Well, sort of. Art museums rarely issue policy statements per se, but they can reveal themselves in other ways. On Saturday SFMOMA opened “The Air We Breathe,” which the museum describes as a show that will “promote dialogue and enable understanding” and that “brings together visual artists and poets to reflect on the subject of equal rights for same-sex couples.” The exhibition is a too-rare example of a museum presenting an exhibition that takes takes as its raison d’etre showing how artists are engaged with an au courant issue — and it suggests that SFMOMA is unconcerned about any potential “Hide/Seek”-style controversy. More on that in a minute.
“The Air We Breathe” emerged from a book proposal that the David Teiger Foundation solicited from SFMOMA curator Apsara DiQuinzio. Later, the museum and DiQuinzio expanded it into an exhibition. The project consists of work SFMOMA commissioned from 30 artists and eight poets. (A couple of artists chose to exhibit earlier work that fit the show’s subject.) The book includes essays by critic Frank Rich, poet/novelist Eileen Myles and philosopher and University of Chicago law-and-ethics professor Martha Nussbaum, as well as poetry by Langston Hughes, John Ashbery and others. “The Air We Breathe” is on view through February 20; the book is available here. (I have read the book; I have not seen the show.) [Image: Martha Colburn, Untitled, 2011.]
Judging from a galley, the artwork in the show and the poems that are presented with it is overwhelmingly, possibly entirely, pro-equality. If “Hide/Seek” was a history textbook, “The Air We Breathe” is an op-ed.
“I believe in art as a powerful tool of communication, that art has the ability to reframe subjects and open them up when they may have been stagnant or contained,” DiQuinzio told me several weeks ago. “I wanted to do a project that was participating in that debate and that was propelling it forward in a productive way.”
Mission accomplished. From the art to the poems to the essays, the project is relentlessly progressive. “To refuse [marriage] rights to some individuals when they are granted to others is by definition discrimination,” DiQuinzio writes in the book-opening essay. Succeeding writers uniformly concur: There’s Myles, who writes, “The show is simply asking the question if all these people, if Ann, if Susan, if Eileen, if Leo, if Colter and Bob have the right to publicly announce their love and get answered: You do. You go girl. Here’s a blender.”
From Rich: “Make no mistake about it: The Proposition 8 trial, Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision [opening marriage to all Californians], and the subsequent reaction to it (as much a non-reaction as anything else) constitute a high point in America’s history-long struggle to live up to its democratic ideals.” Nussbaum’s essay is a 16-page legal and philosophical treatise in favor of marriage equality.
The art in the show is similarly unambiguous. A 2003 Raymond Pettibon work on paper, No Title (Paint fills them…) [above] suggests that two hearts beat as one, but that another form of unity is a ways off. An untitled 2011 Dan Perjovschi [below, left] notes that marriage is a contract and suggests that love matters even when that contract is (temporarily?) withheld. And so on.
DiQuinzio’s project is a big step for SFMOMA, which is typically one of America’s most conservative modern and contemporary art museums. In recent years the museum has often shirked hot-button issues: Last year the museum presented “Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera Since 1870.” The exhibition included tough, challenging pictures from World War II and Vietnam, but did not include seemingly relevant images from Iraq, such as photographs from Abu Ghraib. In 2008 the museum installed Emily Jacir’s Where We Come From (2001-03) with a strange wall-text that explained away the content of Jacir’s artwork. At the time – early 2009 – a museum spokesperson explained that SFMOMA had provided similar explanations for other “sensitive” works and cited an artwork with sexual themes as a point of comparison. “We felt we should contextualize the piece acknowledging the sensitivities that surround it,” an SFMOMA spokesperson told me in 2009. “We deeply believe in the merits of her work but of course, are not taking political sides.”
Late last week, SFMOMA director Neal Benezra told me that’s still true. “We’re all kind of clear that the purpose of a museum is to act as a forum for debate and thinking and looking,” Benezra said. “We’re also clear that we’re not advocating a point of view in this and that’s important to me.”
I told Benezra that while I hadn’t seen the show installed on his museum’s second-floor landing, the book was as close as I’ve ever seen a large art museum come to taking a position on a social issue. Benezra said he could understand that point-of-view, but maintained that SFMOMA wasn’t declaring itself to be pro-marriage equality. “I went back and read the text that Apsara wrote and it’s a very good text,” he said. “She says that this project aims to create an open forum. I thought those were really good words. I think one of the things a museum can do from time to time is take on an issue — and this is an important issue, especially here in this community. For us to serve as a forum for people to look at the work these artist sand poets have produced can only be a good thing.” [Image: Johanna Calle, Untitled (roles) ,2011.]
“The Air We Breathe” just opened, so it remains to be seen whether the extreme-right will attack the show the same way it attacked “Hide/Seek.” Benezra says if that’s what’s coming, his team is ready. “I’m not unnecessarily concerned about it,” he said. “I know from my time in Washington [Benezra was a curator and later a deputy director at the Hirshhorn] that you don’t’ want to be blindsided by an inquiry. You want to be prepared. You want to know what you think and we’re prepared to express that in a really clear way. I don’t imagine there’s going to be any controversy about this show. I really do think that it’s going to facilitate conversation.”
Related: I’ll have a review of DiQuinzio’s book in a couple weeks. Also interesting: SFMOMA has priced the book much more aggressively than museums typically price show-related publications. It’s yours for about $13.