Museums and willful ignorance

When Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novel Doctor Zhivago, the Soviet press exploded with outrage. The year was 1958, and although Stalin was dead, he had instilled a lingering fear, and despite the liberalizations of his successor, Khruschev, critical portrayals of life in the ussr were still commonly demonized as enemy propaganda. The leading Russian cultural newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta featured an entire spread headed “Anger and Infuriation” with a selection of searing, over-the-top letters savaging the novel and its author. One of the most fervent accusers was Anatoly Safronov, the erstwhile secretary of the Union of Soviet Writers and a laureate of the Stalin Prize. In a rambling, semi-literate statement, the bureaucrat-writer denounced Pasternak, proudly declaring that although he had not read the offending novel, he roundly condemned it. An adaptation of his words, “I did not read it, but I rebuke it,” became a late-Soviet underground byword for the absurdity of uninformed criticism.

I was reminded of Safronov’s inadvertent bon mot twice last week: first, as I read the Brooklyn Museum’s announcement of their latest exhibition “It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby,” and then again as I perused moma’s “pride-month”-themed Instagram posts.1 The Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby co-curated the Brooklyn Museum show, billed as “part of a global presentation . . . marking the fiftieth anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s death,” together with Sackler Senior Curator Catherine Morris and Senior Curator Lisa Small. In the opening quote of the exhibition description, Gadsby channeled Safronov’s pigheaded message of proud ignorance: “Picasso said, ‘You can have all the perspectives at once!’ What a hero. But tell me, are any of those perspectives a woman’s [sic]? Well, then I’m not interested.” To make up for the lack of a “woman’s” perspective in Picasso’s art, Gadsby et al. proceed to hitch the “woman artist” wagon to Picasso’s power engine. Nevermind that Picasso’s pronouns would have been “he/him,” so that a “woman’s” perspective would not have been his thing in the first place. Logic is just another patriarchal atavism.

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