Who Holds the Power in Art?

Takedown: Art and Power in the Digital Age begins with a great three-word sentence: “Art is power.” Then, after a brief historical prelude, author Farah Nayeri tackles such important contemporary issues as the exclusion of women artists from the Western canon, as established by White male arbiters; its inclusion of salacious female nudes; the place of Black artists in the US art world; the need to “get serious about due diligence” regarding problematic donors; public artworks; and disputes about the value of art. Nayeri writes regularly for The New York Times, so her marvelously lucid, theory-free reporting provides a very good overview on these much discussed issues, drawing upon numerous interviews with artists, curators, and other art world figures. 

As she rightly observes, the creation of a feminist art history is a recent development; one result of this development, she notes, is a reevaluation of some White European modernists. Her discussion of Kehinde Wiley’s response to Paul Gauguin effectively makes this point. “Let’s just face it,” she quotes Wiley to say, “He goes off into the Pacific, and he’s looking at these young girls, and the colonial gaze: it’s just really problematic.” 

Demonstrators from the BP or Not BP group stage a protest at the British Museum to denounce its sponsorship by the oil company, 2020 (photo Hugh Warwick)

Only very recently, Nayeri notes, have US museums taken a serious interest in Black artists. And all too often, she says, “the power structures [have] remained the same.” Gender and race are two sources of contention in the public debates about the role of race in museum collections and displays that she discusses, and religion is another. Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” hit a nerve. For conservative US politicians, he “was doubly to blame: He was a beneficiary of taxpayer largesse, and he had produced a piece of art that was offensive to Christians.” But to seek, in response, support for museum shows from private sources raises “a raft of new problems — having to do with ethics, conflicts of interest, and propriety.”

Nayeri’s chapter on patronage is titled “All Money Is Dirty.” Here, and in the next chapter, which discusses public art, she recognizes how difficult it is to satisfy both the art world and the larger public because, “Experiencing art has become as accessible as reading a book or watching a movie.” 

Andres Serrano, “Piss Christ” (1987) (courtesy the artist and Nathalie Obadia gallery)

She quotes Aaron Cezar, of the Delfina Foundation, who says: “pretty much all money is dirty somewhere down the line.” I’m not sure if she agrees, for if all money is dirty, then how can collecting not always be fatally morally compromised? If Kunsthalles and museums depend upon public funding, they will inevitably fall victim to political disputes. And if they appeal instead to private funding, then the sources of these revenues will often be both controversial and compromised. 

If the public knew only the materials discussed in Takedown — Gauguin’s images of Tahitian girls, Balthus’s female nudes, Jeff Koons’s Made in Heaven series of photographs, some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos, Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket,” Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, and Antony Gormley’s “Angel of the North” — we would have a limited picture of the Euro-American art world, for relatively few artworks inspire public controversies compared to the amount of art that exists in institutions and galleries. How then can Nayeri’s analysis adequately reveal the relationship between art and power? In conclusion, she says, with modest optimism, “today, museums, galleries, curators, and patrons all want to be seen as agents of … inclusivity” (my italics). I am not convinced that this is true of all institutions. Leaving that qualification aside, if art is power, as her analysis consistently shows, then how can galleries and museums successfully negotiate relationships of power? Nayeri’s book doesn’t really answer that question. The power structures have changed, but perhaps not in ways that resolve this dilemma. When Walter Benjamin declared “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” perhaps he was right to be pessimistic.  

Still image of a video by Adel Abdessemed, “Don’t Trust Me” (2008), in which animals are bludgeoned to death on a real-life Mexican farm (© Adel Abdessemed, Paris ADAGP 2021)

Takedown: Art and Power in the Digital Age by Farah Nayeri is published by Astra House and is available online and in bookstores.

Related Articles

Back to top button