Thursday Reads: Dumpster Fire Debate Aftermath

Central Avenue, by Philip Guston

Good Morning!!

The paintings and drawings in this post are by Philip Guston, a painter who shocked the art world in the late 1960s by abandoning his abstract expressionism and turning to cartoonish representations of KKK-like figures that to him reflected the culture of America under Richard Nixon. These works also reflected his childhood memories of scenes of the Klan marching openly in Los Angeles, where his Jewish family lived.

Four major museums have decided to call off a retrospective of Guston’s work for fear of negative reactions to the racial justice content of the paintings. From The New York Times:

In an open letter published Wednesday in The Brooklyn Rail, nearly 100 artists, curators, dealers and writers forcefully condemned the decision last week by the National Gallery of Art in Washington and three other major museums to pull the plug on the largest retrospective in 15 years of one of America’s most influential postwar painters.

The show, after years of preparation, will be delayed until 2024. The stated reason is to let the institutions rethink their presentation of Guston’s later figurative paintings, which feature men in hoods reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan members, and which, a National Gallery spokesperson said, risked being “misinterpreted” today.

Philip Guston – Dawn, 1970 (oil on canvas)

In the open letter, the artists, “shocked and disappointed,” accuse the museums — the National Gallery, Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — both of betraying Guston’s art and of patronizing the public they are supposed to serve.

The postponement, they write, is an admission of the museums’ “longstanding failure to have educated, integrated, and prepared themselves to meet the challenge of the renewed pressure for racial justice that has developed over the past five years.” They demand that the Guston exhibition take place as scheduled, and that the museums “do the necessary work to present this art in all its depth and complexity.”

Surely these paintings are as relevant in the Trump years as they were in Nixon’s America. Postponing the exhibition until 2024 guarantees that public discussions of their import won’t happen until after Trump’s second term if he is reelected. This reminds me of the many efforts to ban Mark Twain’s profoundly anti-racist novel Huckleberry Finn because of Twain’s use of the N-word.

Read more at Art News: Controversial Philip Guston Show Postponement Met with Shock and Anger from Art Community. See also this statement (and more art works) from Guston’s daughter Musa Mayor: Philip Guston: The Danger is in Looking Away.

Now on to today’s news. Trump’s dumpster fire of a debate performance on Tuesday night is still drawing reactions.

The New York Times Editorial Board: A Debate That Can’t Be Ignored. Americans need to face the man who is their president.

President Trump’s was a national disgrace. His refusal to condemn white supremacists, or to pledge that he will accept the results of the election, betrayed the people who entrusted him with the highest office in the land. Every American has a responsibility to look and listen and take the full measure of the man. Ignorance can no longer be a tenable excuse. Conservatives in pursuit of long-cherished policy goals can no longer avoid the reality that Mr. Trump is vandalizing the principles and integrity of our democracy.

Philip Guston The Line, 1978

It’s a tired frame, but consider how Americans would judge a foreign election where the incumbent president scorned the democratic process as a fraud and called on an armed, violent, white supremacist group to “stand by” to engage with his political rivals.

The debate was excruciating to watch for anyone who loves this country, because of the mirror it held up to the United States in 2020: a nation unmoored from whatever was left of its civil political traditions, awash in conspiratorial disinformation, incapable of agreeing on what is true and what are lies, paralyzed by the horror of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands and beholden to a political system that doesn’t reflect the majority of the country.

The debate featured one politician trying his best to do his job, trying to bring some normalcy to America’s battered public square, and one politician who seemed incapable of self-control — petulant, self-centered, rageful.

Read the rest at the NYT.

Adam Serwer at The Atlantic: The Most Illuminating Moment of the Debate. Donald Trump sees everything—even his own children—as a reflection of himself.

Shortly after Donald and Ivana Trump’s son was born, however, the future president had an unusual concern for a parent: What if this kid grows up and embarasses me?

“What should we name him?” Donald asked, according to Ivana’s memoir, Raising Trump. When Ivana suggested Donald Jr., the real-estate heir responded, “What if he is a loser?”

That anecdote helps explain one of the more memorable exchanges in Tuesday night’s presidential debate, as well as Trump’s approach to governance. The president’s Democratic rival, Joe Biden, sought to criticize Trump’s remarks about U.S. service members being “losers,” as first reported by The Atlantic. In doing so, Biden brought up his late son, Beau, who died of a brain tumor after earning a Bronze Star in the Army National Guard.

Philip Guston, Drawing for Conspirators, 1930

“My son was in Iraq and spent a year there,” Biden said to Trump, raising his voice. “He got the Bronze Star. He got a medal. He was not a loser. He was a patriot. And the people left behind there were heroes.”

In an attempt to neutralize the attack, Trump changed the subject—to Biden’s other son, Hunter. “Hunter got thrown out of the military; he was thrown out, dishonorably discharged for cocaine use,” he spat out.

To a person who feared sharing his name with his son at the moment of his birth, because the child might turn out to be a “loser,” that attack must have seemed devastating. But normal parents don’t stop loving their children because they do bad things. They love them anyway. That’s what being a parent is.

Biden responded by reaffirming his love for his surviving son. “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” Biden responded. “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.” [….]

More than any other moment of the debate, Trump’s response to Biden’s invocation of his dead son—attempting to make him ashamed of his surviving one—threw the dispositions of the two men into sharp relief. I wondered how Hunter must have felt to see his father speak of his pride in his brother, only for his own name to be brandished as a weapon to inflict shame on his father. And I thought about Biden’s response, which was to reaffirm his pride in Hunter, the troubled son living in the indelible shadow of a departed war hero. In the midst of being attacked by a president trying to wield his own family against him, Biden’s instinct was to reassure Hunter that he is also loved, that nothing could make his father see him as a loser.

Read more at The Atlantic.

At The Washington Post, Eric Garcia wrote about his own struggle with addiction and how Trump’s words will affect other recovering people: Trump’s attack on Hunter Biden will only increase the stigma of addiction.

As saccharine as it sounds, the president of the United States is also the president of screw-ups, addicts and hopefuls like me and Hunter Biden. But Trump’s comments made clear that he believes that an addict’s actions can be used against our families to attack their character.

Philip Guston – Courtroom, 1970 (oil on canvas)

That will make us less willing to talk about our problems and get the help we need. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says explicitly that stigma can make people with substance abuse disorders less willing to seek treatment. And that makes sense. If your addiction is going to be used against you, why try to get better?

Hunter Biden’s problems with alcohol, drugs and women have been well-documented. (News reports show that, contrary to what Trump said Tuesday, Hunter was not dishonorably discharged from the Navy Reserve when he tested positive for cocaine in 2014.) Those demons were enough of an issue that when the former vice president began running last year, the New Yorker published a piece asking whether they would “jeopardize his father’s campaign.” That story ran a few days before I finally hit bottom myself.

I don’t know Hunter Biden, but I do know that worrying that your own actions could hurt the people you love is one of the things that tears an addict up inside.

I hope you’ll read the rest.

The debate also raised fears about Trump stealing the election, by suppressing votes, encouraging white supremacist violence, and using the courts.

The Daily Beast: Trump’s Crew of Far-Right Vigilante Poll Watchers Is Coming.

The truck-revving, banner-waving, loudspeaker-blaring pro-Trump rally took place, conveniently, on Sept. 19, the first Saturday of early voting in the swing state of Virginia, in a parking lot where voters in Democratic-leaning Fairfax County were lined up to cast their ballots. Some Trump supporters drove circles around the voters while others—many without face masks—mingled with the line, chanting and waving flags.

“We had a couple poll observers there that had to actually escort voters in because we saw people that would get to the edge of the parking lot, and see this giant group of Trumpers yelling and screaming,” Jack Kiraly, executive director of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee, told The Daily Beast, adding that the scene reminded him of the volunteers who escort people past anti-abortion protesters outside women’s health clinics.

Philip Guston, 1930 or 31

So during Tuesday night’s remarkably unhinged presidential debate, when President Donald Trump urged his supporters to take unsanctioned actions at polling places, Kiraly was reminded of what Fairfax County voters had witnessed earlier this month.

During the debate, Trump appeared to tell the far-right paramilitary group the Proud Boys to “stand by” and urged fans to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” for voter fraud, an exceedingly rare phenomenon Trump has crafted into a cornerstone of his political identity. For close observers of the far right, as well as officials like Kiraly, the remarks amounted to the latest warning that an embattled president might use his supporters to impede fair elections, or to cast the results of those elections in doubt.

If the prospect of election-related violence was already looming over the first presidential contest since Trump effectively welcomed the paramilitary far-right into the Republican Party, the debate made the alarm bells ring even louder.

David Sanger at The New York Times: Tuesday’s Debate Made Clear the Gravest Threat to the Election: The President Himself.

President Trump’s angry insistence in the last minutes of Tuesday’s debate that there was no way the presidential election could be conducted without fraud amounted to an extraordinary declaration by a sitting American president that he would try to throw any outcome into the courts, Congress or the streets if he was not re-elected….

Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to say he would abide by the result, and his disinformation campaign about the integrity of the American electoral system, went beyond anything President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia could have imagined. All Mr. Putin has to do now is amplify the president’s message, which he has already begun to do….

The president began the debate with a declaration that balloting already underway was “a fraud and a shame” and proof of “a rigged election.”

Philip Guston – By the Window, 1969 (oil on canvas)

It quickly became apparent that Mr. Trump was doing more than simply trying to discredit the mail-in ballots that are being used to ensure voters are not disenfranchised by a pandemic — the same way of voting that five states have used for years with minimal fraud.

He followed it by encouraging his supporters to “go into the polls” and “watch very carefully,” which seemed to be code words for a campaign of voter intimidation, aimed at those who brave the coronavirus risks of voting in person.

And Mr. Trump’s declaration that the Supreme Court would have to “look at the ballots” and that “we might not know for months because these ballots are going to be all over” seemed to suggest that he would try to place the election in the hands of a court where he has been rushing to cement a conservative majority with his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

And if he cannot win there, he has already raised the possibility of using the argument of a fraudulent election to throw the decision to the House of Representatives, where he believes he has an edge because every state delegation gets one vote in resolving an election with no clear winner. At least for now, 26 of those delegations have a majority of Republican representatives.

And of course Trump’s final backstop could be to trigger mass violence by his white supremacist supporters.

I’m running out of space, but I’ll post more links in the comment thread. Have a nice Thursday, and please check in with us if you have the time and inclination. We love to hear from you!