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New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl Retracts, Apologizes for Stance on Detroit

by Mostafa Heddaya on July 26, 2013

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New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl has retracted his position endorsing the sale of the Detroit Institute of Arts collection, a stance which provoked a furor driven in no small part by Hrag Vartanian’s denunciatory piece from Wednesday. Schjeldahl strikes a sincere tone in the brief update and apologizes for his “hasty” conclusion, opaquely quoting Hyperallergic (“a blogger”) in conceding the oversimplicity of his analysis and the significance of cultural patrimony. He writes:

… I retract my hasty opinion for two specific reasons, and because I have a sounder grasp of the issues involved.

First, the facts: I am now persuaded that a sale of the D.I.A.’s art, besides making merely a dent in Detroit’s debt, could not conceivably bring dollar-for-dollar relief to the city’s pensioners. Further, the value of the works would stagger even today’s inflated market. Certainly, no museum could afford them. They would pass into private hands at relatively fire-sale prices.

Second, a heartfelt feeling tripped me into being heartless. …

We appreciate this mea culpa reversal from the New Yorker, and remain curious how this change of heart will reverberate among those in the cultural community who defended the initial story. Schjeldahl’s apology specifically cites the lynchpin of our critique, which is the idea that cultural patrimony is extra-economic, held in trust for the public:

Finally, some acute attacks have shown me the indefensibility of my position. For example, from a blogger, would I “suggest that Greece sell the Parthenon to pay its crippling national debt”? The principle of cultural patrimony is indeed germane, and it should be sacred.

In this respect, he agrees not just with us but with all 190 state signatories to UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention. We found it deeply strange that many were so eager, for one reason or another, to jettison this core premise of culture as ratified by the international community.

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  • Philip Hartigan

    Felt my teeth starting to grind when I read “a blogger.” Reminds me of one of the running jokes from the British satirical weekly Private Eye. Whenever they wanted to suggest someone out of touch, they ran a picture of a dishevelled guy at a computer, below the headline: Pissed Hack Baffled by New Technology.

    • MTA_mutt

      I agree, “a blogger” is a pretty backhanded way of giving credit. But that aside: good for Hrag V. for daring to be so damn passionate about
      this, and equally good for Peter S. for being capable of rethinking his
      initial opinion. Egos put aside and facts considered: excellent.

  • Jeri Seltzer

    is Hrag still mad.

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