Critics’ Picks

View of “Rockwell, Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms,” 2018.

New York

“Rockwell, Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms”

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way (77th Street)
May 25–September 2

On Juneteenth, Nikki Haley declared that the United States had left the UN Human Rights Council. You could see it coming. But to do it on that particular day, under the supercilious rationale that the HRC wasn’t “worth its name” because it has members “like China, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Venezuela,” only served to underscore the US’s own past and present of slavery and torture, of cruelly separating parents and children.

The still-emerging political project of human rights has been unfortunately stained by imperialist impulses, power-mongering, and greed. That truth quietly snakes its way throughout this sprawling multimedia extravaganza of a show, even as your heart breaks to be reminded—through Norman Rockwell’s signature style—of the utopist boilerplate rights language affirmed by FDR: freedoms of speech and worship, freedoms from want and fear. These tenets of classical liberalism were directly incorporated into the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, championed by Eleanor Roosevelt and a focus of the last room in this show. Was it all so easy then? Of course not. Karl Marx, Michel Foucault, and Wendy Brown have claimed in different ways what’s wrong with universal human rights, but I wonder what they’d say in the wake of this past Juneteenth.

A thought: If the project of human rights can be reframed as a continuing goal of instituting legal obligations, then can it be rethought today as a radical project? Might this oversize exhibition prompt us to consider rights tactics that haven’t yet been approached (and not what is merely “under threat,” as some journalists have already argued)? And, as Trump abandons a long-standing US bipartisan tradition, to say nothing of the rule of law, is it a complete irony that while talking about compassion I don’t feel anything but murderous, bloodthirsty rage?