“If someone bursts out laughing in front of my painting, that is exactly what I want and expect.” This comment by the American artist Philip Guston comes from a new book of his sayings and writings, I Paint What I Want to See.
Trouble is, in front of some of his paintings, people no longer burst out laughing. Two years ago, a big exhibition of Guston’s work planned by a consortium of four museums across America and Britain, and due to open at Tate Modern in London, was abruptly postponed because of worries about the subject matter of his series showing Ku Klux Klansmen. Although the show is at last to see the light of day — it has recently opened in Boston before it travels to Houston, Washington DC and, finally, London — the concerns remain.
Never mind that these paintings, which date back to the late 1960s, had been lauded for half a century: they were now deemed unacceptable — according to one commentator, the artist had “appropriated images of black trauma”.
Yet it was hard to find anyone, in the art world or beyond, who supported the decision to cancel the show. And that included many black voices: the brilliant African-American artist Glenn Ligon said at the time that “Guston’s ‘hood’ paintings, with their ambiguous narratives and incendiary subject matter, are not asleep — they’re woke.”
Woke, indeed. In response to the terrifying realities of 1968 in America, Guston had made pictures in which Klansmen are reduced to a series of floppy hoods: tattered, flaccid, laughable. Guston’s KKK figures have no bodies, no legs — in fact no faces or even eyes — just stubby fingers pointing, or clutching equally stubby cigars. They are lampooned, defanged and deflated. They drive Noddy-cars. They are about as scary as a teddy bear.
These images of castrated power are meant to be funny in an important, incisive, pertinent way. In a lecture in 1974, Guston said, “I conceived of these figures as very pathetic, tattered, full of seams. Something pathetic about brutality, and comic also.”
Guston understood the power of satire in dismantling evil: one of the great weapons in any halfway healthy society. That’s why dictators and extremists hate it so much. It’s why 12 journalists at Charlie Hebdo lost their lives to jihadis in 2015. Why a bad joke can earn you a slap at the Oscars but a 15-year jail sentence in Saudi Arabia.
Guston’s lumpy bumbling Klan figures show the banality of their mal-intent. The painter was under no illusions, though — born to Jewish immigrants in 1913, he had felt the full terrible force of the KKK in the 1930s when their mission of murderous hatred extended to Jews, communists and Catholics. So, despite the cartooning, the paintings’ fractured, surreal/sinister imagery of broken body parts and random detritus always carries an edge of something disturbing, malevolent.
More than that: Guston was psychologically intrigued too: what might it feel like to be that vicious, to do those terrible things? But as the British critic and novelist Olivia Laing wrote, he showed the hooded monsters as “just men, with pink hams for fists. If they were once disarmed, they can always be disarmed.”
The Guston predicament — which he didn’t live to see, as he died in 1980 — is a vivid one just now. As his daughter Musa Mayer wrote: “The paintings are essentially about white culpability — the culpability of all of us, including himself.” But in our current climate of opinion, an artist’s intentions count for little against the mere fact of displaying an image, and the sensitivities of a viewer, any viewer, however ill-informed. These paintings’ reputation is a mirror not of fluctuating attitudes to race, but of changed levels of permission about expression.
Which sums up the current problem for all satire and comedy, those great, deep, essential forms. It’s now a truism that comedy is impossible at a time when offence-taking has become an Olympic sport, and the digital realm, social media in particular, shows that satire is often a lost cause: possibly nothing is funny to everyone. It’s a bad time for telling truth to power.
For Philip Guston Now, Boston Museum of Fine Arts has commissioned a pamphlet by a trauma specialist to prepare you emotionally for the experience of seeing these works. Alternatively, you could think about what they actually mean.
Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor
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