The Guggenheim Calls for Greater Civility in Public Discourse While Avoiding Its Own Problems

The Guggenheim Museum’s two days of talks for its “Culture and Its Discontents” event resembled, at its best points, a mediocre rendition of Kum ba yah.

Left to right: Alyssa Mastromonaco, Sally Kohn, Hank Willis Thomas, and Nancy Spector (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

One can only wonder about the politics happening behind the scenes at the Guggenheim Museum’s “Culture and Its Discontents” event last month. No doubt, that background story was more compelling than what audiences saw onstage during the event’s two days of talks, which resembled a mediocre rendition of Kum ba yah at its best points.

The Guggenheim has not had it easy over the last few months, having drawn the anger from animal rights activists, conservative talkshow pundits, journalists, and even the average museumgoer. Drama started in September of last year when animal rights activists pounced on the Guggenheim’s exhibition, China after 1989: Theater of the World, which included three artworks that some saw as promoting animal cruelty. Following the protest — and a petition which has now received over 800,000 signatures — the museum pulled the works from the exhibition. Then in January, this Upper East Side institution found itself headlining Fox News for its cheeky response to the White House’s request for a Van Gogh painting. (The museum rejected the request, offering Maurizio Cattelan’s 2016 satirical gold toilet, “America,” instead.)

With an eagerness to hear the museum’s response to these recent controversies, I went to “Culture and Its Discontents” expecting to find introspection. Instead, I found skillful deflection of the issues. During the first night’s Q&A, curator Nancy Spector clarified that the evening would not reflect explicitly on the substance of the China after 1989 exhibition or the toilet incident, but rather on the “divisive nature of today.” Accordingly, the keynote conversation was largely removed from controversy. Actually, the conversation was largely removed from the art world, as well. CNN contributor Sally Kohn joined A+E Networks’ executive, Alyssa Mastromonaco alongside artist Hank Willis Thomas for a discussion on the psychology behind social media trolls and outrage culture.

On the surface, one could see that these speakers had at least a tenuous relationship to the night’s topic. Thomas’s work often focuses on issues of ethnic identity and racial politics, and Mastromonaco is a former staff member to President Obama, having served from 2011 to 2014. Kohn’s inclusion, however, deserves stronger scrutiny. The political commentator, podcast host and author was pulling double duty at the Guggenheim: promoting her new book, The Opposite of Hate during the keynote, and also throwing a private party in the museum’s atrium. The soirée was sponsored by companies including Tinder and Lifetime TV (and Lifetime is a subsidiary of A+E, which might also explain Mastromonaco’s appearance.) One has to wonder what came first: the down payment on the party or the keynote panel?

Left to right:Hank Willis Thomas, Alyssa Mastromonaco, and Sally Kohn

In what was for me the night’s most embarrassing moment, Kohn suggested that we fix the “fake news” debacle by marking reliable news sources with a “verified” marker, similar to Twitter or Instagram. For someone who regularly makes appearances on one of cable’s most embattled news channels, it’s a little shocking that Kohn wouldn’t think this one through. Who would choose what gets verified? What would happen if a verified publication wrote something factually incorrect? It’s unclear how freedom of press would operate under such a system. Thankfully, Thomas pushed back, pointing out that truth is not empirically verifiable, but a conception. Trump, after all, created a “truth” for many of his followers when he wrongly accused President Obama of being born in Kenya.

Left to right: Suzanne Nossel, Jehmu Greene, Kurt Bardella, Angela Nagle, and Brian Lehrer

Discussion during Saturday’s two panels on contemporary culture wars and outrage culture were much improved. Easily the highlight was writer Angela Nagle who cast the Trump era as a time for questioning both liberal and conservative taboos. Having extensively research troll culture and the alt-right on social media, Nagle isn’t convinced that culture wars are necessarily a bad thing. Rather, she says, they could signal the strength of American democracy —  a provocative theory to offer at the Guggenheim, where staff members were shaken by the protests following China after 1989. (Earlier in the talk, Spector had confirmed that her staff received threats of violence from animal rights activists.) Kurt Bardella, a former media consultant for Breitbart and a lapsed Republican, largely agreed with Nagle. He asked the audience to empathize with people in Middle America who don’t often see themselves reflected in the Democrat’s agenda.

But the Guggenheim did not seem ready to hear out its detractors. After all, Spector began Saturday’s talks by claiming that protests against the museum reflected less on the substance of the museum’s exhibition and more about the divisive nature of today. Yet virtually in the same breath, she asked: How can the museum remain a space of open ideas and foster critical debate? Programmed as it was, “Culture and its Discontents” could never answer that question. Not only because they avoided any culpability in the China after 1989 debacle, but because they simultaneously proclaim to foster an open space while shutting out dissenting voices. There was no actual discontent in the panel, not one conservative (though Bardella used to be one) — and only one visual artist in the whole program. If the Guggenheim wants to be taken seriously as an open space that engages with its audience, then it should start programming its public discussions with the whole public in mind.

Culture and Its Discontents” took place at the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) on April 6 and 7.

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