In the past, when people wondered how to live moral lives, they could look to the saints, or take their questions to church.
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June 23, 2017 – Free MCAT CARS Practice
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In the past, when people wondered how to live moral lives, they could look to the saints, or take their questions to church. Today, some of us might instead turn our attention to art and the institutions that house it.
That’s what several dozen artists did, for a related but different reason, last December during the United Nations climate talks in Paris. One afternoon, in a week when crucial policy negotiations were underway, hundreds of environmental activists gathered outside the Louvre to protest the museum’s sponsorship ties to two of the world’s largest oil companies. Among the demonstrators were members of politically minded art collectives like Occupy Museums and Not an Alternative, from the United States, and Liberate Tate, from England.
Carrying open black umbrellas that spelled out the phrase “Fossil Free Culture,” most of them stayed in the plaza around the museum’s glass pyramid, singing and reading position statements. Meanwhile, inside the museum, another action was in progress. Ten performers poured an oily liquid onto the atrium floor and walked barefoot through it, creating a chaotic pattern of footprints before the police moved in.
The Louvre performance was one of a growing number of protests recently directed at large international art institutions, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Some museums were urged to stop taking money from ethically dubious corporate or personal sources, including board members who deny that climate change is underway. Others were called out for condoning, if not actively supporting, inhumane labor practices, like those imposed on migrant workers building new Guggenheim and Louvre franchises in Abu Dhabi.
Comparable protests in the past were usually aimed directly at corporations or at major universities, like Harvard, with elaborate corporate connections. That museums are now targets says something about their newly perceived status. Once considered standoffish, genteel and politically marginal, they are now viewed as being emblematically engaged players within the power network of global capitalism. And some are seen as using that status badly.
Public art museums have long engaged in the exchange of cultural and corporate capital. Museums get money, and in exchange, corporations get to look somewhat nice. In 1983, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened a Midtown branch that was paid for, and named for, the Philip Morris tobacco company, which for decades had steadfastly denied that smoking causes lung cancer. The Whitney escaped sustained censure for its alliance, partly because America was still a cigarette culture, but also because museums still retained an aura of moral superiority left over from a more romantic era. They were still temples of art, repositories for the creative best that humanity had to offer.
Few people see them that way anymore. In the 21st century, greater and greater wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. And a significant number of those hands are snapping up investment-worthy contemporary art. Much of the art in these competing, market-vetted private and corporate collections is being consigned to museum premises. Aggressively shaping themselves into this new dynamic, museums have, in turn, adopted corporate strategies: relentless expansion, user-friendliness, slick advertising.
To some degree, the museums have benefited, at least financially. Urban museums that have mastered these strategies most successfully are crowded places — destination brands; busy, event-driven entertainment centers. But as generators of life lessons, shapers of moral thinking, explainers of history, they no longer matter, because they’re not asking people to look for any of that.
Could anything change this dynamic? Maybe telling the truth about history, including their own, could. Periodically, in past decades, they’ve been forced to do this. Such was the case in the 1960s, when a group of antiwar, pro-labor artists, loosely united under the name Art Workers’ Coalition, connected the dots linking some members of the Museum of Modern Art’s board of trustees to the governmental and economic forces backing the Vietnam War, including companies that manufactured napalm.
The artists staged guerrilla performances inside MoMA and designed one of the most potent art images, a poster using a photograph of the dead at My Lai, with the caption “Q. And babies? A. And babies.” The museum stonewalled, and the moment passed. But the reality that museums are, or can be, ethically and politically compromised had been exposed.
It was exposed again in 1969, when the Met mounted the exhibition “Harlem on My Mind.” The Met’s stated purpose was to attract African-American visitors, a neglected constituency, to the museum. But actions speak louder than words. The show consisted of photomurals, slides, films, texts and audio recordings, but no art, in the traditional sense, at all. The takeaway was that the Met had deemed no work by Harlem artists worthy of display. In the view of some visitors, the show had inadvertently betrayed the curators’ real feelings about their target audience. And members of that audience pushed back.
Black artists picketed the show, and soon afterward took their activist anger to other New York museums. (This history is fully documented in Susan E. Cahan’s new book, “Mounting Frustration: The Art Museum in the Age of Black Power.”) By organizing the show, the Met had, in ways it could not have predicted, raised political consciousness about de facto racial segregation and exclusion in American art and its institutions. That segregation would loosen only gradually, in what is still very much a work in process. But a crucial impetus for progress can be traced to that exhibition.
Exhibitions come and go; displays of work from a museum’s permanent collection are on view all the time. Supervised by staff curators, these exhibits are the true indicators of how an institution thinks about art as evidence of history. Yet even in a museum like the Met, whose globe-spanning collections are rich and deep enough to yield many narratives, and opportunities to revise, correct and expand these narratives, very little attempt at exploratory truth-telling can be found.
Adapted from Nytimes.
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