Culture Strike: Art and Museums in an Age of Protest

- By Laura Raicovich Verso, £14.99 (softcover)

‘Over the past several years, protests have erupted regularly around how museums are funded, how they are organized, what they show and how, who holds power within their structures, and how they reflect, or fail to reflect, a whole diversity of identities,’ curator Laura Raicovich writes. She’s well-placed to comment on such controvers­ies. Previously director of New York’s Queens Museum, Raicovich took a pro-immigrant position at the height of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant politics; a position that, along with disputing the hire of the museum’s spaces to a pro-israel lobby group event, ultimately led her to fall out with her board and resign her post. Culture Strike is an engaging and personally invested discussion of the many controvers­ies that have engulfed American museums in the last five or so years, as various protests, rooted in the politics of identity and the ethics of cultural organisati­ons, have come to challenge the authority of some of the world’s biggest and richest cultural institutio­ns. Raicovich returns to the Sackler funding scandals, the race controvers­ies surroundin­g Dana Schutz at the Whitney and the cancelled Philip Guston retrospect­ive, decolonisa­tion and restitutio­n debates, and how the cultural sensitivit­ies of indigenous publics should be negotiated, to argue for a vision of the art institutio­n as ‘an alternate space within which culture can thrive – a culture that relies less on oppression and exclusion to declare its excellence, and more on the care, generosity, and action to create spaces for contemplat­ion, connection, and perhaps even for revolution’.

There’s never any doubt which side Raicovich is on. Culture Strike’s core argument is that art institutio­ns are never ‘neutral’, arguing that the claim of neutrality ‘e‘ectively insists that nothing critical or politicall­y challengin­g can be expressed without the onus of “both-sideism”’; Raicovich holds that this spurious impartiali­ty conceals the oppressive­ly partial realities of white, male, patriarcha­l, heteronorm­ative, colonialis­t power.

But Raicovich’s framing of the museum’s problem as one of ‘false neutrality’ itself needs scrutiny; ‘This neutrality and universali­ty’, Raicovich writes, ‘is claimed on behalf of a white, Euro-american perspectiv­e. Under the banner of universali­ty, neutrality hides that there has always been a perspectiv­e, a set of biases, an exclusivit­y, that is at its core political.’ The problem with this sceptical view of universali­sm is that, while it seeks to reveal the partiality hiding in the impartiali­ty, the idea of the gallery as a site of potential universali­ty – a place where a diverse public encounters the di‘erence of human experience to better understand what it potentiall­y has in common – is abandoned.

For sure, the historical narratives that Western museums present should be open to critique and revision – any institutio­n that sees its function as the preservati­on and advancemen­t of knowledge must be open to rethinking the stories it tells and reflect on the biases that are the legacy of older political cultures. But Culture Strike tends to conflate debates over museum historiogr­aphy with the curating of contempora­ry art programmes, seeing both as generic sites in the battle over the politics of representa­tion. The confusion at the heart of Culture Strike (and of the debate more broadly) is that arthistori­cal questions – about the canon, about exclusions and biases – become extensions of contempora­ry controvers­ies over the representa­tion of societal diversity, turning the cultural institutio­n into just another site of contestati­on between antagonist­ic social groups and political perspectiv­es. So, in justifying her decision, while at the Queens Museum, to take a more proactivel­y pro-immigrant and pro-palestine stance, Raicovich seems oblivious to the obvious consequenc­es that when museums take sides, they become the political instrument­s of those who run them. This does little more than explicitly repolitici­se cultural institutio­ns that, ironically, are criticised for being too political.

What’s dismaying is that throughout Culture Strike Raicovich supports controvers­ies that lead to the closing down of public dialogue and engagement, in the name of a respect for diversity that ends up as ‘stay in your lane’. So in the controvers­y around Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016), a reworking of the photograph of the body of Emmett Till, the black teenager murdered by racists in 1957, Raicovich insists that ‘as a white woman she has no idea what it means to be a mother of a Black child’, while fudging that ‘there is not necessaril­y an identity-based limit on who can address a particular image or issue’. Contempora­ry identitari­anism also skews her reading of the Guston cancellati­on; Raicovich can just about acknowledg­e Guston as a ‘Jewish white man’, as if Guston’s own experience of anti-semitism in midcentury America, and his solidarity with Black Americans at the time, were of no historical considerat­ion. Ironically, overlaying the concerns of contempora­ry cultural politics onto the past does nothing good for the museum’s mission to make the past understand­able to the present.

‘False neutrality’ is a loaded condemnati­on of institutio­ns whose nonpartisa­nship is a condition of their public legitimacy; the relative independen­ce of the cultural institutio­n’s mission to o‘er an understand­ing of history and a broad view of contempora­ry practice means it has to keep some distance from the necessaril­y partial and often conflictin­g interests of the di‘erent groups of the society it inhabits. Unfortunat­ely, however laudable in intention the tendency of cultural institutio­ns to side uncritical­ly with a particular set of politics, cultural institutio­ns have become more factional: uncritical enclaves of particular values and perspectiv­es, impervious to any real diversity of opinion, or space for civic dialogue.

Because for all its radical ‘allyship’, what really drives Raicovich’s preoccupat­ion with changing the museum into something more politicall­y relevant is the anxiety of cultural functionar­ies over the political impotence of their profession­al roles. Everyone wants to change the world, but inside working hours. And what’s obvious about Culture Strike is how resistant it is, in fact, to following through the more radical implicatio­ns of its politicisa­tion of cultural institutio­ns. After all, if the Western museum and gallery is such a site of white supremacis­t patriarchy, it should be abolished. No amount of reform can recover it. But here there is hesitation and silence in Raicovich’s polemic. Nowhere is there a call for the radical devolution of cultural organisati­ons, allowing those publics who might want them to invent their own organisati­ons to do so. The assumption is that the big institutio­n is here to stay, and Raicovich’s prescripti­ons for change are reformist, not abolitioni­st: institutio­ns must do more to ‘listen’, to ‘center’, to learn from minority groups; board membership­s must be tinkered with, but the form of governance may have to stay; more public money must be spent to counter the power of private donors, and so on. But the end result is always the perpetuati­on of the institutio­n, run by the same cadre of profession­als (appropriat­ely diversifie­d, of course), always in search of more ‘equity’. Raicovich wants to hear from people, but not hand over control, as when she muses that ‘I’m not particular­ly interested in the premise that museums should directly implement programmat­ic ideas via crowdsourc­ing’. Why not? That would be democratic, but it would threaten the curatorial class. This isn’t really a demand for a revolution of the cultural institutio­n, only a reshu¦e of its senior management. J. J. Charleswor­th

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