The Guggenheim Surrenders on Free Expression

The Guggenheim Surrenders on Free Expression

Not so paramount, it appears, that the museum was prepared to stand behind an exhibition it had already chosen to mount. We are left instead to contemplate an exhibition of irony: Chinese artists find their provocative statements against oppression suppressed in the land of the free.

Certainly the physical safety of staff members and visitors is as important as any work of art, but then why didn’t the museum ask the city for an increased police presence, or beef up its own security measures?

The works taken down by the Guggenheim may be of dubious taste. They may even qualify as animal cruelty (but no crueler, it should be said, than what’s suffered daily by hundreds of millions of factory-farmed animals). And if the museum had refused in the first place to include works that inflict suffering on living things, it would have had a plausible defense.

But that’s not what the Guggenheim did. The decision to self-censor was justified solely on safety grounds and, as Mr. Armstrong claimed, “there wasn’t possibility for further debate.” Why not? Isn’t debate what art is meant to foster?

Threats of violence in response to controversial art are abhorrent. They can’t be allowed to dictate what art the public is allowed to see, lest a few deranged would-be saboteurs are encouraged to shut down exhibits at their whim. In an age of social-media campaigns that can reach millions in an instant, the problem is only going to get worse.

Before the Guggenheim folded, it defended one of the works, the video with dogs, acknowledging that while it might be “upsetting” to some, the curators hoped that “viewers will consider why the artists produced it and what they may be saying about the social conditions of globalization and the complex nature of the world we share.”

That first instinct was the right one. The museum should have stuck with it.

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