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The MoMA and History

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I am a member of the New York Museum of Modern Art. It is a cultural icon. I have always believed that public art galleries and museums ought to be neutral on matters of politics, even if individual artists obviously are not. Once upon a time museums and galleries in the free world showed art without political judgment. Their values were aesthetic, influenced by Greek philosophy and the pursuit of perfection. But then with the rise of both fascism and communism, art became a tool of propaganda.

On a visit last week to the MoMA, I was upset at how it has allowed politics to cloud its aesthetic judgment and betray its mission. First I saw a really impressive exhibition on the fourth level, of the multitalented American artist Robert Rauschenberg, which I heartily recommend. Then I went up a level to look at the display of modern art from the MoMA’s own permanent collection.

I was immediately struck by something strange about the juxtaposition of art on display. It juxtaposed the greatest artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with some decidedly third-rate artwork. For example, there was a painting that would have embarrassed a second-year art school student of limited talent, 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 it was a mistake. But then I saw that it was intentional. They had put up work from very average artists from the Middle East in between those from the West. And under every one of them was 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.”

This refers to the so-called Trump Muslim ban, even if neither Egypt, Turkey, nor any of the four largest Muslim countries in the world, were included in the presidential order. Other museums, it seems, decided to remove artwork by all immigrants, as if the order had stopped all immigration into the USA.

The problem of course is not just whether museums should take political stands, important as that is. But to also define the parameters of legitimate and fair political debate. 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 nationalists, but taboo to criticize Black Lives Matter.

The Iranian journalist Neda Amin, fled for her life from Iran for expressing opposition to the government and claimed asylum in Turkey in 2014. She was tipped off that she was going to be arrested by Turkish authorities and extradited to Iran. 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 (and of course I include the media) will 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 un-write the American constitution because it was written by slave owners, or dial back on American independence because the war against Britain was waged by slave owners as well? If so, we should ban Islam altogether, for it was for a thousand years the largest slave-trading culture in the world. Some think it still is.

Some argue that anyone who once owned slaves ought not to have a statue on public display. But isn’t there a difference between those who fought for the South on purely political grounds and, like Robert E. Lee on being defeated, then turned to reconciliation and liberation? Surely a different case than those justices who supported the Dred Scott Supreme Court 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.

Should we remove Lincoln from his throne on public display in Washington and any public statues to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. 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?

Kings and queens were once venerated. They combined state and religion. Statues were built. But then we learnt to take them out of politics. To make them symbolic. We no longer look to them to rule. History has moved on. Yet despite the Civil War in Britain there are statues to Cromwell as well as King Charles.

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 as propaganda, to celebrate, to inform. Perhaps we should now abandon public statues as an archaic art form of communication. We know if we go to a Holocaust or slavery museum what the agenda will be. Let us not pretend there is such a thing as objectivity. The myth of one American nation is no longer sustainable.

We have reached this crisis because the fascists on the Left (of course, I do not suggest all left-wingers are fascists, any more than all right-wingers are Nazis) have been allowed to get away with physical violence on campuses in the USA, in Europe, and at the G20 conferences (remember Hamburg this year). Violence instead of argument. Left-wing and right-wing violence are just two sides of the same coin (as were Stalin and Hitler). We are seeing violence breed violence. The failure of governments and police forces to prevent violence only encourages more. Though police in Boston last week got it right! Keep them apart and give the fanatics on both sides no opportunity to fight.

We who abhor violence have to struggle all the more for intellectual honesty and objectivity.  Mark Lilla, 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. Although Noam Chomsky has called the antics of the Antifa a major gift to the Right.

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 institutions of culture like museums and galleries to be objective and balanced. To present information in an unbiased way, to allow the public to come to its own conclusions. 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.”

6 thoughts on “The MoMA and History

  1. I don’t believe in ‘neutrality’ in art. I believe in telling a story. I wouldn’t want to be so neutral, that I would promote a neo nazi artist in my museum, because I don’t believe in promoting a story that goes against the very essence of my being. These stories matter- they can influence the world for good or for bad. Whether the Mona Lisa has a mysterious smile is an aesthetic unimportant thing in the great scheme of things, but whether a person believes that some people are inferior, and despicable just because their ‘culture’ is wrong does matter. As for Judaism…some people think that worshipping the golden calf was the greatest collective sin that our tribe committed but I believe it was that some Jews took part in the slave trade/ownership and that in view of our Jewish identities (our God is the One who freed us from slavery) that was a chilul Hashem that has never been adequately addressed by am Yisrael. (I acknowledge that many wonderful Jewish people have helped in regard to abolition and the civil rights movement). but this blog post is a good example of how instead of being allies with movements such as Black Lives Matter, we are trivializing a great injustice in society. So good on you MOMA for taking a political stand against an unjust political action!)

    1. Thank you Jennifer for putting your point of view. Indeed many Jews still will not listen to Wagner’s music because of his anti Semitism. Some argue that one only considers the art and not the artist. And however much it pains me, I have to say that if we were to exclude Roman and Greek or indeed Christian art for the evil their artists stood for and perpetrated we would be the poorer for it.

      On the other hand I do believe you are right in saying that Art can and should tell a story. But I draw a distinction between museums dedicated to a specific narrative and say so, such as Black History, Holocaust or indeed Confederacy. And on the other hand museums dedicated to collecting artifacts of an era or culture where they should be neutral collectors. If one wishes to present one political point of view I think they have a moral obligation to present a different one.

      We have now come to accept that the exception is where art overtly supports violence against another group within society. Which is why Germany will not publicly display Nazi artifacts. This is why I would not suppoprt free expression of neo Nazism, Klu Klux Klan art in the USA. But do not think you can compare the Confederacy to Nazi Germany however much we may disapprove of its suppprt for slavery at the time.

      This is a subject that merits discussion and debate. Thank you again.

      1. “But do not think you can compare the Confederacy to Nazi Germany”. I don’t believe that this is the ‘framing’ that is relevant to this question. It’s like saying, is 1 death worse than a 1000 deaths: people can make arguments for either side, but do we really want to go there? In the Torah a person was never meant to be a permanent enslaved, mostly the word slave was in effect what we refer to as an indentured servant. But in Egypt, we were even born enslaved- for example, our babies were killed just to control the population levels. In the transatlantic slave trade, it was a fact that people were born into slavery, and their children’s, and children’s children- generations long. This history is too despicable for words- I want to say inhuman, but humans did/do this to their fellow humans. So the question isn’t: is the Confederacy as bad as Nazi Germany, but: what are the values we wish to espouse? Because this really matters. The Confederacy does stand for slave ownership and white superiority. After the transatlantic slave trade was abolished, the previously enslaved were given nothing and continued to be oppressed by Jim Crow laws. Black people have been a people that were/are treated as being inferior, ever since, worthy of being lynched, being forced to live in ghettos, being denied access to the professions, aren’t these comparable to the Jewish condition? Why oh why do we celebrate Pesach every year, if we can’t identify with a people who have endured a more recent history of slavery. The 10 commandments begin with an uttering from God about our liberation from slavery (and that statement contains an implicit value judgement about how evil an institution slavery is.). Thank you too for listening and taking my arguments seriously.

        1. Jennifer

          I take your arguments and criticisms very seriously and appreciate your engagement.

          There’s no question that slavery in the past and the present is a dastardly, evil, corruption that has and still does destroy life, lives and is an affront to humanity in general let alone supposedly civilized countries. No culture or people in history regardless of color or religion of any race has been free of blame .

          So no one I hope is in any way minimizing the evil that it was and is. I don’t think you can point to anything I have said that would indicate otherwise.

          It is true, Confederacy has been adopted by racists and Neo Nazis. But the point I wish to make is that Liberal, Democratic values have also been debased , mainly by thugs mascerading as Marxists, Anarchists and Nihilists who believe that violence is legitimate to achieve their goals. Which puts them in category of evil that must also be fought against otherwise it will corrode free, liberal, multi ethic societies.

          It was not my intention to suggest equivalence but rather comparison of methods. In terms of pure numbers in fact, the Left puts more violent feet and fists into demonstrations around the USA and the free world today, than the Right.

          1. Jeremy Rosen, unfortunately I don’t have the time or the information readily at hand to show you. All that I can say, is that even though there is antisemitism on the left, it doesn’t discredit all left-wingers. Your mindset against the left lacks a nuanced examination of what’s important. I, personally have pacifistic leanings, however we are not a people of ‘turn the other cheek’ (it’s suicide), and I am grateful for those people who have ever resorted to necessary violence to protect the values/rights/freedoms we enjoy today. If you look at the history of change (women rights, workers rights, gay rights, rights of Jews to equal treatment) these rights have not been won without struggle, often violent struggle. People don’t just give you rights because you’ve made a sensible, reasonable argument (that’s not how the world works.). That’s why when we see people from organizations like ‘Black Lives Matters’ and we immediately write them off, we do them a real injustice, because the racism that they face today is connected with the slave trade, just as there’s a historical context that still lives on in the antisemitism that we see today.

          2. Jennifer

            Of course not all people on the Left are of one colour or opinion. I regard myself as being left. I have never ever voted for a conservative or right wing party.

            But I strongly object to certain Left Wing nostra ( I dont even consider most Right Wing nostra seriously). I find intersectionality a dangerous concept that obscures nuance. I find certain unions hypocritically standing in the way of progress, preserving closed shops and privileges over the genuine needs of students and workers. And I strongly oppose violence even in pursuit of legitimate ends ( other than self defense). That is a typically Marxist dogma I deplore. I am a great admirer of Ghandi and other non-violent heroes.

            This is why I have no problem criticizing abuses on both sides.

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