Is the VMFA Aligning with the Left in America’s Culture Wars?

Kehinde Wiley is unquestionably a very talented artist. His mastery of painting is abundantly visible in his renderings of African-Americans in contemporary garb posing in the style of European masterpieces such as Jacques-Louis David’s “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” (as seen to the right). Inspired by the debate over Civil War statues, Wiley will display in New York this September a monumental statue of a young African-American in urban street-wear sitting astride a horse in a pose reminiscent of Richmond’s J.E.B. Stuart monument. In December, the statue will be installed in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Arthur Ashe Boulevard — about a mile from the Stuart statue. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Wiley statue will be the most expensive acquisition made in the museum’s history.

I don’t have a problem with either Wiley or his creation. Wiley is exercising his right to free expression. His work shatters stereotypes and provokes thought. His work displays a mastery of technique, unlike much of the trash that passes for contemporary “art” in museums today. Further, he’s not tearing down or vandalizing Richmond’s Civil War statues; he’s mocking them. I don’t even have a problem with the VMFA displaying the controversial, in-your-face piece outside the museum. I appreciate a diversity of artistic viewpoints and perspectives.

Rather, I see the VMFA’s huge investment in Wiley’s artwork as a sign that the state museum has taken sides in the nation’s culture wars. Indeed, I would go one step further in suggesting that the museum sector in Richmond is being increasingly captured by political progressives and weaponized to challenge — even to assault — the values and beliefs of a large segment of the population. I will develop this theme in future posts. Meanwhile, back to the VMFA…

Hear Valerie Cassel Oliver, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “His works builds on the iconography of power — how individuals are memorialized and edified. He wanted to take what he does in the two-dimensional form and take it to the next level. … It just seemed to be the right place to expand the conversation about monuments and who gets memorialized.”

If Oliver were interested in “expanding the conversation” to reflect a diversity of viewpoints rather than just progressive viewpoints, I would find no cause for concern. I believe in a vibrant marketplace of ideas. What worries me is that the “conversation” will “expand” only one set of perspectives.

The VMFA, the RTD informs us, has set the goal of becoming one of the top three museums in the world for African-American art. I would expect any museum to include art by African-Americans. But I fear that the prioritizing of African-American art will be accompanied by the mumbo jumbo of identity politics — defining people (and artists) by race, gender, and class — and used to nurture grievances, victimhood and a Leftist political agenda. Perhaps I’m been rendered excessively sensitive by exposure to the caustic influence of movies, television and media. It will be interesting to see how far the state-supported VFMA — $42 million in state appropriations this year — takes this.

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16 responses to “Is the VMFA Aligning with the Left in America’s Culture Wars?

  1. We will NEVER AGREE on these issues but I TRY to show the “other side” and that’s REALLY what this is about:

    ” What worries me is that the “conversation” will “expand” only one set of perspectives.”

    We’ve ALL seen the OTHER perspective – right? It’s all over in the monuments already erected to memorialize the White Supremacy perspective.

    What THIS is doing is showing what the other side might look like if it too had equal opportunity to promote THAT “other side” perspective.

    Why does the idea that the side that was NOT memorialized in statues all over the Commonwealth – now gets to say something about it?

    You keep saying/implying/asserting that all of that is behind us and should be left alone as history…

    but the symbols of it are still with us and still offensive to a significant number of citizens who happen to NOT have a white perspective.

    All I can get out of this is that you, like other white guys, fear black people asserting themselves with their own symbols.

    How is it that White Supremacy and white-oriented perspectives are NOT “identity politics” but when blacks engage in the same behaviors – it’s “identity politics” ?

    All these decades – white folks have dominated so much of our culture and politics and yet that was apparently was _not_ “identity politics”.

    The other big problem here is the use of phrases like “identity politics” NOW as if we did not have that concept going on before when white folks dominated “history” and “culture” – and NOW that others have asserted their identities – it’s “identity politics”.

    Was it not “identity politics” when White Supremacy erected all those memorials and statues?

  2. I’d have preferred to see a new statue depicting a great Virginia leader, perhaps Virginia Civil Rights leaders, on Monument Avenue. Lost opportunity to inspire and teach. Wiley doing a statue of Doug Wilder is something I’d love to see. Maybe he can put the governor on that horse.

    As to all this other blather, you and Jim have fun and I’ll ignore that. Jim is fighting cultural battles lost 20 years ago (much like the people who put up those statues that so irritate Larry.)

  3. Steve – I’m not irritated by the folks who put up the statues but I do think when people today insist those symbols are “history” they themselves either do not understand they were put up by White Supremacists to assert their “identity” and to remind blacks of it or they do and they’re still okay with it… either way … it’s not good.

    If we are going to have discussions about “identity politics” – we ought to be honest about when it really started…. way before present-day.

    Some say NOW, it’s all in the past and we need to let go of it – but of course all those statues and schools and other public buildings with those names and symbols – they’re “history” and must stay – but the black folks – they gotta let it go………. time to move on…….. eh?

  4. Larry, you didn’t catch the football on this one. You are assuming that the only two views are the late 19th-early 20th Century white supremacy one and the modern African-American. Pluralism is supposed to be about more and not less.

    I’m waiting for the discussion of the Africans who sold other Africans to white slave-traders. I grew up thinking the whites just landed and threw a lasso around blacks and took them back to the ship, while the rest of the Africans sat by peacefully. How stupid was I? How dishonest were the textbooks?

    I’d also like to see a statute of Doug Wilder. Not only was he the first black governor of Virginia but he also refused to seek tax increases to deal with an economic turndown.

  5. Anonymous employee of the Smithsonian Institution here:

    “Indeed, I would go one step further in suggesting that the museum sector in Richmond is being increasingly captured by political progressives and weaponized to challenge — even to assault — the values and beliefs of a large segment of the population.”

    This has nothing to do with Richmond in particular and everything to do with the fact that GLAMs (galleries-libraries-archives-museums) people are by and large stunningly over-educated and that almost entirely within the liberal arts, and in this country that is another way of saying that they are ever-increasingly removed from the audiences they ostensibly serve. The Smithsonian is sometimes less vulnerable to this phenomenon than most such institutions; we are constantly in the eye of politicians and national and international publics, and many of us are Federal civil servants, which gives us some protection against political winds (yes, believe it or not, gentle readers, there are sometimes good reasons to make it hard to fire civil servants). But we are very much vulnerable. A small museum like VMFA never has a chance. You’ll need to fix this problem, not in Richmond, but in the obscure and relatively low-ranked graduate schools where museum professionals get their master’s degrees. The easiest way, of course, would be to recognize that the vast majority of GLAMs work doesn’t require anything more than a bachelor’s degree (a good amount needs less than that and could be well-served by folks with an associate’s degree) and then to so alter the hiring requirements. That would open up the workplace to be radically more representative within a decade or so.

    Having seen how well we’re doing at allowing make-up artists to work with fewer barriers in Virginia (not traditionally a high-barrier state), I’m not holding my breath.

  6. A few years ago a major U.S. art museum hired a new executive director. She said at the time that her intent as the new leader is to have the museum engage in discussions regarding social issues. VMFA has decided clearly to do that as well. I went to a lecture some months ago, taking a friend with me, to hear about a notable yet relatively unknown early 20th century photographer in New York City. When the curator would tell us about the unique technique, we would sit up waiting to hear how he accomplished this special technique. Each time, instead of telling us that, he would divert to statements about how the photographer was ignored or had other photographers credited for the work because of the racist times in which he lived. By the end of the lecture, we didn’t learn anything about the art, but about the fact that the photographer was discriminated against because of his race. It is reprehensible that he didn’t get recognized simply because of the color of his skin. However, given the fact that the great majority of the audience was of an average age who lived during those decades and knows the history, and were there to learn about the art itself, it was an extremely disappointing lecture. It felt “preachy” and condescending. I and my friend are now both gun-shy about the lectures for fear of being preached to again. It feels as though VMFA has, like some other museums (thankfully not all), have chosen to subordinate the art for a social agenda.

    I love and support VMFA because I believe everyone should have access to and experience great art, to be able to seek refuge from a “madding world,” learn in a way that words can’t fully express about history within the context of different periods of time and places, to understand who we are as humans, and yes, to promote discourse in who we are in relation to the past and future. They’ve done a great job historically with that. I think wanting to build a major collection of African American art in Richmond is great. Perhaps it doesn’t matter decades down the road what the motive is for building the collection when VMFA can showcase this beautiful art (most people then won’t know or care), but in the meantime, I’m missing learning about art from my art museum.

    • It’s cool to look at one statue (that doesn’t even exist yet) and claim that the VMFA has sullied itself with identity politics. By the way, since the beginning of time, fine arts has only been about identity and politics. NOTHING ELSE.

      The last major gallery renovation there was the McGlothlin galleries (white people art from the Gilded Age). The European galleries are undergoing a very expensive renovation as well. The 100k square foot expansion will also house European art.

      • I don’t know if the VMFA has “sullied” itself with identity politics or not. I’m simply asking if the ruling authorities at VMFA have taken a turn to the Left. My post reflects my fears, not my certainties.

        I will admit that my thoughts are colored by a recent visit to Washington, D.C., when my wife and I had some time to go museum-visiting. I went to the Smithsonian website to check out what the current exhibits were. There were some 15 to 20 new exhibits within the Smithsonian system. I would say that 1/3 were content neutral. The other 2/3 were ideologically loaded with left-wing perspectives. There was nothing that would reflect a conservative/libertarian perspective. Nada. I was appalled and demoralized.

        Well, that’s Washington, D.C., I thought. What else do you expect? It’s the swamp, after all. The Smithsonian is the ideological adjunct to the Deep State.

        But the phenomenon goes deeper, as Anonymous3444, a Smithsonian employee, suggests:

        “GLAMs (galleries-libraries-archives-museums) people are by and large stunningly over-educated and that almost entirely within the liberal arts, and in this country that is another way of saying that they are ever-increasingly removed from the audiences they ostensibly serve. …

        “You’ll need to fix this problem, not in Richmond, but in the obscure and relatively low-ranked graduate schools where museum professionals get their master’s degrees.”

        In other words, we have “progressive” educational institutions pumping out students with “progressive” ideas and perspectives, and those students take jobs in museums, importing those same “progressive” perspectives.

        • And how is any of his new?
          Duchamp and Picasso freaked out the public and riled up the establishment too. That’s what art does.

          BTW, how is curating for content inclusive of minorities somehow being removed from the audience that the museum serves? The VMFA sits in the middle of a city that is nearly 50% African American. The same goes for Washington and New York and Atlanta… their collections don’t even begin to be comprised of that percentage of works by POC (even when you throw in women and queer artists)

          The VMFA can be both a top Museum for African American Art and have a top 15 comprehensive collection ( I seem to recall that it is ranked at number 11 in the country).

  7. The Smithsonian Institution began its swing leftward after the retirement of the great S. Dillon Ripley in 1984. Its leftward swing had reached full flower by the early 1990s with its Enola Gay Exhibition, and there it has remained. This leftist bias of course reflects the swing left of America’s academy within its major universities and colleges.

    For example, see:
    https://www.atomicheritage.org/history/controversy-over-enola-gay-exhibition

  8. Am puzzled why this post assumes there are “culture wars.” Putting forward any kind of political test on art is a very dangerous thing. This really reminds me of the Soviet Union where artists were blocked because their work challenged the ideas of the Communist Party. After the structure collapsed in 1991 there was an explosion of neat stuff but it has since been pushed back by Putin.

    Jim, are you advocating some kind of Putin approach to make sure the VMFA doesn’t swing left? You have discuss one work by one highly-regarded African-American artist and this is the jumping off place for some kind of anti-intellectual test. Ugh!

    • “Are you advocating some kind of Putin approach to make sure the VMFA doesn’t swing left?”

      I’m not advocating anything in this post. I’m just bringing attention to a significant shift in what’s happening in one of Virginia’s most important cultural institutions, which is emblematic of what is happening in museums at large. Would you prefer to see a Leftist takeover of Virginia’s museums without a peep of protest from anyone?

  9. Shouldn’t museums try to present a wide variety of collections that fit within their subject matter? Instead of deciding that the public has seen enough of X, isn’t it better to show X, Y & Z?

    And the location of a museum versus its purpose should have nothing to do with what is displayed. There is a big difference between a museum located in Richmond and a museum about Richmond.

  10. I can’t really comment on the Wiley art form (that’s even after surviving my two years in VCU dorms with art student room mates!). But I was pleasantly surprised a few weeks back when I had the opportunity to revisit the Memorial Chapel on the grounds of the Old Confederate Soldiers Home. That whole complex has been taken over by the VMFA. Aside from removing the Confederate battle flag out front several years ago, the structure and grounds are surprisingly well maintained. All of the internal Confederate iconography remains intact, and after talking with the docent, I was surprised to hear that he was an actual employee of the museum not just a volunteer. It’s pretty much just as it’s always been since the last restoration in the 1960s right down to no AC. Life on the Boulevard will continue even with the new qualifiers (Arthur Ashe Blvd.). But will the Ashe statue down near Willow Lawn trade places with TJ?

    • There hasn’t been a significant shift to the left. Museums are always “left”. Artists are always counterculture. There’s a lot of grasping going on on the right these days to find evidence of a new culture war. There isn’t one. Even reparations is a 150 year old concept (reparations to slavery owners even longer). Mapplethorpe, Mann, Serino, Sherman, Warhol, Sciele, Freud… a few decades ago these people were going to ruin western civilization. Turns out they just enriched it.

      Again, you’re using ONE piece as evidence that the museum has “significantly” veered left. You are completely ignoring the other recent accusations and investments made elsewhere in the museum. The McGlothlin galleries, the Fabergé galleries, the current renovation of the European galleries, the planned expansion that will house European art…these are all happening in addition to this acquisition and the goal of ALSO (as in in addition to) obtaining the premier African American Art collection in the country.

      As a fan of the Confederate monuments, I see this addition as key to their survival.

      • “As a fan of the Confederate monuments, I see this addition as key to their survival.”

        Exactly. The statue of Robert E Lee in Richmond is six stories tall. Anything that balances the ongoing feudal society of upper crust white Richmonders is welcome.

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