Thoughts on the 'Tear Gas Biennial'
An unprompted reflection on an art world controversy. August 2019.
You have to hand it to the Whitney Biennial: it’s never boring. Two years on from the gut-wrenching arguments over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, the 2019 edition became a battleground about “toxic philanthropy.” At issue were the business interests of museum trustee Warren Kanders, which include Safariland, a manufacturer of tear gas and other munitions. An escalating series of protests, among them a powerful film by Forensic Architecture included in the Biennial, mounted pressure on the Whitney’s board, and its director Adam Weinberg. On July 17, an open letter in Artforum by Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett called for a boycott of the exhibition. Shortly afterward, eight artists indicated they would indeed be pulling their work. Finally, on July 25, Kanders resigned from the board. It was an electrifying demonstration that protest does still work – at least in the art world.
Perhaps it’s not too soon to ask: what does it all mean? Kanders certainly thinks he knows. On his way out the door, he threw the word “toxic” back at his accusers, and said that the incident had “put the work of this board in great jeopardy.” Weinberg also expressed deep concern: “Every museum director is looking at us right now and saying, ‘Gee, if the Whitney is being targeted, what’s going to happen to us?’” What they seem to be thinking is this: how will it be if philanthropists decide that putting their money into art is simply too dangerous?
This is actually a good question, with certain parallels to what started the controversy in the first place. Clearly, toxic philanthropy and toxic gas are terrible things. But one can reasonably ask: would the world really be better without them? Kanders’ toppling may well produce a ripple effect which makes the whole US museum sector poorer, at least in the short term. (And by the way, this will be a matter of donors quietly opting out, so we’ll probably never know the scale of the phenomenon.) How could this be an improvement? And if tear gas were somehow banned – a remote prospect – wouldn’t regimes simply use other, even more horrible weapons?
Scholar Anna Feigenbaum has considered this latter question in detail. In her 2017 book on tear gas, she demonstrated that it is not actually ‘non-lethal.’ It can do grievous harm and even kill, usually when projectiles are improperly fired directly into crowds, or released in enclosed spaces. Moreover, it is regularly used to crush non-violent dissent, and is a remarkably cost-effective way of doing so – Feigenbaum calls it “atmospheric policing.” Tear gas is uniquely destructive to the civic order, she argues, because it is an easy way to make peaceable protest impossible. “If the right to gather, to speak out, is to mean anything,” she writes, “then we must also have the right to do so in air we can breathe.” For what it’s worth, when I reached Sergeant Mary O’Donnell of the New York Police Department for comment, she said something a bit similar: “The best way to de-escalate a situation is usually by talking.” (*)
Another problem with tear gas, not so obvious to those who have not experienced its use, is that it obscures what is happening on the ground. The Hong Kong Artist Union, who have been participants in the recent protests there, say that “with each demonstration, the police keep upgrading their weapons, for example, batons with stainless-steel hose clamps on them, and 40mm diameter so-called ‘less-lethal’ sponge rounds. Banning tear gas would make the use of these other worse weapons more visible to the public eye.” They point to Alex Vitale’s book The End of Policing, and the long-term goal of de-weaponizing law enforcement altogether.
As to the question of “dirty money” in philanthropy, protestors clearly believe that you can’t put a price on a museum’s conscience. A 2016 essay in e-flux entitled “Institutional Liberation: Not An Alternative,” which consolidated voices from Decolonize This Place, Liberate Tate, Occupy Museums, and other groups, described museums as “sites worth seizing,” due to their prominence and authority. The authors argued that the art world should generalize techniques of institutional critique – as exemplified by artists like Hans Haacke, Adrian Piper, and Andrea Fraser – so that “anyone affiliated with the museum is forced to take a side. Few or many, rich or poor, past or future?”
This is a momentous leap of imagination. Just for starters, “institutional liberation” on these terms would invalidate the stereotypical image of artists as morally unencumbered solipsists, or irresponsible avant-garde provocateurs. It would obligate “art workers” and museum trustees alike to form knowledgeable positions about matters in which they probably have no training or expertise, like security policy and environmental regulation. It would demand clarity and objectivity, not necessarily traditional strengths of art culture. And it would recast the very concept of artistic autonomy, not as freedom of expression, but instead, as independence from vested interests.
Forensic Architecture’s Biennial film exemplifies this trajectory. Watch it and you will likely be enraged, but also vastly better informed. Similarly, the rhetorical effectiveness of the Artforum letter – the one that finally toppled Kanders – was in its detail. While its authors did not consider tear gas from every angle (it takes a book like Feigenbaum’s to do that), they had clearly done their research, and they prosecuted their case brilliantly.
Like any demonstration of power, the successful protest against the Whitney raises questions of responsibility. It suggests that in an increasingly complex environment, when news media are massively disrupted and public trust in government has hit record lows, art can step into the breach, serving as one of society’s primary resources for reliable information, as well as informed debate. We probably cannot grasp, today, just how different it might feel if that potential were fully realized. One thing is for sure, though. It would fundamentally redefine citizenship in the arts. So what it all means, maybe, is this: there’s a world to win out there; and we have a hell of a lot of work to do.
The author would like to thank Catherine Flood and Gavin Grindon, curators of the 2014 V&A exhibition Disobedient Objects, for their comments.
(*) Sergeant O’Donnell also noted that the NYPD has not resorted to tear gas in many years, and sent me a Tactical Operations Patrol Guide, which states that “its use by the Emergency Service Unit is designed to minimize, rather than increase, the potential for serious physical injury. However, such use carries with it the danger of physical injury or material damage regardless of the care exercised in its application. Therefore, it is imperative that measures be established for the judicious use of tear gas by members trained for this purpose while at the same time providing for the decontamination of those affected, whether civilian or police personnel.”