In case you missed it, my latest piece for The Federalist was published yesterday, in which I shared some news and thoughts about the recent trend of what I would call “museum shaming”. This is when activist groups go after museums for receiving donations from groups or individuals whom those groups find offensive in some way. Over the last couple of years, the most press-garnering example of this has been the anti-Sackler movement led by American Contemporary artist Nan Goldin, and by pure chance she and her group led a massive protest at the Louvre yesterday, shortly after my Federalist piece came out. (I will leave it to the reader to conclude whether the two events are related.)
A few comments that I received related to the piece were critical of Ms. Goldin’s art, and the point is well taken. Ms. Goldin specializes in exhibiting unremarkable, blurry photographs of herself and others who live an existence which is, if one were to choose the kindest possible adjective, unappealing. Her work is largely derivative of Diane Arbus and Andy Warhol, without the piercing eye for composition of the former or the sense of humor of the latter. And as it happens, personally I think all three of them are for the most part terrible, grossly overrated artists.
Yet putting aside aesthetic considerations, there are a couple of further thoughts surrounding the present phenomenon of philanthropy protests that I’d like the reader to consider.
For one thing, there’s no question but that these sorts of protests – be they against a pharmaceutical manufacture, a fossil fuel company, or some other entity that a particular group of people do not like – are not to be dismissed out of hand. You may agree or disagree with Ms. Goldin’s cause, or that of climate change protesters, or what have you, but most of you are not running museums such as the Louvre. You have the luxury, if that’s the word, of simply not doing anything at all. If you’re in Manhattan for example, and you learn that there’s a group protesting at the Met, you can, if you wish, simply avoid the place, and go do something else instead.
Directors and curators who are suddenly faced with swarms of protesters “dying” all over the place on the premises of their museum aren’t so fortunate. Increasingly, they’re being forced to make decisions which, at least in some cases, may be somewhat institutionally unpalatable. Even if a particular cause is one which leadership may be sympathetic to on a personal level, their role is to do what is necessary for their institution to continue functioning: admission tickets need to be sold, major donors need to be courted, and so on. Anything that could significantly disrupt these core activities threatens the positions of those who lead a museum that is being targeted, even though the likelihood of the museum itself being forced to shut down remains highly improbable.
It also raises questions of what, if anything, might be attempted on the commercial side of things. Could protesters start moving against the auction houses and art dealers who do business with companies or individuals involved in areas that are despised by certain groups? Business is based on profit, after all, and where profitability is threatened, change is sure to follow.
Suppose for example, that an aging Baby Boomer actress and environmental activist, who also happens to be a prominent art collector, tweets that she will no longer buy and sell art at Christie’s, unless they agree never to buy or sell art acquired via the fossil fuel industry. With the help of her online minions and celebrity friends, she then kicks off a viral campaign targeting the company until they acquiesce to her demands. What, if anything, would Christie’s do about it? If art philanthropy is at least somewhat sensitive to public opinion, what about art commerce?
Although a reasonable mind could conclude that such a result seems unlikely, when one takes a step back and looks at the present state of society, the less fantastical it seems. Consider what Nike did yesterday concerning a pair of forthcoming sneakers featuring an American Revolutionary flag, merely because a former professional football player with a significant number of social media supporters found said flag offensive. If the athletic shoe market, which is far larger and more profitable than the art market, can be controlled in this way by those with a particular cause to advocate, it ought not to surprise anyone if art dealers and auction houses eventually follow suit.
Art museums were long treated as exclusive palaces for the wealthy, the intellectual, and the powerful, where these groups could meet and, among other things, congratulate themselves on being wealthy, intellectual, and powerful. Over time however, these institutions have largely abandoned that role for the sake of wider popularity. They have become more pedestrian, more concerned with garnering attention in popular forms of media, and more concerned with profitability than with exclusivity. We can debate whether or not this is a good or a bad thing.
The price to pay for that shift, however, is that business-oriented art institutions have become just as vulnerable as any other business, in a society which encourages the airing of angry feelings in as visible a fashion as possible.