Amidst a swelling list of allegations of sexual misconduct, harassment, and abuse, people who work in the arts field are asking questions about the presentation of work by artists who have been accused of abusing their power and doing serious wrong. In many ways, this conversation easily turns into a simplified debate—show or don’t show the work, tell or don’t tell the story—that essentially distances the object from the context and the institution from the larger public discourse.
If we contend that a certain definition of quality justifies separating the art from the artist, we are choosing to share just a part of the complex story of that artwork with our public. And, we are overtly choosing to prioritize a privileged lens on the very definition of quality over all of the things—power and advantage included—that make an artwork in a museum possible. In my opinion, accolades and allegations are part of the bibliography. Understanding the whole of the artist, his or her context, only allows us to better understand the work itself and our personal and societal relationship to that work.
If we believe that we must not show artists when we don’t agree with them or we don’t condone their behavior, we miss the critical opportunity to use art to bring the difficult ethical and moral questions into the public square. We are choosing, again, to be less relevant to the increasingly necessary work of reinvigorating public discourse.
In the “show the work but don’t tell the story” construct, we don’t trust the work enough to surround it with its own complexity. In the “don’t show the work” construct, we ignore the fact that countless artists—women, artists of color—have been left out for centuries precisely because of who they are and what they stand for. In either case, we don’t trust the public enough to handle complexity, to help us complicate it further by responding.
To my mind, the real question is how bold and important do arts institutions—as public assets—want to be in reinvigorating the public discourse in order to lead to deep and lasting social progress? What is the role of the arts institution in public life? It is, after all, these very institutions that were founded to provoke and inspire people that are best situated to kindle burgeoning cultural movements like #MeToo. What kinds of institutions could be better positioned to gather diverse groups of people around complex dialogue? As opposed to limiting the experience of art-making to its final product, we can think of the artworks and the lives of artists as the cultural material we have as a society that allows us to engage in provocative, multifaceted conversation that leads to progress. Indeed, arts institutions can spur cultural movement and even assert a point of view while still allowing complex and controversial art to spark public discourse.
Arts institutions must believe in their own unique and increasingly critical role as public places that are among the only places where we can come together in all our diversity in order to grapple with who we are. Then, our galleries can become the place for the most important conversations of our time. The artwork is no longer a too-precious object that we must work to understand regardless of our own reference points. Rather, it is a radically public asset surrounded by story and by inquiry that allows for a palpable response and more complicated, and therefore more powerful, understandings.
If we agree that arts institutions do not exist to isolate art and reduce it only to its output, then our public programs have a mandate to place challenging works of art into public dialogue and we welcome difficult conversations, disagreement, and even controversy. We also welcome alternative and even competing histories, and we welcome looking at art not as the product of an isolated talented individual but as the urgent manifestation of our contested present.