The specter of violence is not only exacerbating polarization in an already divided country, it has cast a chilling shadow over cultural institutions. In the controversy leading to the Guggenheim Museum’s decision to remove several works from its China show in response to threats of violence, we witnessed a prominent cultural institution held hostage by fear and forced to silence artistic expression. And this is not an isolated occurrence.
Yet it is cultural institutions that provide a space for the peaceful conversations we urgently need as a society. If we are to reverse the tide of violent suppression, we need peaceful activists and protesters to clearly condemn those among them who believe that violent tactics are a short, effective and desirable path to achieving their goals.
The Guggenheim’s China show, which opens today, generated many questions about ethical and moral issues in the treatment of animals in art, as well as around representation and cultural difference. We may passionately disagree on those issues. But how do we handle such disagreement? This question is becoming ever more urgent in a polarized and often violent political climate.
Violence – whether as a possibility or actual physical attack – is increasingly used as a tactic to preclude discussion – not only in repressive regimes, but in the world’s developed democracies. A few years ago, in 2014, activist groups, by endangering safety, succeeded in closing Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B at the Barbican in London (an exhibition reconstructing the 19th century “human zoo”) before it has even opened. Since then, and closer to home, US universities have repeatedly cancelled speaker events because of violent outbursts among protesters or in anticipation of violence. Museums have become increasingly fearful for their staff and the artwork they display.
It is hard for the leadership of an art institutions to stand up to threats of violence and put at risk the safety of museum guards, curators and audiences. And yet, when a Museum retreats and censors a show in response to threats of violence it encourages other groups to adopt the same undemocratic tactic and bypass reasoned debate in favor of violent threats. Why protest peacefully and debate when you can use digital anonymity and threaten the museum’s staff? Worse, cultural institutions may pre-emptively self-censor so as to avoid having to navigate publicly the Scylla of violence and the Charybdis of censorship.
Every time threats of violence succeed in silencing expression, our public sphere is impoverished and even more polarized. Ambiguities and nuances are lost in the battle of whose voice shall prevail. Museums and universities operate in fear. Even peer groups become intolerant to any internal dissent.
If we are to restore our democracy and make it function, we need to bring back reasoned debate, we need to listen even as our blood boils, we need to create better and more convincing arguments, but most of all, we need to speak up when our fellow travelers, frustrated and desperate, resort to violence. Violence should never be an option.