The Wall Street Journal has just posted a piece I wrote about the latest recipient of the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center First Award, “honoring women who are first in their fields.” Past recipients have included the novelist Toni Morrison, the muppet Miss Piggy, and the fantasist Anita Hill. This year, Elizabeth A. Sackler, chair of the Brooklyn Museum, founder of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the BM, scion of Dr. Arthur M. Sackler, the philanthropist who made a killing marketing painkillers like OxyContin—this year, I say, the muppets took a back seat to a genuine representative of what my friend Ron Raodsh calls the “left-over Left,” Angela Davis, middle-class scourge of the middle class, hater of the America that gave her tenure and decades of lavish speaking fees, Black Panther and Communist candidate for vice president, lover (and secret wife) of George Jackson, a career thug who spent most of his life in prison, was implicated in the murder of a prison guard, and was shot while trying to escape. You can see why, for fifteen minutes, Angela Davis was a beloved cultural icon of the revolutionary Left.
I go into all that in the piece in the Journal. For space reasons, I had to leave out consideration of the fact that a public institution—moreover a public art institution—should be lavishing one of its signal honors on a woman who once made the FBI’s list of the Ten Most Wanted malefactors and who has made a career of disparaging the country that so enriched her.
The spectacle of Angela Davis in conversation with wizened feminist Gloria Steinem at the Brooklyn Museum was partly ironical, partly contemptible. The irony emerged from the discrepancy between the now-rancid radical rhetoric she reflexively emits and the comfy bourgeois reality, underwritten by unacknowledged capitalist enterprise, that she enjoys. Things are “really, really rotten” in this country, Ms Davis intoned at one point, eliciting knowing murmurs from the hip audience. But not, of course, for her. When she was in prison awaiting trial for murder, kidnapping and conspiracy, a complete stranger pledged his farm to raise the $100,000 bail to secure Ms. Davis’s release. “It seemed like a lot of money back then,” Ms Davis assured the audience, unaware, perhaps, that to some it still does.
As I note in the Journal, these days, Angela Davis travels around the world hoovering up honors and honoraria while mouthing radical slogans that, if acted upon, would destroy the civilization that coddles her. Once upon a time, she supported the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan while refusing to speak up for political prisoners in socialist countries. Now she champions the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements and derides the police and capitalist West. That’s where some of the contempt comes in. Perhaps the biggest laugh of the evening came when Ms Davis noted that she triumphed over California Governor Ronald Reagan, President Richard Nixon, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, “three of the most powerful men in the world.” “And where are they now?” Gloria Steinem shot back, much to the hilarity of the assembled crowd.
In a pre-event reception in the museum’s elegant Beaux-Arts Court, Ms. Davis clustered with Gloria Steinem, Elizabeth Sackler, and Anne Pasternak, the new director of the BM, in front of Claude Monet’s serene painting of the Doge’s palace in Venice. It provided a nice counterpoint to the 3 play-acting and one genuine revolutionary preening in front of it. “The only path of liberation for black people,” Ms Davis once said, “is that which leads toward complete and radical overthrow of the capitalist class.” Monet would not have approved.
And this brings me to the institutional side of this saga. Despite its splendid collection, the Brooklyn Museum has long been a sort of joke among major New York museums, more interested in art-world antics than art. With the appointment of Anne Pasternak as director last September, it has given up any pretense to aesthetic seriousness and sunk like a concrete hippopotamus into the muddy waters of political sloganeering. Before coming to the BM, Ms Pasternak specialized in feminist happenings like “The Abortion Project” for obscure art covens. She has a bigger stage now, and generous funding thanks in part to the hard work of Elizabeth Sackler’s late father, but her tenure so far shows that she, like Angela Davis, is the enemy, not a custodian, of civilization.