Art people have been shocked by the postponement, possibly until 2024, of a major exhibition, “Philip Guston Now,” by the institutions that were scheduled to mount it: the National Gallery of Art, in Washington; the Tate Modern, in London; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I shared the reaction until I thought about it. At issue are some darkly comic paintings by the great American artist which feature cartoonish Ku Klux Klan figures smoking cigars, tootling around in open cars, and generally making fools of themselves. The dark part consists of abject self-portraiture, the focus of works, including the Klan pictures, that dumbfounded the art world when first shown, in 1970. At fifty-seven, Guston had trashed his status as the most sensitive stylist of Abstract Expressionism and unclenched raucous pictorial confessions of fear and loathing. Stricken with such regrets as having, in 1935, disguised his identity as the son of impoverished Jewish immigrants (his father hanged himself in 1923) by changing his name from Goldstein, he presented himself as a sad sack beset by bad habits and bad thoughts.
The subject matter is self-lacerating, albeit antic. The form stuns with visceral color, prehensile line, and the most insinuative brushwork of any modern painter, all indirectly nourished by Guston’s passionate reverence for Renaissance masters. He as much as announced that he had nothing going for him except a way with a brush, which he then exalted from a subbasement of the soul. Long resisted by many—I was slow to come around myself, having venerated his abstractions—the body of work has outlasted, in authenticity and quality, that of every other American painter since. As an inspiration and a challenge, he companions innumerable young painters everywhere, to this day. (He died, of a heart attack, in 1980.) A celebration by leading institutions is entirely in order. As for the Klansmen, they first appeared briefly, as murderous lynchers, in works that Guston, a lifelong leftist, made in the thirties. Do they lurk, repressed, in his abstractions? This would help to explain the mysterious tension in some of even his most elegant Abstract Expressionism, before they resurfaced as psychological cats out of bags.
But . . . the white hoods, icons of evil at the pitch of swastikas. Guston’s Klansmen are the first—and likely the last—things that most people will notice in the paintings at a time when it can seem that no symbol is safe from being politicized, let alone one already steeped in politics. What public reception to Klan imagery in a show of a white artist can the museums have expected? (A revolt against it began with staff members at the National Gallery.) Always risky, perhaps, the unintended but inevitably incendiary provocation belongs to a pre-2020 age of educated innocence. Does it now reveal the boundary of an art culture that is maintained by and for members of an élite so confident of virtue—putatively independent of race and class, democratically self-selected, oozing benignity—as to be unconscious of existing as such? Suddenly silhouetted, the faction is made up of a scant minority of citizens who take an active interest in art and espouse cosmopolitan values—the culturally privileged, whom museums represent and serve while, these days, laudably trying to extend their appeal to neglected audiences.
The National Gallery’s director, Kaywin Feldman, has said that the postponement—note, not the cancellation—responds to “a tough time in America.” That’s putting things mildly. The Guston affair is a symptom of a society-wide deterioration of trust in institutions and tolerance for uncongenial expression. Harsh light falls on long-tacit norms. Consider the fact, cited by Feldman as a decisive concern of the museum, that the curators of the show, with its racially charged content, are all white. A time-out to recontextualize does not, contrary to the thrust of an art-world open letter protesting the postponement, first published by the Brooklyn Rail and then quoted in the Times, constitute cowardice at a national institution. (Feldman now says that the show is likely to open sooner than was initially announced.)
In a small way, the controversy exemplifies divisions that are splintering the United States: votes of no confidence in the good will of contending interests. (Signatories to the letter include Black artists and intellectuals, as the conflict is widely cultural, not narrowly demographic.) Any difference may breed enmity. In our Partisan States of America, we watch our words—or, perversely, don’t—for fear of, or with ardent intent of, offending. Offense doesn’t spur debate; it replaces it. With apologies for amateur punditry, I doubt that this will stop after the Presidential election even if the conciliatory-minded Biden wins, with liberal unity against Trump fragmenting and rightists incubating ungodly new species of insurrection.
Welcome to an argument with myself, as I risk the appearance of wielding cancel culture against my lifelong allies in the cause of art. Regarding Guston’s Klansmen, I’m ambushed by imagining the intractable opposition of people who neither find humor nor seek subtlety in racist symbology. Guston’s subject is moral anguish, which, I suspect, increasingly amounts to a thorny luxury for old-fashioned and atomized liberals like me. Am I underrating the comprehension of viewers new to Guston? Do I condescend? I can’t rule it out. But what worries me is the assumption by art-world peers of mine that artistic license is an unexceptionable principle, rather than a persuasion of fortune-favored, cultivated liberal sentiment and taste. If I sound populist here, it’s because I’m the kind of liberal who is perhaps oversensitive to the feelings of all constituencies. Having, in thought, stepped outside my cohort, I can’t with honesty jump back in, however pained I may be that I won’t get to see an assuredly wonderful show in the coming months. I remain preoccupied by the sense of a crisis that spills beyond the misapprehension of a should-be canonical artist. The trouble resonates backward as well as forward in time. Indeed, it is endemic to democracy, a seething of differences that now and then boils over.
The cosmopolitan cast of modern art culture has a history. Until almost the middle of the twentieth century, in the United States, it could be popularly associated with urban clusters of bohemian mavericks and eccentric patrons, arguably besieged by yahoos. (From a provincial distance, that myth retained just enough zing in 1962 to make me drop out of college and drive non-stop from Minnesota to New York. Well, first to a job in Jersey City.) The glamorization of modernism owed much to the aura of Allied triumph in the Second World War, which established so many other parameters of national amity that have lately, and rapidly, been crumbling. Pioneering institutions and, this being America, the charisma of inrushing wealth closed the deal, giving pause even to yahoos. (You might think that a Jackson Pollock was something your kid could do, and that Andy Warhol’s fame was an emperor’s-new-clothes con, but you became less apt to say so in unfamiliar company.) Aggressive innovation remained a punching bag for conservatives, but arguing back was hardly worth the breath. Cosmopolis won, to its own satisfaction and the apathetic disregard of folk at large. After the sensations of Pop art and the jolts of Minimalism, in the sixties, avant-gardist rebellion turned inward with the esoterica of conceptual art and, later, with applications of critical theory, but they served only to shrink rather than to redraw the public profile of new art. A glaring precedent for the Guston affair came about with malice aforethought in 1989, when institutional displays of Robert Mapplethorpe’s (excellent) homoerotic photographs and Andres Serrano’s (puerile) “Piss Christ” set Senator Jesse Helms, of North Carolina, on a spectacular moralistic crusade. The art world soon recovered its obscurity, except for odd blips, until, as emblematized by the trophy aesthetics of Jeff Koons, its values were transmogrified into the news-making prices paid by a speculative international oligarchy of the ultra-rich.
Art goes on. Art that is transgressive will recur. But it will do so nakedly for anyone who chooses to characterize it, not only for those initiates who congratulate one another on their shared investment in standards of truth, beauty, and good conscience. Cold winds are blowing from the future onto aspirations to provide society, or even segments of society, with a capacity to bridge differences with mutual respect. I’ve often reflected that uses of “we” in critical writing are unavoidably presumptuous, though they are rhetorically meant only to invite, or perhaps to seduce, agreement. I’ve never felt less confidence in the pronoun, at a time of alienations that recall what W. B. Yeats perceived in another pandemic year, 1919: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” ♦