What Are a Museum’s Obligations When It Shows a ‘Problematic’ Artist?

My city’s modern-art museum is hosting a show by Yayoi Kusama. A few months before it opened, the art journal Hyperallergic published a shocking article saying that she has made several horrifically racist references to African Americans in her writing. They are depicted as criminals and described grotesquely. Her show in our city is titled “Infinite Love.” No Black person should see a show about “love” only to discover later that Black people are not included in that love.

I and others have asked that the artist’s racist history be publicized as part of her show and in its promotion, so that anyone wishing to see her art would know in advance. We also asked that the museum direct some of the profits from her show to projects that would benefit local Black artists.

The artist herself made a public apology for her racism. Does the museum have an ethical obligation to do the following? 1. Make the artist’s racist history, and apology, public at the show and in its publicity; 2. Allocate profits from the show to a program that benefits local Black artists; 3. Ask the artist to fund an art department in a historically Black college or university.— Catherine Cusic, San Francisco

From the Ethicist:

Yayoi Kusama’s career, which raises all the questions you ask and is being showcased at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is a fascinating study of the complexities here. Kusama, who is 95 and has lived in a psychiatric hospital for nearly half a century, has been voluble about her phobias and fetishes — they are hard to distinguish, and they tend to involve sex.

“Blacks were still discriminated against in mainstream society,” she wrote in her memoir, much of which is set in New York in the 1960s, “but the tendency to prize them as sexual playthings was taking root.” True, in the original Japanese version there’s a line in which another character tells her about Black people shooting one another outside a building where she used to live. But the real issue isn’t criminality; it’s sexuality. A lot of the book is about the orgies and antiwar “naked happenings” she staged, and she was intrigued by Black people as objects of desire, unabashedly exoticizing and eroticizing them.

And so, in the dramatis personae of one of her plays, the savage Black character is the one person who offers the heroine “the possibility of love.” But perhaps the main exhibit in the case against Kusama is a wild and surreal novella she published from the 1980s centered on a recent N.Y.U. grad named Henry who, struggling with addiction, falls into the clutches of a Chinese woman, Yanni, and the escort service she runs for a rich gay clientele. Yanni, who has sympathy for Henry as a Black man “in a racist country,” is moved by his “dazzling beauty,” although he inverts, rather than embodies, the usual tropes of Black virility. The narrative’s only white character is the client he is meant to submit to, a businessman who is too smitten and self-involved to realize that Henry, who is straight, perceives him as a nightmarish “looming white mass of meat.” The story turns on the fatal encounter between them.

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