Newsletter 302

Published September 2, 2019
NYC remembers Michael Stewart & regrets Donald Trump

This week I’m writing about Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. It’s a relatively small show, but one that raises more questions than any other display I saw during a week’s visit to the USA. To start with, would any of Australia’s public art museums host an exhibition that denounces the local police force as liars, racists and murderers? Or invite a allow a self-professed “revolutionist” like Chaédria Labouvier, to act as guest curator?  It doesn’t seem very likely, considering that – unlike the Guggenheim – each of them is heaviliy dependent on government for funding.

Neither have we reached the same stage of social outrage over the unfair treatment of minorities by the police force. It’s not as if Australia doesn’t have plenty of examples of Aboriginal people being brutalised and unfairly victimised by racist police officers, but in America those cases are so well-documented, so blatant and prevalent, that it has become a major political flashpoint.

There is an ongoing anger in the United States about the way the most brazen crimes committed by the police are invariably dismissed in court. Basquiat’s Defacement tells the story of one such case: the 1983 death of artist, Michael Stewart, beaten and strangled by police who have never accepted responsibility. The incident shocked the artist community of the East Village, drawing responses from figures such as Basquiat and Keith Haring.

What makes the Guggenheim show so unique is that it deals with one specific incident and its aftermath rather than those abstract ‘issues’ so beloved of contemporary artists. It’s an event in which the political message arises naturally from the occasion, with genuine grief and anger. As such it resembles Goya’s version of political art rather than those laborious, cerebral works of the present day that merely massage our left-liberal predilections.

The wider relevance of Basquiat’s Defacement is that it connects with the triumphant return of racism and racially-motivated violence in the Trump era. The Guggenheim has taken a stand, one wonders if other major cultural institutions will be motivated to follow. The fascinating aspect of this is where politics comes into conflict with a museum’s donor base, because a lot of major sponsors are Republicans, if not actual Trump supporters.

In America the heavy reliance on private money means that latent conflicts are everywhere. The Brooklyn Museum, for instance, has an Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre for Feminist Art – which seems like a textbook piece of progressive sponsorship until one realises that the Sackler money is bound up with America’s opioid crisis. While activists have stepped forward to defend Elizabeth in particular, it will be a long time before the cloud over the Sacklers is lifted.

Between the risk of offending government sponsors in Australia, and alienating private ones in America, there are plenty of reasons why art museums should take a rigidly conservative approach to exhibition programming. This is, of course, utterly contrary to the rhetoric of so much contemporary art, which sees itself as “challenging”, “subversive” and “avant-garde”. A popular solution to the problem is to put on shows that strike all the right attitudes but effectively challenge nothing. It’s a rare moment when an exhibition steps outside that game of political charades, and speaks with urgency of a social injustice that still needs to be adressed.

This week’s movie review looks at Matteo Garrone’s Dogman, a gripping tale set in a squalid, neglected corner of Italy. It’s the story of a little man and a big man, which might be intrepreted as the individual versus the state – although one only thinks in these terms long after the credits have finished rolling. It’s a reading that would have appealed to the ‘Autonomia’ crowd in Italy, but most viewers will see only a tragic study in personality and an award-winning performance by Marcello Fonte. It’s not that movies or exhibitions shouldn’t be subject to the broadest interpretetions, but unless our attention and sympathies are engaged on the most primary level all the rest counts for nothing.