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COUNTRY, CURATORS & CONSTABLE: Political Thoughts & the Fitzwilliam Museum

I am a firm believer in the fundamental message of Dr. Martin Luther King. An individual’s character is the true measure of a human being, not our superficial branding that is a matter of the universe's roll-of-dice like ethnicity, gender or place of birth. Our virtue, character and morality are what we have the power and freedom to control. Equally, I am a firm believer in the enlightenment values in which the United States was founded. This country may be considered a “Christian” nation, but the slightest investigation into its foundational years will reveal that the country was initially built more by the Greeks and Romans than Christians. And this is a good thing. It’s what paved the way for the world’s most successful revolution to usher in a new era of cascading freedom and prosperity that in the years following, many countries the world over would be seen adopting. Had the American Revolution been unsuccessful, (and many times it nearly was, and many monarchical governments at the time hoped it was), the globe would look very different today.

Politically, I am not a liberal or a conservative. I pledge no dogmatic allegiance to any political tribe or orthodoxy. Though I believe our political system is a generally rational one in the way it is structured, I sincerely don’t give a damn about red-blue, elephant-donkey, or republican-democrat. What I value most is the moral and pragmatic character of ideas… not what side of the political aisle they come from. Apart from being a natural contrarian by temperament, my liberal friends often find me too conservative and my conservative friends think I’m too liberal. Excellent. Because that is exactly where I want to be politically, and who I want to be as an individual. I may not have the “heart” that’s part and parcel of political partisanship, but I have a brain. And in this moment of our current political climate, a clear and functioning intellect is of far more utility than a fiery passion.

While I do not personally subscribe to any political identity, I do deeply respect the general format in which our system is structured, particularly our liberal-conservative dichotomy. Of the “big five” personality dimensions psychologists use to understand and categorize human temperament and behavior, “openness” is often an indicator of political affiliation. The five personality traits are part genetic and part learned with a roughly 40%-50% heritability rate. Interestingly, this means that political affiliation is in part genetically predictable, while an individual’s environment and experiences shape the rest.

Liberal-minded people tend to be high in openness. These individuals are often creative, forward-thinking, highly adaptable to change, and are comfortable with the unknown. People with a more conservative temperament enjoy predictability, place a high value on tradition and the past, value clear borders between things, and prefer the familiar. A society that balances these two ways of understanding and acting in the world can be a powerhouse. When a culture is fearless enough to leap toward the unknown future while valuing the wisdom of the past, true and stable progress can be made. Without conservatives, liberals would be less grounded and tend toward highly-dynamic chaos. Likewise, without liberals, conservatives would tend to make slower progress, place too high a premium on what has worked before, and the world would likely become increasingly static and less innovative. Balance is the key. And as if to confirm the health of our country in this way, nearly without deviation, our leading administrations oscillate back and forth on both ends by will of the people - never fatally going off the rails in one direction. This works when both sides have the ability to communicate in a healthy and productive manner, even when the stakes are high and there is deep disagreement. And in order to communicate like this, we need the protected freedom to do so.

•   •   •

Freedom of speech is the paramount fundamental human right. It’s how we’re able to freely think and communicate. The founders of the United States knew all too well that in order for a healthy and free society to grow and prosper, its population must have the ability to speak freely and be protected when doing so. After all, the best ideas are often initially unpopular. Part of our first amendment right is the ability to organize into groups and to share a voice in support of or disagreement with a cause. Protest is essential for a free and functioning society and an educated, articulate, and passionate individual has the power to shape the world. Primacy of the individual over the group is a core value that can not be understated.

It seems, however, that we live in an age where (on both political sides) a dangerous and increasing fraction of our population have ceased being capable, moral actors with individual agency and autonomy, and are instead hollow vessels whose main function is the propagation of blind ideology. What’s worse, the hollow vessels too-often consider themselves experts on any given issue in which the TikTok algorithm has served them mere minutes of content. Some people truly are very educated on a given issue, some people know enough to formulate a respectable position, but unfortunately, many are mere transporters of the overarching political position they feel compelled to take based on their tribe’s current orthodoxy. Buck that orthodoxy and see what happens…

The massive responses to the current conflicts in the Ukraine and Middle East are good examples of where political tribalism has thrived. For example, during the autumn of 2023, it was truly amazing to see how many people who knew nothing of the deep, complex, millenniums-long history of the Fertile Crescent on October 5th, took to the streets by October 10th waving flags, chanting slogans, and self-righteously believing that they were on the correct side of history. And at their worst, judging anyone who is not on their side as immoral perpetrators of death. Many of the organizers who were exercising their first amendment right are well-educated on the issue and may even have a personal or familial stake in the conflicts. At the same time, there were many heads in the crowd that practically blew their vocal chords out screaming in the streets. But ask them to point out the area in question on a map? Good luck.

And this applies to virtually every significant cultural, societal or global event. A major problem in our culture may be ideology, but the crisis is that many individuals in our modern, tech-dominated culture seem to be lacking significant purpose or meaning in life. The current and disturbing data trends for depression, anxiety, spiritual fulfillment, and overall life satisfaction tell it all. And sadly, it looks particularly horrible for young people. The modern world breeds this crisis and ideology preys on it. And who can blame people for drinking deep the many ideological elixirs on offer? After all, like religious systems at their worst, ideology comes pre-packaged, ready to eat and tastes great on an empty stomach. No further inquiry required. Which is probably why we see so many young people drunk on the stuff. It gives them a cause to theoretically hold themselves responsible to, allows them to be part of what they believe is a revolution, easily divides oppressors from oppressees, and gives them a righteous moral position which they can leverage for social status. It’s a no-mess, non-perishable way of understanding the world… and better yet, it’s microwavable!

A one-dimensional ethical thread runs straight through many of today’s ideologies. After all, synthetic moral virtue is the currency of our day. There is a growing culture of empty moralism that is used by individuals, groups, and organizations to leverage against others in a vain attempt to climb the social dominance hierarchy. We see it everywhere. Lots of frosting with very little cake. People today are far more concerned with looking as though they are morally virtuous rather than actually being it. Superficiality in this way is not exclusive to our time, but I suspect it is often a direct reflection of the way we interact via the digital world. TikTok, Instagram, X, and the like are all ground zero for many of the worst non-violent aspects of humanity. Social media encourages individuals to construct synthetic, public-facing veneers in a lame attempt to display highly-curated and often false avatars of themselves. The morality ground race thrives here, if only in elaborate display. And it’s not just social media either. Netflix programs, Hollywood movies, and anything the corporate monster known as Disney touches turns into a new means for empty virtue-signaling and preachy political conformity. Politics first, creativity second. Cynically, it can sometimes feel like nearly every piece of consumable media is tainted with the motivation of un-creative creatives whose college years were spent with less time in the classroom and more time shouting Nietzsche quotes in the streets.

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Okay, phew. That was a lot of political talk coming from an oil painter. So… what does any of this have to do with art you ask? Well, let’s jump the pond for a moment. I promise, ideologies will be wholly recognizable there too.

In March of this year the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK undertook a reorganization of five of its painting galleries in an effort to be more “inclusive” and to “tell the larger, more complex and inclusive story of art”. No surprise there given that the art world has been bending over backwards in an effort to be more diverse and inclusive - particularly over the past few years. This in and of itself is not problematic, of course, and I am sure the general art-loving public would love to see fresh gallery displays which would ensure new interest and high museum traffic. The displays now place iconic paintings next to lesser-known and more contemporary works by under-represented artists in the museum's collection. If the theme is finding threads between historic art and contemporary visual trends, then sign me up!

But what caught my attention in this case was not just the removal and reorganization of several English paintings, but how several pieces are being positioned by the museum to the viewers – in particular, one of my all-time favorite genres of art, English landscape painting which, within these galleries, is the conclusive display dedicated to landscape and the natural world. It appears that the museum has decided that the viewer is no longer capable of admiring these beautiful works without uni-directional, political coaxing and guidance.

Written displays that accompany the exhibit of English paintings warn viewers of the “darker side” of the landscapes. No, not darker in the actual hues being used within the palette, but a darker side in that these beautiful works of rolling hills and farmland might elicit a “pride toward homeland” – the implication being that these paintings may suggest that only “those with a historical tie to the land have a right to belong”. Accompanying one of the paintings by English landscape master John Constable (one of my favorite artists of all time), is an explanatory display where visitors are informed that the insidious side to the work is the “nationalist feeling” one might experience when viewing depictions of the British countryside. This is quite ironic considering that the curator of the new rehang, Dr. Rebecca Birrel wants “to provide the audience with stories without being overly didactic or determining the meaning of artworks. It’s just trying to provide possible readings, possible ways in, rather than definitive explanations. You want the work to have the space to speak for itself.” Then why provide any explanations at all? And why that explanation? If anything here is “dark”, it’s this pernicious interpretation of painted farmland that the museum is now providing to its guests. Heaven forbid a visitor leaves the gallery spaces without feeling the political re-education of its curatorial staff.

Liars always think people are lying. Why? Because behind their own eyes they are constantly being untrustworthy and so assume so of other people. Arguably, only someone who harbors prejudices themselves would have the capability of seeing something as politically neutral as a landscape painting as being potentially racist. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When the algorithmic and ideological software your brain is running on insists that the world is broken out into groups based on skin color and oppressor/oppressee dynamics, everything in your visual field is potentially racist. 

•   •   •

The English countryside is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. It’s rolling hills and unmatched greenery will rouse pieces of your soul you never knew you had. And I’m sure similar sentiments would be felt by people who have spent their lives locked in English cities like London or Liverpool. English artists (particularly in the 19th century in my opinion) were often exemplars of landscape painting’s visual language. Constable, Turner, and Gainsborough were all masters of the brush. The emotions that their works rouse is a testament to their creative vision, technical dexterity and deep admiration for natural beauty. The evidence for all this is in the paint. I would also argue that in order to create works that speak to viewers hundreds of years later, one must possess something like pride or at least awe of the land being depicted. I firmly believe that some of the most truly captivating and moving religious artworks throughout history could only have been created in the spirit of belief. Art is intuitive, and viewers can sniff out an insincere attempt at depiction.

I sincerely find it difficult, if not impossible to believe that John Constable was walking miles and miles each day while carrying his plein air painting tools seeking anything but an impeccable composition of brilliant form, arrangement, color, and subject. I am even more confident that his heart would sink knowing that many years later, his works would be accompanied by warnings (written by people in the professional art world no less) that his masterpieces may be intellectually dangerous.

And what a great way to condition viewers into seeing something in a work that isn’t there, or at the very least seeing what would otherwise be a very unpopular interpretation. Going forward, the museum has guaranteed that all viewers will be aware of this “dangerous” interpretation, now that it has been codified on the wall in black and white. What do I mean? Quick exercise: I beg of you, please do everything in your power at this very moment not to think of a pink elephant. You get my point.

And besides, pride is supposed to be a good thing in our culture, correct? Be proud of who you are. Be proud of being different. Be proud of the community you belong to. That certainly seems to be a sentiment that our western culture has been emphasizing, particularly over the past several years. One must be sure, however, that what you are feeling is the correct brand of pride, as pride toward one’s country or homeland may be “problematic”. This is almost certainly because a pride for one’s homeland or country can be associated with far-right extremism. And of course, history shows us in all-to-vivid detail that a nationalistic pride toward an ethnic homeland, if taken to its logical and violent extreme, can lead to innocent people being pushed into boxcars. 

This is not the case, of course, if your homeland is of non-Western origin. It seems that one’s pridefulness is only acceptable if you belong to a currently or historically (or perpetually) oppressed group as deemed by the current political orthodoxy. The main driving force of this categorization in the western world is third-wave intersectional feminism who inherited much of their intellectual positions from the French postmodernist thinkers of the 20th century. Thanks to the work they’ve done with their categorical and organized oppression hierarchy, one may enjoy high status within the oppression cult as one may be subject to multiple layers of historically systemic and systematic oppression. This is not at all to dismiss historical oppression. Anyone with even the most vague and rudimentary sense of history is aware of the violent and oppressive campaigns waged toward certain groups based on ethnicity, gender, etc. But we must not be held captive by the past, we should use it as the tool to guide our understanding of the present. Not allow it to dictate how the present and future unfold. And we certainly shouldn’t be held in a perpetually static state of guilt and lament over what past atrocities people have committed. Especially if the only thing you have in common with those historical individuals is the shade of your skin. Skin color is not a moral position. Skin color is not an indicator of anyone’s character. To suggest otherwise is wicked and immoral in the extreme. And historically, exactly the stuff genocides are made of.

•   •   •

If I had one message to send to the Fitzwilliam Museum or any of the many other art institutions and organizations making similar moves, it’s this: Let the art speak for itself. After all, although it was contradicted in its execution, the head curator of the Fitzwilliam said those exact words herself. Explanations of historical and contemporary artworks give us great context that help viewers enjoy the work that much more. But I don’t feel as though we need the staff’s personal political feelings baked into it. In a world where everything is politicized, a gallery display of landscape paintings should function as an escape from that. Museums are some of my favorite places to visit. My own art home, the Boston MFA, never fails to leave me filled with a rich gratitude for being alive and an overjoyment that the human enterprise I am a part of was capable of producing such beauty. Whether in a museum or in my home where several originals hang, I will continue to enjoy the English landscapes as they were intended: beauty and awe of the natural world for the sake of beauty and awe of the natural world.

Hampstead Heath  |  John Constable  |  1820

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