles’ that Decolonize This Place describes as its ‘work’. Why else quote Xaviera Simmons’s 2 July call in the pages of The Art Newspaper for ‘whiteness’ to ‘undo itself’, a call that was meant to challenge how ‘white art critics’ had been ‘condescending and dismissive’ of the art in the Whitney Biennial? Simmons’s ‘undoing’ was echoed just a couple of days later, and more explicitly, in the pages of The New York Times by Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang, who, in ‘The Dominance of the White Male Critic’, decry that identity and state that the members of its persuasion ‘ought to step aside and make room for… writers of color’. (But wait. Wasn’t Holland Cotter’s review of the show glowing and justly sensitive to much of the art’s new politics of form? Wasn’t it Linda Yablonsky in The Art Newspaper and Nadje Sayej in The Guardian and Debra Solomon on WNYC who dismissed the show’s lack of radicality?)

Nevertheless, if racial and ethnic identity are inextricable from the process of decolonisation, then the process should require that every player be so identified. Which means that, in response to Decolonize This Place’s question, ‘What are we willing to sacrifice?’, the uncomfortable but wholly accurate answer (but not the only one) would be: a rich Jew, who supported Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for president, and whose business interests and place on the Whitney’s board of trustees had been reported back in 2015 – two biennials ago. And yet. I don’t believe that the partisans on either side of this controversy want to traffic in racial animus or cynical rhetoric, not the partisans of pragmatic reform (cleaner money, higher pay, more ‘inclusion, artistic freedom, and change’), nor the believers in the beloved community that will come after capitalism’s demise (after decolonisation, after ‘money and entitlements’, after Kanders). But racial animus and cynical rhetoric is what we have. Righteousness and reaction are what we’re feeding on. And there is shockingly little empathy to go around. 

It’s a culture war. And everyone is losing. 

Jonathan T.D. Neil is a contributing editor of ArtReview 

Online exclusive published on 16 August 20019