The Past in the Present

by Rabia Ashfaque

January 4, 2019

The logical outcome of fascism is an aestheticizing of political life.

—Walter Benjamin[1]

In late November 2018, the Central American refugee crisis took a horrific turn when United States border control agents fired the first volley of tear gas into a crowd of hundreds of asylum seekers near the U.S.-Mexico border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego. Shortly after came the revelation that a vice chairman on the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Warren B. Kanders, owned Safariland, a manufacturer supplying the tear gas. The news created waves of anger across the art community and beyond, which continue to wash ashore. To paraphrase an open letter signed by more than one hundred outraged Whitney employees against their employer’s complicit silence, the disclosure was not simply a betrayal of the management’s intellectual and moral obligations, it was a personal attack. “We felt sick to our stomachs, we shed tears, we felt unsafe,”[2] reads the letter published by the online arts magazine Hyperallergic, before going on to highlight how painful the knowledge was to so many staffers, especially considering how many of them “are deeply connected to the communities that are being directly impacted and targeted by the tear gassing at the border.”

From the Whitney Museum of American Art protests on December 9, 2018. Photo by: Hakim Bishara.

Had this incident taken place just a few months earlier, it may well have provided the culminating argument for “Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy,” a rabble-rousing exhibition of 83 confrontational works spanning almost five decades of American history, on view at the Met Breuer through January 6. As it stands, the Whitney affair epitomizes the thesis that bolsters this show, which is that art is irrevocably tied to politics. Divided into two parts, the first half of the exhibition showcases works based on the included artists’ rigorous historical research into incidents entrenched in “interconnected networks encompassing politicians, businessmen, and arms dealers,” while the second explores possible (even probable) explanations for occurrences surrounded by hitherto unproven webs of deceit.

One of the first objects that viewers encounter is an RSVP card designed by Frances Collins, who, in 1939, was working in the publications department of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). In a familiar echo of the museum’s predicament today, MoMA, at the time, was planning a gala to celebrate the inauguration of a new building. While seven thousand guests had received formal invitations, several MoMA staffers had not been invited at all—a fact that led an irked Collins to enlist her friend Joseph Blumenthal for the layout of a mock invitation, which she circulated among her colleagues, uninvited and otherwise. Bearing the phrase “Oil that glitters is not gold,” followed by a request to attend the opening of the “Museum of Standard Oil,” the elegant invitation was a dig at the union between art and big oil, promoted by MoMA’s then-president Nelson Rockefeller. After disseminating the invitation, Collins was promptly fired from the museum. In 2007, the artist Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck and the art historian Media Farzin resurrected Collins’s gesture, reproducing her RSVP card for their series “Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect” (2007–2009), the context in which the invitation appears at the Met. With Collins’s RSVP card placed to the left of a Time magazine cover featuring Rockefeller’s portrait, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s words from a 1939 radio broadcast transcript, printed above, read in embarrassing irony: “Art in America has always belonged to the people and has never been the property of an academy or a class.” At the bottom of the installation is a quote by Rockefeller that belies the seeming nobility behind Roosevelt’s words. “I learned about politics at the Museum of Modern Art,” it reads in mockery of this alleged independence of art proclaimed by Roosevelt, while simultaneously highlighting Rockefeller’s power—as an extension of Standard Oil—over the art community.

At around the same time that Collins designed her invitation, Walter Benjamin wrote the last version of “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,”[3] his seminal essay that imbued art with a political mission similar to the kind Collins had employed in her RSVP card. While deliberating on the aura of art at a time when the world was on the brink of global war, Benjamin realized how it had the potential to both fight and succumb to fascism. The politicization of aesthetics was a double-edged sword that came with the aestheticization of politics, he posited: “Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art.”[4] 

The wall text that frames the reproduction of Collins’s invitation in the work of Balteo-Yazbeck and Farzin points to the “remarkable example of homegrown institutional critique three decades before the concept existed, [as] the invitation lays bare the often uneasy relationship between the worker bees of the museum and the political and financial agendas of their benefactors.” This same uneasy relationship exists between Benjamin’s proletariat and fascists, just as it does between the staffers and management of the Whitney today. “To remain silent is to be complicit,”[5] the open letter by the Whitney staffers reads, an echo of Collins’s sentiments from eighty years ago. Then it was big oil. Now it is weapons. But the struggle between the masses and their masters seems little changed.

Silence = Death Project, AIDSGATE, 1987
. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Avram Finkelstein, 2013. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Further along in the Met exhibition, AIDSGATE and Silence=Death Poster, two works from 1987 authored by the artist collective that later emerged as Gran Fury (spawning from the activist group ACT UP that memorably used the Silence = Death project’s iconic slogan for its posters) call out the US government’s willful ignorance of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Avram Finkelstein, one of the contributing artists, asks “IS THIS HEALTH CARE OR WEALTH CARE?” in Enjoy AZT (1990). The lithograph he designed resembles a Coca-Cola ad but substitutes content elaborating how the US government allowed pharmaceutical giant Burroughs Wellcome to monopolize the market for AIDS medication with the expensive but ineffective AZT treatment, profiting from already struggling victims. Much like Collins, Balteo-Yazbeck, and Farzin, Finkelstein made his posters as a rallying cry against the silent betrayal by powerful institutions of the people they are meant to protect. As these works hang on the walls of the Met Breuer some thirty years later, one briefly considers whether their politics have become dated. Yet elsewhere in New York City, as a similar entreaty made by a band of Whitney staffers falls on equally deaf ears, one bleakly acknowledges that pleas such as these seem timeless.

The influence of money on art and politics finds a different expression in Hans Haacke’s Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holding, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971), one of the works that led to the cancellation of the artist’s exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum the same year, and the firing of the show’s curator, Edward Fry, by the museum’s director, Thomas Messer. Haacke’s work, which drew connections between a handful of families amassing extensive real-estate holdings in New York slum areas using hidden shell corporations, begs comparison to the Collins incident at MoMA in 1939 and again to the current Whitney controversy. In his recent statement in response to the Whitney staffers’ open letter, Director Adam Weinberg wrote that the museum cannot right all the ills of an unjust world, nor is that its role, a stance similar to the one Messer took in 1971 and one that makes us wonder: What do we believe an art institution’s role to be? In the era of “collusion” (our go-to word for the tenure of this US presidency), in which the Russian hacking of US elections and the Saudi plotting of a journalist’s murder are merely drops in the sea of global conspiracies, what do we make of the conspiracies depicted on the walls of the Met Breuer in relation to the many collusions we witness around us? And if we demand accountability from governance, where do we stand in demanding the same from other institutions that claim intellectual and moral authority?

Other works in “Everything Is Connected” include Öyvind Fahlström’s graphic World Map (1972), which shows how corrupt governments across the world enable greedy multinational corporations to wreak havoc on their own people. Jenny Holzer’s nightmarish Secretary of Defense(2009) exposes the hidden torture of prisoners justified by the government of former US president George W. Bush in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001. Alfredo Jaar’s disturbing Searching for K (1984) painstakingly connects the dots that linked US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to the coup in Chile that led to the murder of the democratically elected president Salvador Allende, who was replaced by the dictator Augusto Pinochet. The plight of the proletariat is bared in these works, a plight that calls out the hypocrisy of Weinberg’s words when he writes that the Whitney can “foreground often marginalized, unconventional and seemingly unacceptable ideas not presented in other sites in our culture”[6] through “our openness and independence,” while ignoring the reality that the independence he writes of has already fallen prey to complicit silence. “Fascism attempts to organize the newly proletarianized masses while leaving intact the property relations which they strive to abolish,”[7] Benjamin wrote in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” His words seem tailormade to describe the very cultural moment we find ourselves in today. “It sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses—but on no account granting them rights. The masses have a right to changed property relations; fascism seeks to give them expression in keeping these relations unchanged.”[8] When Weinberg writes that the Whitney is a space “we fashion by mutual consent and shared commitment on all levels,”[9] he offers no more than placations as empty as those Benjamin identifies as the expressions granted to the masses by fascists.

Sarah Anne Johnson, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, 2008. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Purchased with the assistance of Michael F.B. Nesbitt, 2009. © Sarah Anne Johnson. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A series of the artist Sarah Anne Johnson’s works from 2008 end the Met’s exhibition on an ominous note. Offering vivid portraits of the brainwashing experiments done on her grandmother by the CIA-sponsored MK-ULTRA mind-control program, Johnson depicts not only her ancestor’s harrowing experiences but also the resulting trauma that enveloped her entire family. Johnson meticulously crafts a dollhouse in House on Fire to reveal the unnerving details of her grandmother’s story, with each room highlighting an inimitable manifestation of wretched disorientation brought about by years of abuse. In Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, Johnson captures a portrait of her grandmother with a veil of circles drawn over her bemused face to suggest the effects of the hallucinogen she was forced to consume. Brain Drain shows a newspaper story exposing the CIA’s illegal operation, which Johnson covers with a coiling chain of drawings of the face of her grandmother’s doctor. The works illustrate yet another form of fascism that exploits those whose interests are meant to be safeguarded.

“Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy” unleashes the core tension trapped inside the disparate values of art. In the midst of today’s very real and often unspoken struggle between ethics and economics, what does it mean to witness an exhibition that offers a visual encapsulation of some of the gravest abuses of power but at the same time acknowledges its submission to it? Looking at “Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy” uptown at the Met Breuer, while downtown another museum bows down to dirty money, elicits many difficult questions to which we may not like the answers. The exhibition offers a timely political framing of both where art has come from, historically, in the United States, and where, in all likelihood, it is headed. None of it is pleasant, but all of it is vital to consider.

“Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy” is on view at the Met Breuer, 945 Madison Avenue, through January 6.

[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media (Cambridge, Massachussetts, and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), page 41.
[2] Hrag Vartanian et al., “Whitney Museum Staffers Demand Answers After Vice Chair’s Relationship to Tear Gas Manufacturer Is Revealed.” Hyperallergic, November 30, 2018.
[3] Benjamin first wrote this essay in 1935 under the title “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. The second version was published in 1936, and the third in 1939.
[4] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media (Cambridge, Massachussetts, and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), page 42.
[5] Hrag Vartanian et al., “Whitney Museum Staffers Demand Answers After Vice Chair’s Relationship to Tear Gas Manufacturer Is Revealed.” Hyperallergic, November 30th, 2018.
[6]Jasmine Weber, “Whitney Museum Director Pens Letter After Vice Chair’s Relationship to Weapons Manufacturer Is Publicized.” Hyperallergic, December 3rd, 2018.
[7] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media (Cambridge, Massachussetts, and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), page 41.
[8] Ibid., page 41.
[9] Jasmine Weber, “Whitney Museum Director Pens Letter After Vice Chair’s Relationship to Weapons Manufacturer Is Publicized.” Hyperallergic, December 3rd, 2018.

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