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Kahng, who holds a Ph.D. in art history from the University of California at Berkeley, had been at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art for 14 years; before that, she had been a curator at the Walters Art Museum, in Baltimore, and the Dallas Museum of Art. She is known for sophisticated and serious exhibitions and catalogs, including “Anne Vallayer-Coster, Painter to the Court of Marie-Antoinette” (2002), “Picasso and Braque: The Cubist Experiment, 1910-1912" (2011), and most recently the blockbuster “Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources” (2021).
Why was “Three American Painters” canceled? The answer appears to be a moving target. “A representative from the SBMA told Hyperallergic that the reasons were “the museum’s mission, budget, relevance, and audiences.” When asked directedly, Cruz said the show was “too academic.” Publicly, she has dropped that reason and shifted to claiming that the show suffered from a “lack of diversity” and was too expensive. Privately, she has referred to another issue, which has also been mentioned in the media: Fried’s use, in a private letter from 1967, of a homophobic slur.
This show was near completion — the funding was secured, the catalog was written and edited. The time and effort of those who contributed to the show — employees of the museum as well as working academics, lenders, and advisers, including the present authors — have been wasted. Moreover, Cruz took the extraordinary step of firing Kahng after canceling the show.
Who else lost out? Art historians and critics, certainly, but also the public. Enlarging the public’s access to historically important art is surely part of the museum’s mission. The exhibition was a labor complete except for the final stage. Cruz did not destroy an idea but a finished product.
According to Cruz, the show belonged in a university art museum. Her position suggests the museum is a place for easy moral improvement — an instrument for administering doses of moral uplift. That is unfair to the public and unfair to art. Kahng’s long curatorial record shows that she knows her audience. (Her most recent Van Gogh show was an enormous success for the museum.) During her decades-long career, Kahng has consistently managed to mount shows that find audiences, attract positive media attention, and advance scholarly discourse. That’s no small feat.
Moreover, 1960s abstraction has remained popular with audiences, even though it can be challenging. The Jewish Museum in New York just offered “New York: 1962-1964" (2022). Kahng’s show involved at least equally important artists, and her updating of the show — the inclusion of photographers who this year are showing new work in New York, Berlin, and London, and of a figure like Charles Ray, who has just been the subject of a widely noticed and well-attended retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — is designed precisely to demonstrate the relevance of Noland, Stella, and Olitski to a contemporary audience.
As for the concern about the exhibition’s budget, nowhere does that reason receive elaboration. Since shows pay for themselves all the time, that concern implies that the canceled show was somehow specifically wasteful and unlikely to succeed. The show, however, had already passed the usual review process, so the suggestion that the budget was a decisive concern is highly debatable.
It was 1967. Too many people thought that way then, and many are grateful for having learned better, including — judging by his public behavior for the last half century — Fried. Furthermore, the slur was a misguided approach to more fundamental issues. Although it’s not much remembered, in the original version of “Art and Objecthood,” Fried was battling two opponents on two fronts: minimalism, explicitly and famously, and neo-Dadaism. The latter was championed by Susan Sontag, whose Against Interpretation was published in 1966, and which included such essays as “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), in which the relation of sexuality to the problem of seriousness and unseriousness in art became explicit. Fried construed Sontag’s writings as “the purest — certainly the most egregious — expression of what I have been calling theatrical sensibility in recent criticism.” “Theater” here is taken to mean the ultimate conflation of the arts with daily life, since, as Fried goes on to quote her, Sontag elevates paintings that employ “hair, photographs, wax, sand, bicycle tires, their own toothbrushes and socks.” Fried was aware that the “the barriers between the arts [were] in the process of crumbling,” but he found that idea facile — he felt it struck at something essential in the nature of art itself.
The charade is to use symbolic politics to cover up structural injustices.
Cruz has rightly backed off from leaning on the homophobia charge in any public manner. It keeps appearing in news accounts of the cancellation, but the very fact that it is not officially offered as an explanation for canceling the show demonstrates its weakness. No public discussion, just a whisper campaign. Cruz must know how flimsy and shameful this process has been.
As Christa Noel Robbins, the researcher who discovered Fried’s 1967 letter, recently told Hyperallergic, “a show that properly historicized the generative value of Fried’s criticism, while still acknowledging the very real occlusions embedded in his approach to art’s history, would be brave.” But bravery, Robbins said, is in “short supply” in the museum world now.
Most recently, Cruz has shifted her stated objection to the canceled show’s lack of diversity. Its curator, an Asian woman of color, might answer this charge with an authority we do not have. But given the exhibitions Cruz has curated in the past, which include monographic shows featuring such white artists as Jim Hodges, Cindy Sherman, Jennifer Pastor, Dave Muller, and Mike Kelley, the depth of her concern seems merely convenient.
How would a show that is construed as lacking diversity prevent Cruz from pursuing that aim in future exhibitions, precisely as she is doing already? Under Cruz’s leadership the museum may want to use its resources more aggressively to promote an awareness of art made by members of groups marginalized in the art world — even to do so exclusively. Following through with the exhibition in question would in no way prevent the museum from making that commitment.
Nevertheless, Cruz has squarely focused her current media message on the show’s lack of diversity. Gone are academicism, financial issues, and putative homophobia as her guiding rationale for the cancellation — now it’s only the need for the museum to represent the diversity of the community it serves. So how should we understand Santa Barbara’s diversity? Ranked by the mean household income of the top 5 percent of its households, it is tied with Santa Maria for ninth place in California; median home prices are $1.7 million. It is highly popular with people who earn a lot of money. Meanwhile, as of 2018, more than 50 percent of Santa Barbara County’s Latino population was experiencing economic hardship, and Santa Barbara ranked fifth in the nation for its proportion of rent-burdened households (defined as households spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing).
Is social justice in Santa Barbara about representation of the dispossessed? In this context we have a right to ask: What kind of politics is the politics of representation? Is it a serious politics that aims to address poverty, a poverty that vastly disproportionately affects members of minority groups who live and work in Santa Barbara and neighboring counties, or is it an easy substitute for that politics? Would Cruz and her wealthy Board of Trustees be willing to pay their (disproportionately minority) employees a living wage (currently $24.85 an hour, while they offer their security guards $17.75) or prefer to show them and their neighbors works made by “their” people? Is there something callous about centering Hispanic voices, as long as those voices are not asking for a living wage?
The diversity that Cruz seeks to administer to her largely privileged audience seeks justice, but not economic justice. Not rent justice, but justice meaning showing work made by certain kinds of people. This justice is confined to a gallery, and it serves the interests of Cruz and a wealthy board of trustees. And how about those progressive members of the Board of Trustees? Lynn Cunningham Brown, self-described “human-rights activist,” is secretary of the Board of Trustees, and earned a substantial part of her wealth working for over a decade at Waste Management, Inc. Waste Management has a notorious and very public record of union-busting efforts. Their commitment, as their SEC filing announces, is profits, not supporting the lives of their workers (workers who are, again, disproportionately minorities).
Does that make the board villains? Not exactly. There are symbolic politics, and there are structural politics. Symbolic politics have a place in a museum’s program of exhibitions. But the current charade is to use symbolic politics to cover up structural injustices that the museum reinforces at the level of the board and in its day-to-day operations.
Cruz and the board put wealth before people — but with a veneer of progressive politics to burnish the image of an increasingly regressive institution. If you think art is irrelevant because it is difficult to understand, and if you think political progress is showing rich people works made by people who don’t look like them, then your idea of relevance is as empty as your politics.