The Whitney, as it’s called, is not all bad. It has some nice Hopper, Lichtenstein, and lesser-known artists such as Henry Koerner. The long-exposure photography was excellent too. Unfortunately my pleasant memories of all these works were sullied by the exhibit on the sixth floor — An Incomplete History of Protest.
Rounding the corner to enter the exhibit, I encountered the most fascinating combination of leftism and bad taste ever assembled. There was a mosaic of anti-Vietnam signs, which displayed the hippies’ talents for zeugma (“Save Lives, Not Face”) and swearing (“F*** the Draft”). Then followed a few horrifying AIDS-related posters including genitalia and more wordplay (a picture of Reagan with the caption “He Kills Me”).
Next there was a wall full of agitprop from some organization called the Guerrilla Girls. The material in question looked like advertisements one might have taken out in Ms. magazine back when that was required reading for the fashionably radical. “Republicans do care about women’s rights to control their own bodies!” (Smaller print: “breast augmentation,” “nose jobs,” etc.) “We demand a return to traditional values on abortion!” (Smaller print: “The Catholic Church didn’t ban early abortion until 1869.”)
I truncate the epic catalogue, since by now the reader has surely gotten the point. The exhibit was an entire floor of lies, obscenity, melodrama, and a single rhetorical trick used 8,000 times. Which, to borrow a conceit from Meryl Streep, are not the arts.
This was the museum’s key weakness: It had shunned art and preferred razzmatazz. No doubt I shall be called a philistine hater of modern styles and a pseudo-cultured reactionary, but that is not really at issue here. The question is whether propaganda is art, and the answer is No.
It’s not – but what’s fascinating is how old this all is. As the late Tom Wolfe once wrote about being on a panel discussing “the style of the sixties” at Princeton university, the left’s hatred of fellow Texas-sized government-loving “Progressive” Lyndon Johnson (for largely class-related reasons) quickly and predictably overwhelmed any discussion of aesthetics:
This was the mid-1960’s. The post-World War II boom had by now pumped money into every level of the population on a scale unparalleled in any nation in history. Not only that, the folks were running wilder and freer than any people in history. For that matter, [Paul] Krassner himself, in one of the strokes of exuberance for which he was well known, was soon to publish a slight hoax: an account of how Lyndon Johnson was so overjoyed about becoming President that he had buggered a wound in the neck of John F. Kennedy on Air Force One as Kennedy’s body was being flown back from Dallas. Krassner presented this as a suppressed chapter from William Manchester’s book Death of a President. Johnson, of course, was still President when it came out. Yet the merciless gestapo dragnet missed Krassner, who cleverly hid out onstage at Princeton on Saturday nights.
Suddenly I heard myself blurting out over my microphone: “My God, what are you talking about? We’re in the middle of a … Happiness Explosion!”
That merely sounded idiotic. The kid up in the balcony did the crying baby. The kid down below did the raccoon … Krakatoa, East of Java … I disappeared in a tidal wave of rude sounds … Back to the goon squads, search-and-seize and roust-a-daddy …
Support came from a quarter I hadn’t counted on.
It was Grass, speaking in English. “For the past hour I have my eyes fixed on the doors here,” he said. “You talk about fascism and police repression. In Germany when I was a student, they come through those doors long ago. Here they must be very slow.”
Grass was enjoying himself for the first time all evening. He was not simply saying, “You really don’t have so much to worry about.” He was indulging his sense of the absurd. He was saying: “You American intellectuals—you want so desperately to feel besieged and persecuted!”
And it has always been thus. As Glenn has written, “One of Trump’s major accomplishments has been to reveal the lack of civic virtue and self-control across our elite institutions.” But perhaps not yet enough to ask, “Are we the baddies?”