October 26, 2017 (Thursday)

by Yule Heibel on October 25, 2018

Second day in a row of dark rainy weather as we wake up. The desk lamp is on.

It’s odd, but I feel almost personally insulted in the wake of seeing on Twitter a post by Jordan B. Peterson: a photo of a poster which some anonymous people have been putting up in the Toronto neighborhood where he lives. That is, not in and around the University of Toronto campus (where he works), but near his home. It’s a clever poster, well-designed, in black and white. A photo of Peterson in profile, looking particularly unkempt and harried and a bit crazy-angry, beset by demonstrators. Then, the text, accusing him of being literally a Nazi. The poster doesn’t say who made or distributed or paid for it, but twice it prominently includes a University of Toronto phone number and office name which people should call to complain about him. This has the effect of making it look somewhat official, in a weird sort of way.

The tactic is vile. It’s potentially dangerous on a personal level of safety for the accused. And perhaps it also makes me more than a bit angry because I went to Cambridge yesterday to hear Glenn D. Lowry deliver the annual Henri Zerner lecture, about in-between spaces and art in the Islamic world. Sort of.

This talk was awful, just awful, on so very many levels.

So here’s Lowry, comfortably ensconced in the academic museum world – as I subsequently learned after the lecture, it was revealed in 2015 that in 2013 he made $2,000,000 (in words: two million dollars) in annual compensation (salary and perks), and in addition he and his wife live rent-free in a $6,000,000 apartment next to the Museum of Modern Art, in a building called Museum Tower …and then this guy can’t even give a decent lecture. Not to save his life he can’t.

All of Peterson’s lectures are engaging, with mini mind-blasts thrown about like IEDs in the larger field of an already exciting lecture / talk / discussion, and what does he get? Not two million dollars, nor a luxury rent-free apartment in New York City. But never mind.

Art history, the field I once worked in, aspired to succeed in, is corrupt.

What was so galling about Lowry? Oh, where to start… He read his talk, straight-up, which is just appalling for an alleged professional who should be deeply engaged with his material before he opens his mouth. If you have to read from a script, maybe you don’t really have it under your belt yet. But then he tried to “animate” his reading with occasional dramatic vocal flourishes. These, however, only served to show how vapid what he was actually saying was. His talk was superficial; it presented a hodgepodge of unrelated artists, an Art History 101 kind of parade of “highlights” (surface skimming), but without even the “history” part which Art History 101 promises to deliver. I wouldn’t have dared deliver a lecture like that.

Sure, he tried to provide some “historical” context, but it was trite and sometimes contrived, pulled along by inflated, fashionable rhetoric. If three words would have sufficed, Lowry used fifteen. I kept thinking that he should be put on a Twitter diet – it would be a great editing tool.

The talk was identitarian – I’ll refrain from saying racist because Islam is not a race – insofar as he assumed a common identity between the artists simply because they all came from Muslim-majority countries and places. (There, I said it: that I think even liberal academics, not just right-wingers, play the identitarian game.) Yet what of the Egyptian artist who used film clips of an Egyptian starlet from the sixties, the seventies? Images of beach volleyball, sexuality, bikinis? How different is this from the other artists? How different from their intentions? So if the Egyptian artist’s work was a commentary on present-day Egypt, on Mubarak, how in the name of “Islam” does it relate to some (or any) of the other artists? Oh, I know how! The fashionable cudgel of white western colonialism, at the “root” – the common root of all their ills – is what beats this entire mass of artists into a palatable if boring pudding. Identity over intention.

The audience nods, knowingly and approvingly. No questions raised., no shibboleths overturned. The talk was safe, ultra-safe, and therefore also corrupt, given the enormously powerful position someone like Lowry holds. I mean, just consider the art markets, the effect someone like Lowry has in turning his attentions to these artists (while not saying much, mind) and how this in turn affects prices for their work… Lowry actually alluded to the global art market as though it was a natural phenomenon like the desert. Unreal. And he talked about maps and borders as though only the colonizers made them.

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