Editor’s note - Curator Chris Gilbert joined the Berkeley Art Museum as Matrix Curator in September 2005, following a two-year stint as curator at the Baltimore Museum of Art. He resigned his Matrix position late last month. Stretcher has received Gilbert’s resignation statement which is here posted in its entirety as a contribution to the ongoing dialog about the cultural impact of contemporary art. Readers wish to respond to the statement may use the “Add a comment” button at the end of the page.
I made the decision to resign as Matrix Curator on April 28, but my struggles with the BAM/PFA over the content and approach of the projects in the exhibition cycle “Now-Time Venezuela: Media Along the Path of the Bolivarian Process” go back quite a few months. In particular the museum administratorsmeaning the deputy directors and senior curator collaborating, of course, with the public relations and audience development staffhave for some time been insisting that I take the idea of solidarity, revolutionary solidarity, out of the cycle. For some months, they have said they wanted “neutrality” and “balance” whereas I have always said that instead my approach is about commitment, support, and alignmentin brief, taking sides with and promoting revolution.
I have always successfully resisted the museum’s attempts to interfere with the projects (and you will see that the ideas of alignment, support, and revolutionary solidarity are written all over the “Now-Time” projects part 1 and part 2they are present in all the texts I have generated and as a consequence in almost all of the reviews). In the museum’s most recent attempt to alter things, the one that precipitated my resignation, they proposed to remove the offending concept from the Now-Time Part 2 introductory text panel (a panel which had already gone to the printer). Their plan was to replace the phrase “in solidarity” with revolutionary Venezuela with a phrase like “concerning” revolutionary Venezuelaor another phrase describing a relation that would not be explicitly one of solidarity.
I threatened to resign and terminate the exhibition, since, first of all, revolutionary solidarity is what I believe inthe essential concept in the “Now-Time” project cyclebut secondly it is obviously unfair to invite participants such as Dario Azzellini and Oliver Ressler or groups such as Catia TVe to a project that has one character (revolutionary solidarity) and then change the rules of the game on them a few weeks before the show opens (so that they become mere objects of examination or investigation). At first, my threat to resign and terminate the show availed nothing. Then on April 28, I wrote a letter stating that I was in fact resigning and my last day of work would be two weeks from that day, which was May 12, two days before the “Now-Time Part 2: Revolutionary Television in Catia” opening. I assured them that the show could not go forward without me. In response to this decisive actionand surely out of fear that the show which had already been published in the members magazine would not happenthe institution restored my text panel to the way I had written it. Having won that battle, though at the price of losing my position, I decided to go forward with the show, my last one.
One thing that should make evident how extreme and erratic the museum’s actions were is that the very same sentence that was found offensive (“a project in solidarity with the revolutionary process in contemporary Venezuela”) is the exact sentence that is used for the first Now-Time Venezuela exhibition text panel that still hangs in the Matrix gallery upstairs. That show is on view for one more week as I write.
The details of all this are important though, of course, its general outlines, which play out the familiar patterns of class struggle, are of greater interest. The class interests represented by the museum, which are above all the interests of the bourgeoisie that funds it, have two (related) things to fear from a project like mine: (1) of course, revolutionary Venezuela is a symbolic threat to the US government and the capitalist class that benefits from that government’s policies, just as Cuba is a symbolic threat, just as Nicaragua was, and just as is any country that tries to set its house in order in a way that is different from the ideas of Washington and Londonwhich is primarily to say Washington and London’s insistence that there is no alternative to capitalism.
I must emphasize that the threat is only symbolic; in the eyes of the U.S. government and the U.S. bourgeoisie, it sets a “bad” and dangerous example of disobedience for other countries to follow, but of course the idea that such examples represent a military threat to the US (would that it were the case) is simply laughable; (2) the second threat, which is probably the more operational one in the museum context, is that much of the community is in favor of the “Now-Time” projectsthe response to the first exhibition is enormous and the interest in the second is also very high. That response and interest exposes the fact that the museum, the bourgeois values it promotes via the institution of contemporary art (contemporary art of the past thirty years is really in most respects simply the cultural arm of upper-class power) are not really those of any class but its own. Importantly the museum and the bourgeoisie will always deny the role of class interests in this: they will always maintain that the kinds of cultural production they promote are more difficult, smarter, more sophisticatedhence the lack of response to most contemporary art is, according to them, about differences in education and sophistication rather than class interest. That this kind of claim is obscurantist and absurd is something the present exhibitions make very clear: the work of Catia TVe, which is created by people in the popular (working-class) neighborhoods of Caracas, is far more sophisticated than what comes out of the contemporary art of the Global North. The same could be said for the ideas discussed by the Venezuelan factory workers in the Ressler and Azzellini film that is shown Now-Time Part 1. (Of course, it is not because these works and the thoughts in them are more sophisticated that we should attend to them; what I am saying is simply that it is clearly an evasion and false to dismiss anti-bourgeois cultural productionwork that aligns with the interests of working class peopleon grounds of its being unsophisticated.)
To return to the museum: I believe that the enormous response to the “Now-Time” cyclethere were 180 visitors to the March 26 panel discussion that opened “Now-Time” part 1 and if you google “Now-Time Venezuela” you get over 700 hits put the class interests that stand by and promote contemporary art in danger, exposed them a bit. I suppose some concern about this may have given a special edge to the museum’s failed efforts to alter my projects.
I think it is important to be clear about the facts that precipitated my resignation: that is, the struggle over the wording of the text panel, which fit into months of struggle over the question of solidarity and alignment with a revolutionary political agenda. That issue is discussed above. However, it is also important to understand the context. Again, it is too weak to say that museums, like universities, are deeply corrupt. They are. (And in my view the key points to discuss regarding this corruption are (1) the museum’s claim to represent the public’s interests when in fact serving upper-class interests and parading a carefully constructed surrogate image of the public; (2) the presence of intra-institutional press and marketing departments that really operate to hold a political line through various control techniques, only one of which is censorship; finally (3) the presence of development departments that, in mostly hidden ways, favor and flatter rich funders, giving the lie to even the sham notion of public responsibility that the museum parades). However, to describe museums and other cultural institutions as simply if deeply corrupt is, as I said, too weak in that it both holds out the promise of their reform and it ignores the larger imperialist structures that make their corruption an inevitable upshot and reflection of the exploitive political and social system of which they form a part. Such institutions will go on reflecting imperialist capitalist values, will celebrate private property and deny social solidarity, and will maintain a strict silence about the control of populations at home and the destruction of populations abroad in the name of profit, until that imperialist system is dismantled. Importantly, it will not be dismantled by cultural efforts alone: a successful reform of a cultural institution here or there would at best result in “islands” of sanity that would most likely operate in a negative wayas imaginary and misleading “proof” that conditions are not as bad as they are.
In fact, with conditions as they are, a different strategy is required: there should be disobedience at all levels; disruptions and explosions of the kind that I, together with a small group of allies inside the museum, have created are also useful on a symbolic level. However, the primary struggle and the only struggle that will result in a significant change would be one that works directly to transform the economic and political base. This would be a struggle aiming to bring down the US government and its imperialist system through highly organized efforts.
We live in the midst of a fascist imperialismthere is no other way to describe the system that the US has created and that exercises such control through terror over populations both inside and outside. History has shown that to make “deals” or “compromises” with fascism avails nothing. Instead a radical and daily intransigence is required. Fascism operates to destroy life. It installs and operates on the logic of the camp on all levels, including culture. In the face of that logic, which holds life as nothing, compromises and deals at best buy time for the aggressor and symbolic capital for the aggressor. One should have no illusions: until capitalism and imperialism are brought down, cultural institutions will go on being, in their primary role, lapdogs of a system that spreads misery and death to people everywhere on the planet. The fight to abolish that system completely and build one based on socialism must remain our exclusive and constant focus.
Gilbert demonstrates a valuable point about the relationship between art and power while delivering a statement that I read as suffused with self-righteous emotion. I cannot help but feel that the Berkeley Art Museum was set up; or else Gilbert was completely naive about the institution he joined which seems unlikely since he is so intelligent in many ways. However great intellect does not necessarily come with great wisdom about emotions. There seems to be a predictable human pattern at work, where a holder of radical views passionately rejects those people who might be most open to his values because they don’t agree with him point for point. I think BAM deserves a credit for mounting the Venezuela exhibitions. The troubling thing about a righteous stance is that it objectifies those who hold other opinions as wrong. There is much to be said for muddling, ambiguity, compromise, and yes, even being compromised. Tolerance saves more lives than fanaticism of any stripe.
To cut him a bit of slack, folks who aren’t from around here (and I assuming he is not) tend to conflate the politics of the residents of the City of Berkeley with the attitude of the University of California at Berkeley (and to further conflate UC Berkeley with the University of California as a whole). It can be a rude shock to find out just how different Berkeley and UC Berkeley (and the UC system) truly are. If, on the other hand, he attended a UC school, or lived in Berkeley previously, then he fully deserves all the snarky comments.
i don-t think any other institution will be interested in hosting propaganda for the the MVR party in Venezuela, which is just what Mr. Gilbert was doing. He is a fanatic who has offended many venezuelan artists, curators and museum professionals with this piece of cheap propaganda and his “solidarity” with a corrupt government rich with petrodollars who makes slaves out of venezuelans subjecting them to eternal misery and poverty. Everything in the videos is false, most of the factories have since closed and catia tv is a well funded arm of the robolution.
Doreen Williams writes:
The troubling thing about a righteous stance is that it objectifies those who hold other opinions as wrong.
Yes, but what if, for instance, it just happened to be wrong to invade Iraq? And what if it was wrong to carry out policies for the last 60 years that serve primarily to benefit US corporate control over world markets and resources? Is muddling, ambiguity and compromise going to change any of that or the better? At least Mr. Gilbert has identified key points that he believes it is essential to change, and made his participation in a specific institution contingent on making those changes. That seems to me to be an ethical stance, which might not be improved by muddling, ambiguity, compromise, or even tolerance for a status quo that, in my opinion, is unbearable. To be “tolerant” towards the existence of some 800 US bases on foreign soil, and toward the power they project in favor of corporations that inflict deeper and more long-term damage than the bombs and missiles launched from the bases, seems to me to be just colluding with the fanaticism you would like to avoid.
1. BTDT… and the result was that I found myself entirely unable to influence the dialogue curatorially at those institutions in ANY way whatsoever. Not smart… noble maybe, but only marginally. An understandable error in judgemental pique nevertheless.
2. I’m not thrilled with any American curator showing “solidarity” with Venezuelan communist reactionaries under current conditions to begin with.
How did all of this institutional crustiness come as such a shock to you, Chris? These topics have been on the table for at least forty years now- didn’t your art-historical/curatorial education cover the topic?
Also, now that you’ve just tossed a molotov cocktail at the last institution that employed you, where do you see your next job coming from?
Ella Delaney • May 26, 2006