Cancel Culture: Biting the Hand Feeding Arts Nonprofits?

If we're to subject arts philanthropists to sniff tests, let's be consistent about it.

cancel culture
It may be inconvenient to admit this, but the slope is slippery by design.

Last week’s news that Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry will be renamed for the billionaire hedge fund manager and philanthropist Ken Griffin isn’t unusual. Despite all the controversy this year around high-level donors, museums will continue to be focal points for large-scale giving.

But it is also true that Griffin, like the Whitney Museum’s Warren Kanders and the whole of the Sackler clan, may have to answer for every penny of his fortune if he wishes to keep on contributing to the public good. This is to say that everything old is new again: In the early 1900s, it was fashionable to criticize the capitalist origins of the philanthropy of the era. In 1906, in a speech delivered at the laying of the cornerstone of the Cannon Office Building in Washington, DC, President Theodore Roosevelt laid the foundation of what we now call cancel culture:

It is important to this people to grapple with the problems connected with the amassing of enormous fortunes, and the use of those fortunes, both corporate and individual, in business. We should discriminate in the sharpest way between fortunes well won and fortunes ill won; between those gained as an incident to performing great services to the community as a whole and those gained in evil fashion by keeping just within the limits of mere law honesty. Of course, no amount of charity in spending such fortunes in any way compensates for misconduct in making them.

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Several years later, Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, responded to the request of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., for a charter to create his eponymous foundation as “a bill to incorporate Mr. Rockefeller.”

Judging from the events of 2019, such criticisms are back in vogue. It began, of course, with the saga of the Sackler family’s wealth, acquired through its pharmaceutical business, Purdue Pharma. Since the late 1970s, the family has given considerable amounts of money to the arts, including the Sackler Wing at NYC’s Metropolitan Museum and the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Then, in 2017, The New Yorker published a searing exposé of Purdue’s role in fueling America’s opioid crisis through its development and heavy-handed promotion of OxyContin. The floodgates opened a raft of lawsuits by cities, states and Native American tribes, all intent on ravaging the Sacklers. Journalists have continued exposing the company’s secrets — and the Sacklers’. Even comedian John Oliver has gotten in on the act, with a little help from actors such as Bryan Cranston and Michael K. Williams:

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Earlier this year, photographer Nan Goldin ignited a high-profile crusade against the arts philanthropy of the Sackler family through a well-publicized action at the Guggenheim. Her group, P.A.I.N., has scored major victories — first in the UK, then in the US and beyond. Then the fury spread: Kanders was forced to resign from the Whitney’s board over his role in profiting from the manufacture of tear gas allegedly used against migrants at the US-Mexico border.

All of these events could be understood not as cancel culture, but as victories for those who dream of a more humane world. I count myself among such people — yet I fear a slippery slope. Indeed, these times have not been kind to those of us who, while dreaming of a more humane world, also make critical distinctions and value nuance. The fundamental dilemma is that cancel culture loves an outlier, yet it uses outliers as a road to the center. Purdue Pharma (and the Sacklers’ role in it) really is as bad as Goldin says it is; the source of Kanders’ wealth really is as bad as activists say it is. However, who cannot also foresee cancel culture being used against philanthropists whose legitimacy as targets is far more debatable?

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Goldin’s activism remains narrowly focused; her status as a survivor of opiate addiction adds a compelling aura of moral righteousness to her cause. But those who forced Kanders to resign are just getting started. The movement to push Kanders out produced two letters, one written by Whitney employees, the other signed by a loose coalition of academics and organized by “radical publishing house” Verso. The staff letter leans into the language of psychological well-being: “We read the Hyperallergic article [on Kanders] and felt not annoyed, not intellectually upset — we felt sick to our stomachs, we shed tears, we felt unsafe.” These claims cannot be literally true; museums, as environments, are themselves tightly controlled and nothing if not safe. By making such claims, the writers invoked the rationale pioneered on college campuses for de-platforming unpopular speakers, censorship and worse. (In The Coddling of the American Mind, New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt and civil libertarian Greg Lukianoff contend that students’ demand for “safe spaces” runs counter to their own wellbeing by training and reinforcing painful thought patterns symptomatic of depression.) The staff letter declares they will “…not be afflicted with any Board member whose work or actions are at odds with the museum’s mission.”

If the letter were to be examined literally, the Whitney board could breathe a sigh of relief: According to the mission statement in its tax filings, “the Whitney Museum of American Art is a museum devoted to American art of the 20th and 21st centuries.” We know, of course, what the staffers mean: the assertion of an inalienable, irrevocable right of staff to demand the resignation of any board member for any reason, bounded only by subjective distastes and the inexhaustible elasticity of any individual or collective interpretation of the mission statement. In other words, a blank check for cancel culture.

The Verso letter, meanwhile, alleges that museums are linked with the historic “power structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism.”

Both letters are suffused with broad, diffuse claims of social justice that go well beyond the nominal, narrow focus of removing a single, unpopular board member from one museum. Kanders’ conduct as a profiteer from state violence may be indefensible on the merits. But he will not be the last person canceled.

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It is not new for activists to target outliers and then make a quick path toward lesser offenders. Consider the movement, beginning in 2015, to remove Confederate monuments after Dylann Roof’s horrific, racist massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. Some liberals argued that Confederate treason provided for a clear distinction between removal-worthy monuments and mainstream American ones — an attempt to allay fears that the latter would be targeted as well. This distinction was not enough to prevent the near-destruction of historic murals at San Francisco’s George Washington High School. (Ironically, the murals were controversial, in part, because artist Victor Arnautoff depicted Washington as a slaveowner back in the 1930s.) This distinction was not enough to prevent a commission appointed by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio from considering the removal of a statue of Roosevelt, patron saint of philanthropic cancel culture.

This is the first time I’ve seen activists use an outlier case to reinforce broad, largely unrelated claims so explicitly. The slope, in other words, is slippery by design. British journalist Mark Lawson is right to worry about the state of UK arts philanthropy when he notes that “the new puritans…do not rely on financial audit or legal due diligence but on a subjective sniff test.” In a New York Times op-ed last May, Anand Giridharadas argued for such sniff tests. The real problem, he wrote, is that sniffers need more places to sniff:

The public should be brought into the process. Public-facing institutions enjoy the privilege of being untaxed, so citizens should be able to comment on and scrutinize prospective donations.

Here, Giridharadas links tax-exempt status with a right to public scrutiny. But if tax-exempt status is enough to give the public veto power over giving (either directly or through public shaming), then surely all nonprofits, of every size and in every field, can be so targeted. In an age when the fickleness of public opinion, amplified by social media, wreaks such havoc on our civic life (see “pizzagate” and the anti-vax movement), it would be unconscionable to grant the vagaries of public opinion another theater.

Nuance is going extinct; case-by-case judging appears to be the pastime of a past time. Many wealthy people want to contribute to the public good through philanthropy. There are those who say that such people should be barred from doing so if they’ve ever failed to live up to what is increasingly subjective, faddish moral criteria. Tomorrow’s philanthropists are knocking at the door. Will we open the door and let them in? Or will cancel culture cancel them all?