17 December 2018

Raising the Morality Bar for Businessmen in Art

It’s a bad time to be a white man producing tear gas in America. Between Black Lives Matter protests, resistance at Standing Rock and controversial border control tactics used on asylum seekers, the aerosol cans have become synonymous with conservative power. While someone is always going to be producing weapons like tear gas and riot gear, the recent protests at the Whitney Museum in New York are asking whether someone gets to profit off of the use of these items and also be at the head of one of America’s leading cultural institutions.

At a time when the museum should be revelling in the glow of its much-anticipated Andy Warhol retrospective, Warren B. Kanders sits at the centre of the Whitney protests as both the CEO of the unfortunately named defence company, Safariland, and the vice chair of the New York museum’s board of directors. Objections to Kanders started internally, with a letter — signed by 95 staff members — asking for a method of forcing the vice chair’s resignation in light of the profit he makes off of police and boarder agent brutality. When the letter went public, it attracted the attention of the activist group, Decolonize This Place, leading protestors to occupy the museum’s lobby with signs calling for decolonialisation of the art space and burning so much sage that the fire department was called in. Protesters even usurped the Warhol imagery to use against Kanders.

In response to the outrage, Kanders has said that his defence compnay is misunderstood and that the company who produces “nonlethal” or “less-lethal” products are actually doing good by protecting law enforcement officials. “There are countless anecdotes of our products saving the lives of these brave men and women,” he wrote in a statement. “As with any product, the ultimate responsibility for its use falls on the individuals involved in their use.”

Images courtesy of Decolonize This Place

While the staff is against Kanders, the Whitney board of trustees backed their own. “We feel it is unfortunate that Warren Kanders was singled out,” four members of the board of trustees wrote in an internal email later on Monday, which was obtained by Forbes. “We have an extraordinarily committed, thoughtful, active and generous Board: together we shall get past this challenging moment”, the board members stated.

Whether it is the murky money of the Medicis during the Florentine Renaissance, sexual assault at the hands of fashion photographers, or the hoards of antiquities seized by colonisers that now line the walls of major museums, the art industry has always hidden some ugly characters and uncomfortable truths behind its beautiful facade. What is changing, however, is that these things are no longer swept under the rug. The internet age has allowed voices with less power to find each other and call out perceived injustices of the elite. People have realised that prestigious positions are something they have more control over than ever, regardless of money or social status. And while they cannot stop legal business practices, they can decide who gets to be celebrated in the public sphere, and who should be condemned.