Philip Guston Now

Self-censoring at the National Gallery of Art


In an act of self-censoring condescension, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and three other leading galleries postponed from June 2021 until 2024 a major retrospective exhibition of the works of American artist Philip Guston.

The show, which was to be called "Philip Guston Now," included several works depicting hooded Ku Klux Klan figures. Curators feared their audiences would not be sophisticated enough to perceive and appreciate the manifestly anti-racist intent of the artist's works.

Supposedly in light of the "racial justice movement that started in the U.S. and radiated to countries around the world," the directors of the four galleries in a September press release declared they were "postponing the exhibition until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston's work can be more clearly interpreted."

Pushback against this decision, which pretended that suppressing imagery that reminds us of sinister truths can somehow eradicate historical evils, was immediate. "The people who run our great institutions…fear controversy," declared an open letter signed by 100 prominent artists of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. "They lack faith in the intelligence of their audience." Guston's daughter Musa Mayer also issued a statement, rightly asserting that "these paintings meet the moment we are in today. The danger is not in looking at Philip Guston's work, but in looking away."