Why Art World Protests Against Renoir, Israel, Paul McCarthy or Anything Else Are Bad Politics
Are political protestors exploiting artworks and museums for media attention?
2015 may well go down in art world history as the year of protests directed at artists, artworks, museums, and museum shows. We’ve all seen the placards, heard the rhetoric from megaphones, but who among us, until now, has stopped to tally the load?
In the last twelve months, protests have been directed at such targets as Renoir’s late portraits, a museum’s celebration of Monet’s Japonisme, live horses in a commercial gallery, the use of turtles in an art installation, the Israeli Pavilion at the Venice Biennale (twice), oil companies funding exhibitions, cartoonists, gulf labor conditions, racially charged art films, Bill Cosby’s art collection, as well as statues and public sculptures of various kinds ranging from a Paul McCarthy butt plug in Paris to a statue of British colonialist and industrialist Cecil Rhodes in South Africa.
What does it all mean?
Let me make a provocative statement: much of the protesting that is going on around artworks and museums has nothing to do with art but is opportunism on the part of individuals using artists, artworks and museums to bring attention to their causes. The subject of the protests may well be legitimate and real but the object is little more than a convenient springboard.
As a secular humanist, I favor communication and exchange between all people. I’m at odds on principle, and also as a matter of pragmatics, with protesting artwork and museums or cultural activity in general. I opposed the cultural boycott of the Soviet Union as, today, I oppose it against Iran as well as the recent spate of academic/artistic and cultural boycotts of Israel. To me, the cultural boycott of Israel is particularly wrongheaded and divisive. I don’t like the idea of intolerantly targeting a group of people, or a nation, especially in the tolerant art world where I make my living. This sort of collective “shaming” breeds hate.
But that’s not the subject of this essay, so no long letters on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict please! I’m more interested in how, more generally, artists, artworks, and museums have become targets for individuals looking to publicize themselves as well as social and political grievances.
On one level, it’s admirable that people care enough about art to get out and protest for or against it. Art still matters, to a few people anyway. We can also agree to disagree with one another without resorting to violence, which is saying something.
But on another level, it seems to me that these protests have nothing to do with art and that artists, artworks and museums have become magnets for those individuals and groups looking to publicize a cause. In our digitally connected live-streaming world, the event of the protest takes center media stage, especially if the artist or institution is provoked into a response. It’s an easy kind of baiting, engaging in a provocative act to elicit a response and create a story for the news where there really is no story. That’s how online harassment works and it’s the new soft politics of protest. Like arsonists, many of these people just love to see a blaze.
The success of the protest hinges on media attention, hence the effort that is made to tip off the press in advance. I see it more and more frequently in my e-mail inbox, at artnet News, with solicitations from protestors looking to publicize and therefore legitimate questionable social activities. The media love it because of the perceived threat to cultural property, or to a public institution which we all care about. In short, the storyline taps into a pervasive and deeply rooted fear of cultural vandalism and destruction.
Perhaps this fear is heightened, today, by all of the cultural destruction that is going on around us. It is appalling that 4 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes and many hundreds of thousands killed in the seemingly endless civil conflict in that country. And yet I am embarrassed to admit that what has touched and even outraged me most about this conflict is the bombing of Palmyra and other ancient ruins: the feeling of loss somehow seems more profound and personal to me given that these ruins have stood for thousands of years, were part a collective human history and patrimony, and now can never be regained.
Then again that is probably the reason why they were targeted for destruction—to elicit the media attention and wider international public outrage. It is also probably why, twice this year already, groups have stormed and occupied the Israeli pavilion at the Venice Biennale. This venue alone among a world community of nations at the Biennale is unfairly a lightening rod for controversy: protests here have nothing to do with Palestinians or Israelis or even with art, but finding a venue for protest that will generate maximum anxiety and media buzz.
I don’t want to diminish the troubling situation in the Middle East, or the plight of the Palestinians or the Jewish state, but it seems to me that people everywhere today seem to be conflating big things and little things, injustice and inconvenience, outrage and irritation—there’s no compass any more about what is socially and morally acceptable behavior. Don’t like breakfast burritos—protest Taco Bell! By all means, protest a social or political wrong. But there are times when lines should be drawn because a protest goes beyond the pale of what constitutes acceptable behavior. Protesting Renoir paintings at a museum is an obvious case. So is disrupting the Venice Biennale.
“The lady doth protest too much,” Shakespeare famously said. Right.
It seems to me that most of the recent protests against art museums and artworks are socially, morally, and culturally indefensible or at very least questionable. They are not pragmatic, as a protest form, given the object, artist or venue has little instrumentality to impact the issue in question. Even if an artwork itself is the direct subject of the protest, what is the expected outcome of the protest? Removal? Censorship? The very laws which protect the right of artists and others to free expression enable protestors to take to the streets to denounce them. Paradox.
Having a right to protest should not be confused with what’s socially right or wrong. Let’s stop improperly using art and museums to set ablaze ferocious social and political debate. We all lose.
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