When Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novel Doctor Zhivago, the Soviet press exploded with outrage. The year was 1958, and although Stalin was dead, he had instilled a lingering fear, and despite the liberalizations of his successor, Khruschev, critical portrayals of life in the USSR were still commonly demonized as enemy propaganda. The leading Russian cultural newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta featured an entire spread headed “Anger and Infuriation” with a selection of searing, over-the-top letters savaging the novel and its author. One of the most fervent accusers was Anatoly Safronov, the erstwhile secretary of the Union of Soviet Writers and a laureate of the Stalin Prize. In a rambling, semi-literate statement, the bureaucrat-writer denounced Pasternak, proudly declaring that although he had not read the offending novel, he roundly condemned it. An adaptation of his words, “I did not read it, but I rebuke it,” became a late-Soviet underground byword for the absurdity of uninformed criticism.
I was reminded of Safronov’s inadvertent bon mot twice last week: first, as I read the Brooklyn Museum’s announcement of their latest exhibition “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby,” and then again as I perused MOMA’s “pride-month”-themed Instagram posts.1 The Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby co-curated the Brooklyn Museum show, billed as “part of a global presentation . . . marking the fiftieth anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s death,” together with Sackler Senior Curator Catherine Morris and Senior Curator Lisa Small. In the opening quote of the exhibition description, Gadsby channeled Safronov’s pigheaded message of proud ignorance: “Picasso said, ‘You can have all the perspectives at once!’ What a hero. But tell me, are any of those perspectives a woman’s [sic]? Well, then I’m not interested.” To make up for the lack of a “woman’s” perspective in Picasso’s art, Gadsby et al. proceed to hitch the “woman artist” wagon to Picasso’s power engine. Nevermind that Picasso’s pronouns would have been “he/him,” so that a “woman’s” perspective would not have been his thing in the first place. Logic is just another patriarchal atavism.
After only three days on display, this relatively small exhibition of one hundred works by Picasso and ten female artists from the museum collection provoked some very strong reactions. A review in The New York Times aptly concluded that “Pablo-matic” forgoes close analysis “for the affirmative comforts of social-justice-themed pop culture,” and likened the show to children’s story time. ARTnews blasted Gadsby’s disregard for art history, which the comedian studied in college, but “abandoned after becoming frustrated with its patriarchal roots.” The general public’s comments on the Brooklyn Art Museum’s social-media channels were split between criticism of the exhibition as “mediocre, resentful, opportunistic,” “an uninspiring joke,” “manipulative,” and “embarrassing for everyone included,” and frankly celebratory gloating. Advocates of the show mocked the reaction of the “hysterical” white male critics who penned the New York Times and ARTnews reviews, and praised Gadsby’s take on Picasso as “extremely effective and valid” and “pure poetry.”
The methodology of the two sides could not have been more different. The show’s critics cited its lack of art-historical rigor and lack of a connection between Picasso’s works and those by the female artists on display, as well as the show’s poor and haphazard selection of objects. These criticisms reflect what it means to mount a solid museum exhibition: the best ones invariably provide a new, informed perspective on great art. Their success depends on the audience leaving the show aesthetically and intellectually satisfied, or at least intrigued. But there is no efficacy requirement among the backers of “Pablo-matic.” The criteria they use are aspirational: dismantling patriarchal notions of the Western canon and male “genius,” leveraging charges of misogyny, and making the show equitable by “highlighting Gadsby’s voice alongside those of many of the included artists.” This approach redirects the museum from its traditional mission of enlightenment towards something like a struggle session, where the art objects are incidental illustrations of sin (the canon) or virtue (anything underrepresented or minority-themed).
The battle over the exhibition continues to rage, with the curators making upbeat social-media posts and the museum director Anne Pasternak (no relation to Boris) assuring readers of The Art Newspaper that, despite Gadsby’s assertion that Picasso “takes up too much space,” “Pablo-matic” is not an attempt to cancel the artist as a way of marking the fiftieth anniversary of his death. Meanwhile, across the East River, MOMA’s education department is celebrating #pridemonth (with a twist on Safronov’s blind condemnation) by holding a celebration at odds with art-historical facts. One of the institution’s Instagram posts is a clever sleight of hand; it falsely contextualizes Ellsworth Kelly’s seminal 1967 painting Spectrum IV with the now-ubiquitous rainbow flag designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978 for the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade. Because Kelly’s work was abstract, and therefore mute, this attempt to co-opt artwork for ideological ends might confuse the unwary into thinking that Kelly too was making a statement that went beyond his preoccupation with the light spectrum.
There was no such sleight of hand with a #pridemonth post on a figurative painting by Frida Kahlo. MOMA’s subscribers immediately spotted its propagandistic misuse, exposing the willful ignorance of its authors in the comments section. The painting in question is Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair from 1940. It depicts Kahlo, her hair cut short, wearing a man’s suit and shirt, which contrasts with her dainty high heeled shoes and pendant earrings. The short video opens with the question “Could this be Frida Kahlo’s queerest work of art?” and proceeds to claim that she was “gender non-conforming,” having had both male and female lovers. The latter is true, and so is the fact that as a teenager Kahlo occasionally wore boys’ clothes. Still, it does not follow that her art is “queer.” This self-portrait is about her husband Diego Rivera, whom she divorced in November of the previous year for his philandering. Kahlo was grieving the separation, so she cut off her long hair. There is a musical score with lyrics across the top of the painting—a folk song about being loved for one’s beautiful hair. Frida Kahlo was not challenging gender stereotypes; she was testing how it felt to play the person who had betrayed her.
MOMA’s flippant reading of Kahlo’s painting backfired because the audience was informed enough to know that labeling her as “queer” or “gender non-conforming” is anachronistic and ignorant. Many commenters pointed out that she was a social radical, and even a communist. Interestingly enough, one of the criticisms of the “Pablo-matic” show came from the same Jacobin writer who argued that, for all his shortcomings, Picasso deserves social credit for being a communist. While this defense of the dead maestro still toes the line of identity politics, it shows that even a socialist publication has enough sense to take an existentialist approach to the artist rather than one that is misleading and illogical. As Sartre said, a man is the sum of his actions. At MOMA and the Brooklyn Museum, in contrast, the commissariat’s approach relies on artists’ fame to promote the ideology du jour. They have turned Picasso’s commemorative exhibition into a male-bashing session, and Kelly’s spectral investigation into a #pridemonth icon.