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Art in Monochrome

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books and culture

Art in Monochrome

Philadelphia museums’ new “diverse” content all looks and sounds alike. June 11, 2021
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

In 2006, Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), made some remarks about the museum’s role in community life that wouldn’t fly in today’s woke culture. “You first get somebody in a museum, whatever their age, background or status, and you walk with them to find something that catches their attention. You don’t need to do anymore. They suddenly see that something in the collection relates to them,” she said in reply to a question about people who feel alienated from the art museum world because of their race or ethnicity.

Today, of course, the woke elect say that it is not the museum-goer but museums that must change to become more inviting and inclusive places. You can see the effects of this change in philosophy in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s new Frank Gehry-designed “Core Project,” housed in the Daniel W. Dietrich II Galleries, which opened to the public this month. The opening exhibition here, New Grit: Art & Philly Now, displays works by 25 artists, described by Visit Philadelphia as “representing a variety of perspectives on social and timely issues.” But there’s not a variety of perspectives here—only left-wing ones on incarceration, immigration, and police brutality.

“Walls of Change,” a massive, 128-foot mural by the Philly-based abstract painter Odili Donald Odita, is meant to evoke last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests on the PMA’s iconic steps. The gathering itself was peaceful, which came as a surprise to many after citywide riots, in which many businesses around the Rittenhouse Square area had their storefronts bashed in.

One could see early glimpses of wokeness in the PMA’s 2014–2017 program in the Perelman Building entitled “Philadelphia Assembled”—a series of exhibitions, workshops, performances, lectures, and panel discussions organized by the famous Dutch artist and curator Jeanne van Heeswijk. One of the exhibitions was a tribute to MOVE that detailed that organization’s history, including the horrific police bombing of its compound by the city in 1985.

If you came to the exhibition knowing nothing about the history of MOVE, you would walk away thinking that the city’s assault on the organization occurred in a vacuum, entirely unprovoked. But for years MOVE had alienated its own largely black neighborhood by instigating daily confrontations with residents, cultivating a rat and trash problem that soon reached biblical proportions, and using bullhorns to shout round-the-clock obscenities at passers-by. While the loss of life at the MOVE compound was inexcusable, it is also true that the group played an important role in its own destruction.

In May 2020, Opera Philadelphia staged an operatic version of the MOVE saga: We Shall Not Be Moved. Publicity for the performance described the standoff as “infamously ending with a neighborhood destroyed and 11 people dead, including five children.” That’s all the reader or listener comes away with. There’s nothing about MOVE’s chaotic and controversial presence in the city. The characters depicted in the opera inhabit the old MOVE house and are, according to publicity materials for the performance, “inspired by the ghosts who inhabit this home and begin to see their squatting as a matter of destiny and resistance rather than urgent fear.”

Most contemporary narratives about MOVE in Philadelphia’s museums and cultural spaces make no mention of how its members raised their voices against a wide range of people, including Jesse Jackson, the Quakers, and even the Communist Party. This unhinged ideological hodgepodge made the group hard to fathom. Mainstream black activists had little regard for the group and basically considered it an embarrassment. All of this has been conveniently forgotten by Philadelphia’s museum curators and young journalists. Revisionist history (or history by omission) is where we are as a culture now.

While Philadelphia institutions omit many historical details in the service of a political agenda, they belabor others. The PMA, for instance, sponsors tour bus stops at many historic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century homes in Fairmont Park, such as Historic Strawberry Mansion, built in 1789 by Judge William Lewis, a famous abolitionist and lawyer. The PMA recently instructed tour guides to point out to visitors that the land where the mansions rest once belonged to indigenous Native tribes, to note details like the ivory keys on an eighteenth-century piano, and to note that the ivory was produced by slave labor.

Across town, at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, a new director has “wokenized” the lecture programs with a heavy concentration on women’s and black voices, more narratives about slavery, and “critical” talks about the United States. One upcoming lecture promises to explain “How America Decided to Dominate.” From 2019 up to today, before the pandemic and during the Zoom boom, programs on slavery and Reconstruction have predominated in many of the city’s cultural meeting places, such as the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Library Company of Philadelphia.

The concentration of woke programming is so heavy, and the content so one-dimensional, that anyone with an open mind might be tempted to ask, “Where’s the diversity?”

Photo by DOMINICK REUTER/AFP via Getty Images

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