“The Whitney is first and foremost a museum. It cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role. – Adam Weinberg, Director, Whitney Museum of American Art
Just by chance I spotted Adam Weinberg at the opening of the 2005 Venice Biennale, high atop the floating WPS1 Venice radio station, having a pleasant afternoon cocktail chat, I would suppose, with a few of his art world comrades. It was an utterly sublime scene to say the least, enough to give anyone outside of this inside crowd a healthy dose of FOMO. Actually, the gentleman on the left looks eerily like Jeff Bezos, but who knows… all is serene & swell on the Grand Canal.
Fast forward to last year when Weinberg is confronted by a board member crisis: it turns out that one of the trustees, Warren B. Kanders, manufactures tear gas that has been used to fight TRUMP’s War on Immigrants at the US Mexican border in Tijuana. As if this weren’t bad enough, Mr. Kanders pretends this is a not problem by claiming “we can all agree that uncontrolled riots pose a serious threat.” This statement could come from a press briefing at the White House.
The Whitney has long been one of the art world’s havens for political and socially engaged art, particularly its Biennial Exhibition, which has been a platform for showcasing the work of such provocative artists as Hans Hacke, Barbara Krueger, Nan Goldin, Yvonne Rainer, et al. Now these same artists are up in arms, publishing a letter urging the Whitney to remove Kanders from the board. Additionally, a majority of the artists and collectives whose work has been selected for the upcoming Biennial have also signed the letter.
Now all of this has been detailed in the New York Times and Hyperallergic, but I wanted to express my utter shock and dismay that Adam Weinberg either doesn’t recognize or refuses to acknowledge the role, that in fact, the artist and the museum have a responsibility to uphold in society. For without the ethical commitment on the part of our cultural institutions, particularly in light of the TRUMPological moral emergency we find ourselves in, America is truly sunk. I would go so far to say that museums must be on the leading edge of defending the underlying values of humanity and MUST do their part in helping to “right the ills in an unjust world.”
Without the embrace of what is right and what is wrong in society, the contemporary art museum would simply be a playpen for the rich and socially connected, which in many ways it already is. To deny this awesome responsibility, as Adam Weinberg seems to have conveyed, is to say he would prefer to be morally free to sip his Chardonnay on the Grand Canal by accepting dirty money from anyone willing to support the Whitney. When our museum directors appear to be no less callous and hardly more ethically responsible than the monster who sits in the White House, we are clearly in BIG TROUBLE.
If you don’t think it matters what people in positions of power believe, both in art and politics, I recite Jean Cocteau from his film Orpheus:
“You don’t have to understand. You just have to believe. Where are we? Life is a long death… This is no-man’s land. Here are men’s memories and the ruins of their beliefs.”
The only thing that separates life in America from the wasteland of the Underworld, is what we believe, what we hold sacred, and how we conduct our lives to defend a more just world.