Art Should Speak to People about Politics:  Stop Art-Washing the Rich

Ideas and Issues

Milan   Eight artists notified the Whitney Museum of American Art that they wanted their works withdrawn from the Whitney’s Biennial unless Warren Kanders, the vice-chairmen stepped down or was removed.  There were protests at the museum.  Kanders resigned as a distraction.

As the New York Times, reports the issue,

“Kanders owns Safariland, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based manufacturer of law enforcement and military supplies including bulletproof vests, bomb-defusing robots, gun holsters and tear gas. Protesters had demanded Mr. Kanders’s resignation, or removal from the board, after reports that Safariland’s tear-gas grenades had been used against migrants at the United States-Mexico border and elsewhere during protests.”

The protests, organized by Decolonize this Place were right.  Kanders should have gone.  None of us have stopped the way Kanders and people like him make their money, but we can try, and we can stand against “art-washing” and other ways that the rich attempt to pretend that they are not influencing people and politics with their appropriation of art and culture for their own purposes.  This is part of a refreshing and healthy movement by artists – and the public – in pushing back at the way art and cultural institutions have enabled the rich.  The efforts to force major museums in the US and Britain, including the Tate Modern, to either return or stop taking contributions from the Sackler family, whose wealth flows from Purdue Pharma and the hawking and killing of thousands in the opioid crisis, is another front in this fight.  And, there needs to be more if art and culture are to be taken from the rich and returned to the people.

It was shocking to read the tone-deaf and lame comments of Whitney’s director, who embraces and whitewashes this, as the Times reported further.

The growing influence of these movements, and their potential to drive away major sources of museums’ revenue such as Mr. Kanders, was evident in the reaction of Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s director. “Here’s a man who has given a tremendous amount of his time and money to young, often edgy and radical artists — somebody who is very progressive — that’s one of the ironies of all this,” Mr. Weinberg said. “The Whitney Museum is one of the most progressive, the most diverse, the most engaged, open programs of any major institution in the country,” Mr. Weinberg added. “Every museum director is looking at us right now and saying, ‘Gee, if the Whitney is being targeted, what’s going to happen to us?’”

Sorry, we aren’t all invited to Director Weinberg’s pity party, and that his job just became an itsy-bitsy bit harder because he has to care about the impact on people and not just suck up to any donor with a high net worth statement.  If the Whitney can’t be accountable and can’t be bothered by the taint on the dollars it begs, then it may be a lot of things to the rich, but it is decidedly not a progressive institution.  What balderdash!

All of which was striking as we visited the Padigilone d’Arte Contemporanea or PAC in Milan, where the featured art on every floor showcased the work and career of Anna Maria Maiolino, the great artist and feminist.  She focused on women.  She raised the issue of migrants, as she had been from Italy to New York to Argentina and now Brazil.  Her work was moving and powerful.   Entering the PAC, one was first arrested by a mural drawn on the outside wall by the street artists Blu and Ericalacane.  There was no artifice to it.  The images were startling.  The rich were defecating. The people and children were eating it.  And there was more.  Was their controversy?  Yes, but not about the subject.  The controversy was over whether or not “street art,” which is peoples’ art, should have been commissioned by PAC, and whether or not it was being commodified.  In Bologna, in an earlier controversy, Blu had destroyed twenty pieces of his street art to protest museums seeking to take street art from the walls for their displays.

Sorry to the Whitney leadership and that of other hoity-toity institutions, but these are real issues.  If they want to stay clear of them, they need to stop allowing art and culture washing by and for the rich, and start thinking about how they might serve all of the public, not just a small and privileged piece of the people trying to paint a better picture of themselves, more than serve.

Please enjoy Love is Strange by the Steve Miller Band. Thanks to KABF.