“If someone is laughing out loud in front of my painting, that’s exactly what I want and expect.” Comments from American artist Philip Guston from his new book, His Quotations and Writings, I draw what I want to see.
The trouble is, in front of some of his paintings, people can’t laugh anymore. Two years ago, a major exhibition of four museums in the United States and the United Kingdom was planned to open at London’s Tate Modern, but was abruptly delayed due to concerns that he was presenting a series of themes from the Ku Klux Klan. While the show is finally seeing light — it recently opened in Boston, then travels to Houston, Washington, D.C., and finally London — concerns remain.
Never mind that these paintings, dating back to the late 1960s, have been lauded for half a century: they are now considered unacceptable – according to one reviewer, the artist “appropriated images of black trauma”.
Yet, whether in the art world or elsewhere, it has been difficult to find support for the decision to cancel the exhibition. Among them were many black voices: the talented African-American artist Glenn Ligon said at the time that “Gaston’s ‘The Hood’ paintings, with their ambiguous narratives and provocative themes, did not fall asleep— – They are awake.”
Awake, indeed. In response to the horrific reality of America in 1968, Gaston took photographs in which members of the Ku Klux Klan were reduced to a series of floppy headscarves: tattered, slack, ridiculous. Guston’s KKK figures have no bodies, no legs—in fact, no faces, not even eyes—just stubby fingers pointing, or clutching, equally stubby cigars. They are taunted, culled and deflated. They drive Noddy cars. They are as scary as teddy bears.
These images of castrated power are meant to be funny in a way that is important, profound, and to the point. In a speech in 1974, Gaston said: “I think the characters are very pathetic, tattered, full of seams. Cruel stuff is kind of pathetic and ridiculous.”
Gaston understands the power of irony in eliminating evil: one of the great weapons of any halfway healthy society. That’s why dictators and extremists hate it so much. That’s why 12 Charlie Hebdo journalists were killed by jihadists in 2015. Why a bad joke can get you a slap in the face at the Oscars but gets a 15-year prison sentence in Saudi Arabia.
Gaston’s clunky, unwieldy Ku Klux Klan image shows their malicious mediocrity. The painter had no illusions, though—born to Jewish immigrants in 1913, he felt the full terrifying power of the KKK in the 1930s, when their mission of murderous hatred extended to Jews, communists, and Catholics. So despite the comics, the images of broken, surreal/sinister body parts and random debris in these paintings always have a disturbing, malicious edge.
Not only that: Guston was also interested in psychology: what would it be like to do those vicious things, to do those horrible things? But as the British critic and novelist Olivia Laing wrote, he presented the masked monsters as “just men with pink ham fists. If they were ever disarmed, they could always disarmed.”
Guston’s predicament – which he did not witness when he died in 1980 – is now a vivid one. As his daughter Musa Mayer wrote: “These paintings are essentially about the guilt of white people—the guilt of all of us, including himself.” But in our current climate of public opinion, the artist’s intentions and the mere fact of showing the images Comparisons, and the sensitivities of audiences, can’t help any audience, no matter how well-informed. The reputation of these paintings is not a mirror of fluctuating racial attitudes, but a changing level of permission to express.
This sums up all the current issues of satire and comedy, those great, deep, fundamental forms. It now goes without saying that comedy is out of the question at a time when offense has become an Olympic movement, and the digital realm, especially social media, shows that satire is often a failure: for everyone, there may be nothing interesting of. Now is a terrible time to tell the truth about power.
for Philip Guston now, The Museum of Fine Arts Boston commissioned a brochure from trauma experts to prepare you emotionally for the experience of viewing these works. Alternatively, you can consider what they actually mean.
Jan Dalley is the art editor of the Financial Times
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