The Witching Hour

Whether you’re talking about late-17th century Salem, or mid-20th century DC, people love a good witch hunt.

In the Massachusetts colony, the fear of witchcraft was just as real to the people of that time, as the fear of insidious Communism was to people in the age of the Red Scare. Like worshiping the Devil, a practice of which Communism is merely a modern (albeit highly effective) variant, it’s difficult to go after something that is largely based on a belief system. It’s much easier to hunt down specific individuals who are accused of engaging in practices related to a particular way of thinking.

In the art world at present, we find ourselves in a new kind of witch hunt, not unrelated in general appearance to previous ones, in which serious consideration is being given to the positions of those who are actively seeking to purge museums of associations with individuals and corporations whom they consider to be evil, whether based on the source of their wealth or what opinions they hold on certain subjects. I’ve written about this recently both here and elsewhere, but it’s a story that dominates the daily art news headlines. Just this morning, for example, there was this analysis in Art News, riffing off earlier pieces in New York Magazine and Hyperallergic, indicating which American museum board members are potentially problematic because of what they do for a living, their views on hot-button issues, and so on.

Before we get out the pitchforks and torches however, it’s important to recognize that ideological conflict as expressed through the mechanism of attacking art objects, or the individuals and institutions that care for them, is not a new phenomenon in Western art history.

At the end of the 15th century the de facto ruler of Florence, a Dominican friar named Savonarola, encouraged Florentines to bring objects that offended his particular interpretation of Christianity out of their homes to be burned in giant bonfires. While a great deal of garbage went up in flames, so did masterpieces of both Classical and Renaissance art, including paintings, drawings, illustrated manuscripts, tapestries, and sculptures. A little over a year after the greatest of these conflagrations, which took place on Fat Tuesday in 1497 and has since come to be known as *THE* Bonfire of the Vanities, Savonarola himself ended up being excommunicated by Pope Alexander VI, arrested, put on trial, hanged, and burned in the Piazza della Signoria – ironically, in the very the same spot where he had hosted the great Bonfire.

Almost exactly two hundred years later, beginning in 1793, the French Revolutionary government began a concentrated effort to eradicate Christianity from France. In addition to the martyrdom of hundreds of priests and religious, the confiscation of Church property, and the banning of religious practices, the French gleefully destroyed works of art that clashed with the neo-pagan ideal of the worship of themselves. While the state managed to warehouse a number of important pieces, realizing that these objects had intrinsic value apart from their religious significance, many others were destroyed with demonic glee. Indeed, Alexandre Lenoir, one of the revolutionaries charged with identifying and preserving what was worth saving, had to personally throw himself between those who wanted to attack Michelangelo’s “Dying Slave” from the tomb of Pope Julius II, and smash it to pieces with hammers.

Over a century later, Russian Revolutionaries took their cues from their French antecedents and engaged in a concentrated effort to destroy works of art that were found to be in conflict with the ideals of the new, secular state. Although most of the great collections escaped intact, other, important works did not, including countless Orthodox icons, images of the imperial family, and many decorative items of great craftsmanship and artistic skill. A reporter for The Guardian, who was embedded in St. Petersburg at the time, was horrified by what he saw in 1917 at the Winter Palace, part of the Hermitage Museum complex:

The Palace was pillaged and devastated from top to bottom by the Bolshevik armed mob, as though by a horde of barbarians. All the State papers were destroyed. Priceless pictures were ripped from their frames by bayonets…books and manuscripts burnt and destroyed…Desks, pictures, ornaments – everything was destroyed.

Now, I’m not suggesting that, at this point, we’re about to witness hordes of people storming The Met and setting it ablaze, or yanking Gilbert Stuart portraits of the Founding Fathers and Mothers from the walls of the MFA and ripping them to pieces. Instead, allow me to point out to the reader that artistic witch hunts have happened before: the cause-du-jour will eventually die off, and in another century or so another one will come along. The long history of Western art allows us to take an equally long view when it comes to the preservation of that art.

What remains unexplored however, is the question of what donations public art institutions may or may not accept. For the most part, those who work in the art world tend to share the same socio-political views; as I reported some months ago, this has been borne out in research into the present state of art media. Not surprisingly then, you’ll notice that the lists compiled in the articles linked to above address certain subject areas, but not others.

Thus, while in today’s piece Art News asks who gets to decide the question of acceptable donations, from their perspective that’s really a functional question, not a philosophical one. No one in the art world establishment could imagine demanding that a board member at a major museum step down from their post because they donate to an organization at odds with Christianity, such as Planned Parenthood or the Sierra Club – quite the opposite, in fact. So the debate, at least at present, is not really about applying purity tests to museum donations of objects or funds, but rather about whether such donations are pure enough to avoid all possible mob action. It’s a bit like dunking a witch in order to find out whether she’s really a witch or not: chances are she’s not going to win that contest, whatever the outcome.

We can’t know for certain what the end effect of all of this finger-pointing will be on the future of art museums. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in the position of someone who has to decide where their museum funding is going to come from if, for example, they have to kick the Rockefellers off their board or refuse their donation of a Degas, because their family fortune was acquired through the exploitation of fossil fuels. However, what we do know from the study of art history is that these sorts of things are cyclical, so that in one way or another, ideologies eventually reign themselves in, and most great works of art should survive. Tomorrow, and next week, and next year, we can all have a reasonable expectation there will still be things like Goya’s paintings of witches hanging on the walls, haunting us like spotted and stained old mirrors, as they cast their reflections of the very worst aspects of ourselves.


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