The Call of the Mild

Day one of the “Culture and Its Discontents” conference at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, April 6, 2018. Panelists are Hank Willis Thomas, Sally Kohn, and Alyssa Mastromonaco. (Photo: Ed Marshall/SRGF)

IF 2016, WHICH BEGAN WITH THE PASSING OF DAVID BOWIE and ended with the election of Donald Trump, felt like a year of death—of beloved musicians, celebrities, and democratic values—2017 was a year of outrage, not least in the art world. It started with fierce debates sparked by the Whitney Biennial’s inclusion of Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, 2016, a partly abstracted representation of the murdered, disfigured body of Emmett Till in his coffin; continued with the removal from the Walker Art Center’s Sculpture Garden of Sam Durant’s large outdoor sculpture Scaffold, 2017, intended to criticize gallows built for historical US public hangings but protested by descendants of thirty-eight members of the Dakota Nation who were executed in this manner in 1862; moved on to the Guggenheim’s censoring of three works involving animals in its exhibition “Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World,” due to online threats against its staff by animal-rights activists; and ended with a petition demanding that the Metropolitan Museum of Art take down the Balthus painting Thérese Dreaming, 1938, on the grounds that it “romanticizes the sexualization of a child.”

There were other art-world scandals last year, of course, but the above four raised vexing questions of which subjects are appropriate for artistic representation and which artists are allowed to treat certain subjects. In response to the Chinese art controversy (as well as another debacle prompted by the museum’s artistic director offering Maurizio Cattelan’s America, 2016, a functioning solid-gold toilet, to Trump in lieu of a requested van Gogh), the Guggenheim staged the two-day symposium “Culture and Its Discontents” to address the nation’s widening ideological divides, the impact of online protests, and the role of museums as facilitators of the free exchange of ideas. The conference brought together pundits, artists, authors, activists, free-speech advocates, and legal and psychological experts to discuss the contemporary culture wars and the rise of outrage activism.

Despite the incendiary nature of the issues, the three sessions ended up being, disappointingly, a mutual hugfest, the panelists coming from different perspectives but largely agreeing with one another. Halfway through, it occurred to me that the museum should have included representatives from the extreme political poles the panelists attempted to analyze and explain. Perhaps this would have courted no-platforming efforts, but such responses and the museum’s handling of them would have said more about the issues at hand than five hours of “I’m okay, you’re okay.”

Surprisingly, the Schutz, Durant, and Balthus controversies were barely mentioned all weekend. Even the Guggenheim’s catalyst for staging the symposium—the museum’s suppression of the aforementioned animal-based pieces by Chinese artists—wasn’t explored in depth. Indeed, the word art hardly crossed anyone’s lips. In any event, the Guggenheim scandal doesn’t map well onto the other three, in my mind, other than in the larger frames of museums as supposed havens for free expression and the increasing influence of online outrage. Using live animals against their will for performative artworks raises issues akin to those surrounding child pornography and seems more settled than questions of what is allowed to be painted, sculpted, and exhibited and who is permitted to do so (though one could, if so inclined, drag Balthus into the realm of child pornography). In truth, the event didn’t need to be hosted by a museum, being more analogous to a multivocal TED Talk by the Hallelujah Chorus of Pure Reason than anything to do with the art world and its ructions.

The Friday night keynote conversation, held in the Peter B. Lewis Theater inside the—ahem—Sackler Center for Arts Education, was the lightest, most substance-free session of the weekend. I generally reject the right’s pejorative use of “elite” to describe educated urban liberals who embrace “alternative lifestyles” and apparently can’t help but condescend to rural, poorly educated, socially conventional people, but that evening’s three-person panel could have been mistaken for an SNL skit skewering such “elites.” CNN political commentator and State of Resistance podcast host Sally Kohn was there, it seemed, to promote her first book, The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity (its pub date was a few days away), which, among other things, is about in-group/out-group tensions. Cheery and animated, she blessed the three-quarter full house with the blinding jewel that Trump exploited such tensions to get elected. She then, without irony, asked the other two panelists if the “elite” had been out of touch with regular people.

Artist Hank Willis Thomas wisely dodged the binary, reminding the audience that “liberal New York produced Trump.” Alyssa Mastromonaco, a former assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff for operations in the Obama administration, actually offered Kanye West’s post-Katrina comment that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” as the most divisive political statement of the pre-Trump era, noting that afterward people told West that they liked him more because they hated Bush so much. She recalled Bush’s writing in his memoir that this was the “darkest day of his presidency” and that West later apologized. West has been making even more aggressive amends with Republicans of late, most recently by touting his and Trump’s mutual possession of “dragon energy,” which I assume is available from the same retailer where Charlie Sheen obtained his tiger blood and Adonis DNA.

Kohn correctly observed that people always remember the initial offense more than its resolution: “Outrage is all; forgiveness is ignored.” To illustrate forgiveness in action, she said that she’d finally gone to Chick-fil-A because its founder had apologized for his antigay stance. This amused the other panelists. I was gobsmacked. Thomas asked, rhetorically, “How do you have compassion for people you disagree with?” and added that subconscious racism and sexism are on a continuum with explicit ideological hate. Kohn responded that our brains have “hardware and software,” the hardware being our evolutionary fight-or-flight response and the software being racism, anti-Semitism, etc. “It’s not natural, and can be changed,” she said. In researching her book, she alighted upon the platitudinous “insight” that everyone feels like they’ve been othered at one time or another, and that no one thinks of themselves as hateful. Alert the media.

In response to a discussion of fake news, Thomas said, “There are a few hundred truths in this room; it’s a question of who gets the power. Truth is what you can get people to believe. There is no truth, only ‘truthiness.’” I take his point metaphorically, but isn’t this type of casual truth denigration dangerous at a time when Trump and his media allies are delegitimizing truth in a textbook fascist manner? Taking a question from the audience about how the Guggenheim could have handled the Chinese art situation better, the museum’s artistic director and chief curator Nancy Spector said that the conference was part of the remedy, and that she thought of it as a “pilot program.” This confirmed a creeping suspicion of mine that the entire event was a PR effort to wash the Guggenheim’s hands of the affair (and also explained the elision of the other museums’ aforementioned scandals in 2017).

Introducing the first Saturday panel, on contemporary culture wars, Spector summarized the Chinese art protest and the mixed response to her cheeky offering of Cattelan’s toilet to Trump. She then ceded the floor to moderator Brian Lehrer, the longtime WNYC morning show host, who quipped that Trump likely “preferred golden showers to golden toilets.” The room was maybe half full. PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel discussed the emergence of “speech onslaughts” on Twitter, otherwise known as Twitter mobs, that shut down others’ free speech, fretting over how we can acknowledge the harm of abusive speech without courting censorship and making the curious observation that “as Trump becomes more offensive, people are becoming overanxious about causing offense.” Addressing the debate over removing statues of Confederate leaders and other historical deplorables, Angela Nagle, author of Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (2017), said, “In other countries, toppling statues is a sign of regime change; Americans think they can do this without recognizing its significance.” This may have been the most resonant statement of the conference, even though I suspect it was cribbed from her book.

Day two of the “Culture and Its Discontents” conference at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, April 7, 2018. Panelists are Brian Lehrer, Angela Nagle, Kurt Bardella, Jehmu Greene, and Suzanne Nossel. (Photo: Ed Marshall/SRGF)

Kurt Bardella, a former Breitbart spokesman who switched sides when the publication refused to defend one of its reporters who had been assaulted by Trump campaign manager Cory Lewandowski, observed that “the right uses outrage just to bait and troll the left. They don’t care about traditional Republican values; they’re insincere. On the left, the outrage is personal, deeply felt, and sincere.” This is perhaps obvious, but still striking to hear out loud from a reformed right-winger. Trump and his supporters are characterized primarily by their bottomless bad faith. Meanwhile, the left is bringing theses to a food fight. Online, contemporary right-wingers operate at the level of badly behaved children, at best petulant adolescents, taking pleasure in hurting people’s feelings as if they were ripping the wings off flies. They are fundamentally unserious, while many on the left are oversensitive to a degree that makes them easy marks for trolling. Of course, there’s plenty of straight white male victimhood and knee-jerk defensiveness on display in cyberspace as well; everyone could benefit from a bit of skin-thickening online.

In response to this, Jehmu Greene, in some ways Bardella’s foil as an African American progressive who is also a commentator on Fox News, replied, “The left has difficulties expressing those personal feelings in a way that leads to further dialogue; they more often shout down their opponents or flee. Trump and Fox News are master communicators. The current left isn’t; it ignores the need to communicate effectively.” Sad but true, though I would argue that elements of the right, particularly online, are little interested in dialogue and are similarly poor communicators—this appears to be a feature of contemporary politics across the board. When asked what “victory” for progressives would look like, Greene added, “If victory is achieved through persuasion rather than elitist cultural intimidation, it will work; otherwise, it will cause a backlash.”

Kicking off the second panel, on outrage activism, Molly Crockett, a Yale psychology professor, discussed the neurologically addictive “rewards” of outrage, which are amplified by the feedback loop of social media, with algorithms and users alike “selecting for outrage.” Following Crockett was another academic expert, Danielle Keats Citron, a University of Maryland law professor, who reminded the audience that not all forms of speech are legally protected, and that cybermobs actually break laws regarding defamation, threats, and invasions of privacy (for example, doxing). “Cyberstalking is censorship,” she said, “and we can do something about it; we should be less solicitous of speech that silences others.” Citron’s thoughts and delivery reminded me of Catharine MacKinnon, another slightly schoolmarmish legal figure known for challenging overbroad interpretations of free-speech protections.

Progressive online activist Melissa Ryan traced the arc of her thinking about the liberatory potential of the internet and social media, recalling that she was a true believer in 2011, during Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, until she noticed the right manipulating these networks more effectively than the left. She added that she now thinks less in terms of left versus right and more in terms of democratic versus antidemocratic, which I agree is a more useful frame for our present predicament. Later, near the end of the panel, bemoaning the shouting-past-each-other excesses of online extremists of all stripes, Ryan offered the second most-resonant statement of the weekend: “The element of persuasion has been lost.” In my view, this is the essence of the problem. Along with civics and media literacy, classes in logic and rhetoric should be mandatory for high-school graduation in this country, as such skills are often in woefully short supply in most heated political debates today. The internet, particularly social media, has created a McLuhan-esque medium effect of tectonic proportions, on par with the mainstreaming of television. Instead of amusing ourselves to death, we’re enraging ourselves (and others) to distraction. It cannot hold.