Last fall, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., along with three other American museums, announced the postponement of a major show focusing on Philip Guston, the Montreal-born, New York-based painter who had made the hooded gowns of the violently racist Klu Klux Klan a center of his painting, early and late in his career. Citing the possible problem of the audience’s misconstrual of the Klan imagery, in which Guston would have been falsely accused of sympathy for the group, Curator Kaywin Feldman decided to postpone the show. In a letter to the curator, writer Barry Schwabsky, critic for The Nation, wrote sharply in defense of the exhibition’s timely opening; his letter was published in the New York art journal The Brooklyn Rail (later the issue was taken up by The New York Times). Eventually, more than two thousand art-world participants would sign the letter, which criticized the decision to delay the show, seeing the earlier date as a chance to reflect debate about the racist inheritance that has harmed America so deeply.The museum’s decision created an enormously heated controversy, but pressure in favor of an earlier opening resulted in the decision to launch the show in May 2022, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, rather than the 2024 date that had been stated. Thus, it looked like the National Gallery of Art had overthought the issue, anticipating a political misreading of the exhibition that would likely not have occurred.
The controversy seems to be over now, but it indicates ongoing feelings representative of the politicizing, in American art, that characterize our current demand for social and cultural justice. In Guston’s case, though, there is an element of absurdity to the drama: despite the fact that the artist was known throughout his life to have been on the left, museum administrators were worried enough about misinterpretation of his imagery to anticipate an attack and put the show off. The art world was thoroughly in favor of the earlier opening; many of the people who signed Schwabsky’s letter in protest were prominent African-American artists, including Martin Puryear, Lorna Simpson, and Mickalene Thomas. It looks like the situation, bordering on both the absurd and the tragic, has been solved by compromise, but the issues that generated the problem are not going away. The art world is rightly concerned about the rectification of many, many years of neglect in regard to the presentation of work by artists of color. Feeling is fierce: the energy critiquing the politics of art display was so strong as to make seasoned bureaucrats worry in the extreme, resulting in a decision to put off the show.
In addition to the specifics of the Guston controversy, the conflict generally conveys the present power of cultural Marxism, a movement in motion for the better part of a generation. Cultural Marxism, which emphasizes cultural struggle, has supplanted the traditional strongpoint of the left: its emphasis on economic exploitation, as demonstrated by class difference. It looks like the change may be lasting; in my experience, students are no longer talking about economic difference so much as they are exploring issues involving personal attributes–identity art has come to the fore. Arguments about the economy of art have been left behind. But the question remains, How can we effectively embrace a political morality that would promote progressive results without constraining discussion of the issues? This is a secondary question, given that, in response to the general outcry regarding the postponement of Guston’s show, the delay was cut by two full years. But the pressure the museum officials must have felt in pushing the show’s opening years into the future is an indication of just how charged political representations of art have become. That even so established an artist as Guston, one of the most important 20th-century American painters of both abstraction and social reality, would be subject to such political doubt, underscores the upheaval in cultural thinking.
So art is now being subjected to a political scrutiny unlike anything I have seen in some forty years of writing. This makes sense, in part, because of Trump’s presidency, which was devoted to reaction on all fronts. For decades now, there has been next to no federal support of individual artists, whose social morality is ignored. How can the present situation be compared to the political turbulence Guston resolutely faced and made art from? The emphasis has changed: politics have become exquisitely personalized, in ways that have as much to do with the feelings of the protagonists as the intellectual debate at hand. Communication about political issues has been handled in an emotional fashion, which makes sense, given the rigid cast of Trump’s administration. At the same time, it heightens controversy, forcing museums to worry about issues that need to be discussed with a degree of complexity, so that the potential damage can be clearly seen rather than lost to rhetoric. Guston’s courage in confronting the prejudices of his time is evident in the images he chose to paint. But he made no demands on his audience beyond recognition and sympathy; American racial prejudice was laid out to be regarded for what it was, a madness in the extreme.
Guston began as a social realist in the 1930s, with a strong emphasis on progressive politics. Pictures by him often portrayed the dark underside, still present today, of American racism. But then, in the 1950s, he moved out and away from this realism into a moving, sensitive treatment of abstraction, characterized by a compositional style whose elements tended to merge in the center, floating on the whiteness of the canvas. As examples of “abstract impressionism,” the paintings were light in spirit, even delicate in comparison to the giant antagonisms of Pollock. They were fully appreciated at the time they were made, but by the late 1960s, Guston was abandoning his abstraction for a fully demotic style, once again incorporating the hoods and gowns of the Klu Klux Klan, just as he had done at the start of his career. At first, he was almost universally rejected, with the brave exception of de Kooning, who claimed, at Guston’s 1970 opening at Marlborough Gallery, the art was about “freedom.” Now, to art historians, Guston’s change looks more and more like a very courageous attempt to capture social narrative and real life. But to anyone committed to his abstract work, the shift was disturbing. When Guston made his change to a raw, demotic imagery, not only was he addressing the near anarchic turbulence of that moment in time, he also was returning to his painterly past–partially by means of social awareness,
One of the things that is true about Guston’s 1970s nightmare realism is that he spared neither his external reality nor his personal life. There are pictures of him smoking, of him lying in bed with a bottle of alcohol. These are images that corresponded to a roughness in his life. It is also true that the historical issues of racism were again taken up in these paintings in no uncertain terms–the terrible legacy of racial hate was made clear in the reappearance of the Klu Klux Klan gowns. The change in imagery from Guston’s sensitive, harmonious abstractions needs to be explored. It is clear the postponement of the show “Philip Guston Now” would only hold off a necessary discussion contextualizing his portrait of American aggression toward people of color. Without this discussion, the meaning of the show would be truncated, and delaying its opening would delay a conversation that lies at the heart of America’s social and cultural malaise: the appraisal of a person’s worth according to gender, race, sexual preference, nationality, and so on. For some time now, we have been made aware that cultural work has had little influence on society, but the sharp debate governing the role of the image within the arts and their institutions remains energetic and necessary.
It may be, then, that the Guston controversy examples the way we currently argue about culture. In this matter, it is clear that the art world believed in opening the show before the date of its stated delay was necessary–a decision that emphasized the need to discuss the issues the artist’s works bring up. These issues are central to the ongoing exploration of historical and contemporary racism, which has commanded a leading position in our current discussion of art. Perhaps the choice to postpone the show indicates the heightened atmosphere surrounding social issues. Tension is very high, to the point where discussion fails in the face of ethical judgment. It makes no sense, though, to judge Guston for portraying prejudice as if he were the originator of the prejudice himself. In fact, he was diametrically opposed to racism, and clearly anticipated a discussion capable of generating heat today, some forty years after his death in 1980. We continue the investigation of this problem in American history not because it is over, but because it goes on. But the conversation should not occur in an atmosphere determined by opinions treated as absolutes–this resulted in an environment in which it became possible to push to the side a show that would describe some of the worst aspects of American culture. Our treatment of the issues must be looked at now, not later.
That being said, we are living in a time of extreme political differences–some seventy million people voted for Trump, a number that is staggering in light of his destructive policies and behavior. Perhaps the real danger is the populism occurring on both the left and the right, not only in America but throughout the world. Principles are being overturned in favor of romanticizing popular culture, whose ability to address intricate issues of political expression is inherently limited. The questions we face are difficult and demand a broad knowledge of history, politics, economics, and culture. Clearly, despite the cartoon-like imagery we experience in the work of Guston, as it began appearing in the later 1960s, the issues they example need a focus and a resolve that require more than slogans. This has nothing to do with the morality Americans face in its long history of prejudice: racism has always been immoral. It has more to do with the way we consider our problems. Guston’s art used the Klan figures to convey his anger with the reality of the time; it was highly condemnatory as an imagery of unequivocal social protest. It was also prescient, in the sense that prejudice follows us still. The work cannot be separated from the protest it contained, making it some of the best political art ever produced in America.
What, then, can be done to trace the circumstances that surrounded the troubling decision to postpone Guston’s show? Why is the social and political situation currently described in such absolute terms? Have we turned to emotionalism in our treatment of issues that might equally require a complex treatment of the terrible depth of prejudicial behavior in America? These questions are not theoretical, for their answers would reveal how slavery, racism’s major event, developed as an institution. This would allow its consequences to be thoroughly described–and seen for the massive attack on humanity that it is. We are living in a time of quick judgment, and certainly nothing deserves a faster and more complete condemnation than racial prejudice. Time can only tell whether a considered explanation of this great abyss, cutting into the American landscape, can effectively demonstrate the consequences of innate bias or whether immediate action is demanded.
Maybe both approaches need to be followed; maybe the radical immediacy of activism needs to be shored up by the slower process of historical insight: political action always implies a set of circumstances, often long in making, that leads up to it. Yet explanation, a slower process, is also needed, so that we understand why we act the way we do. In the case of Guston, the problem is clear: we mistook the representation of racism as racism itself. Thus Guston’s imagery is a picture of the situation; it is not the actual problem. So the controversy resulted, in part, from a literalization of his work, when a metaphorical understanding of the art–its ability to render in imaginative terms the existence of a historical reality–would define the question in depth. Racism is an ongoing problem that will not quickly go away. Yet a metaphorical reading, in addition to confrontation, of its attributes may prove a useful stratagem; Guston managed to combine the two approaches. Because Guston’s art is so powerful an act of the imagination, it envisions the truth in a way nearly as memorable as the truth itself. His work evidences both courage and the determination to take a stand–qualities that will be readily evident when the show opens in 2022.