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Hannah Gadsby Getty 1.jpg

The Hannah Gadsby and Pablo Picasso Exhibit Controversy Explained

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | June 5, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | June 5, 2023 |

Hannah Gadsby Getty 1.jpg

Dealing with criticism is tough. I criticize things for a living and I can tell you that it doesn’t make responding to it any easier. We’re hard-wired for defensiveness, to wonder why we’re being attacked when we put ourselves and our work out there for consumption. Sometimes, even the thickest of skins can be pierced. We could be here all day dissecting the relationship between art and criticism, a discourse that has been raging for centuries and shows no signs of slowing down. This dichotomy has been a renewed presence in my mind over the past week or so thanks to an art exhibition that has garnered far more attention online than such things typically would.

Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, who became a major star with their furious subversion of the stand-up concept in their Netflix special Nanette, was invited to curate an exhibition pertaining to the late Pablo Picasso. Possibly one of the most famous artists of the past century, Picasso’s legacy has been examined endlessly for decades, as well as his own dark and frequently abusive personal life. In Nanette, Gadsby, an art history graduate, lambasted Picasso for his misogyny as well as the prevailing cultural context that prioritized his greatness as an artist over his cruelty as a human being. It obviously made enough of an impact that Gadsby was chosen by the Brooklyn Museum to organise an exhibit that, according to its website, ‘reckons with complex questions around misogyny, creativity, the art-historical canon, and “genius.”’ Titled ‘It’s Pablo-matic: Picasso According to Hannah Gadsby’, (yes, that’s the title), the exhibition includes works by Picasso and a section of twentieth- and twenty-first-century women artists, plus Gadsby’s own irreverent words alongside them.

To put it mildly, art critics did not like ‘It’s Pablo-matic.’ A review from the New York Times went viral for its ruthless takedown not only of the exhibit itself but of Gadsby and the Brooklyn Museum’s framing of the artists involved. Jason Farago took aim at how Gadsby’s ‘juvenile’ captions ‘function a bit like bathroom graffiti, or maybe Instagram captions.’ ARTnews was similarly merciless in their write-up, calling out ‘the show’s disregard for art history, the discipline that Gadsby studied, practiced, and abandoned after becoming frustrated with its patriarchal roots.’

Gadsby and the Brooklyn Museum have responded to the critical slams by essentially sneering at the meanies over Instagram. The museum’s director of digital communications, Brooke Baldeschwiler, posted an Instagram story featuring a video about the exhibition starring Gadsby with the caption ‘Come @ us haters.’ Curator Lisa Small shared an image of herself with Gadsby with the caption ‘that feeling when it’s Pablo-Matic gets (male) art critics’ knickers in a twist.’ Fellow curator Catherine Morris reposted that image, adding, ‘A @nytimes critic got very emotional about our show.’ The whole thing reeks of ‘don’t tell the newspapers I’m mad.’

Of course, it’s juvenile. Of course, it’s kind of tacky and probably beneath both Gadsby and the Brooklyn Museum. Yet it seems like the only way they were ever going to respond to such reviews, in part because the show itself demands that level of engagement. I haven’t seen the exhibit. I’m 3000 miles away from it and I doubt I’ll get the chance to visit it. I understand any defensiveness Gadsby may feel right now. They’re a genderqueer and non-binary comedian whose work seems to rile up a lot of awful people who are prone to demanding we engage in endless bad-faith culture wars. That makes sense to me. My concern here is with a tedious and familiar cycle: the dismissal of even the most careful and eloquent criticism as being a display of culture war dick measuring or emotional cheapness.

One of the main criticisms of the Gadsby/Picasso exhibit is in how reductive its worldview is. It offers bad jokes in lieu of cultural perspective, with Gadsby’s captions reading like something intended for Instagram rather than an educational space (‘Meta? I hardly know her!’) Distilling Picasso to ‘bad guy who did good art’ makes for a fun poster quote but it does little to interrogate a century of work, its context, or how art functions in our society. It’s not as though Picasso, even after decades of criticism, isn’t ripe for further examination. He very much is, but it seems as though Gadsby and the Brooklyn Museum did not do the work on that front. The ARTnews reviews calls out the ways that their choice of framing disrespects the women artists used as the backbone of their entire thesis. Many of them were fans of or inspired by Picasso, but a lot of the work on display had little to no connection to him. Indeed, it seemed to be more influenced by other artists. Bringing opposition to Picasso’s ideas in the form of an unrelated pile of women artists suggests that those women matter only in connection to him. What challenges his legacy when we do that? Besides, in order to slag off Picasso, they still had to put his work on display, and that’s arguably driving more footfall to the museum than Gadsby’s name.

And then there’s the OxyContin elephant in the room. The Brooklyn Museum is one of many institutions that has taken money from the Sackler family. They have an entire wing called the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Said Sackler was the first woman to be elected Chairman by the Brooklyn Museum Board of Trustees. As other galleries and museums remove the Sackler name from their walls, the Brooklyn Museum has stridently kept theirs intact. Elizabeth’s father was Arthur M. Sackler, who was not involved in the creation or selling of OxyContin, but he was repeatedly called out for, as Barry Meier noted, pioneering ‘some of the most controversial and troubling practices in medicine: the showering of favours on doctors, the lavish spending on consultants and experts ready to back a drugmaker’s claims, the funding of supposedly independent commercial interest groups, the creation of publications to serve as industry mouthpieces, and the outright exploitation of scientific research for marketing purposes.’

Gadsby was directly asked about their collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum and any involved Sackler money, and their response didn’t please anyone. ‘Apparently, they’ve separated their earning streams from the problematic one,’ they told Variety. ‘I was assured that they’d separated from the opioids strain. That’s where it lands. I don’t see it as a clean win-win. That’s for sure, but I’m not sure how to navigate this world.’

Here’s the thing: You can’t separate the Sacklers from OxyContin. You just can’t. Fuck the Sacklers. This family is almost single-handedly responsible for the opioid epidemic and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. The Sacklers and Purdue Pharma marketed a wildly addictive drug as not only a safe and non-addictive painkiller but one that could be used for even middling injuries. Not a single person in that evil family has ever taken responsibility for what they did. Indeed, they’ve gone out of their way to not accept blame, and the legal system has all but rolled over to allow them to do so. They recently received total immunity from civil lawsuits in exchange for a $6 billion donation to combat the crisis they created. So no, Gadsby, you can’t just shrug and take the money because it’s not bad money. It’s all bad money. People died so that Elizabeth Sackler had the cash to put her name on a ‘feminist’ wing of a museum.

As artist Nan Goldin has noted repeatedly over the years, the Sacklers used their OxyContin wealth to slap their names on museums and galleries worldwide as a way to clean up their reputation. Look at how generous and cultured they are! Just ignore the people dying in the streets because they claimed their drug wasn’t addictive and was totally safe to use for a mild neck sprain. Their names are everywhere. Even my local museum has the Sackler name on it (what the fuck, Dundee?!) Every time you shake their hand, you give them exactly what they want, and everyone involved knows that. If art philanthropy and naming privileges weren’t such a crucial part of their historical whitewash campaign then they wouldn’t have agreed to stop lending their name to museums as part of yet another settlement.

It’s easy to play one of two cards here: One, to say that everyone else does it so you can as well, and two, that there is no way to win in the game of capitalism, so why even bother? Both options are tricks, get-out-of-jail-free excuses to avoid even a second of reflection. The total abdication of ethical standards and moral responsibility with the hand-wave of, ‘well, it all sucks’ is insulting. When your options are to have a big flashy art exhibit or not further bolster the Sackler name, picking the latter is the very least one can do. It’s tough to decry the problematic nature of Picasso and then cozy up to the opioid killers. Say what you want about old Pablo, but his death toll is significantly smaller.

Gadsby said they weren’t sure how to navigate the art world, and that’s at least relatable. Capitalism is a trap we’re forced to crawl through with little hope of solution unless you’re already obscenely wealthy. For those of us trying to be conscious of the obscene inequalities this system creates, it can be exhausting and utterly unwinnable. Fast fashion, farming abuses, problematic artists, carbon footprints, union busting… how do you even begin to deal with it all? Sometimes, you just hold your nose and dive in because there are no other options, not when you’re broke and struggling as so many of us are these days. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, particularly when you have real opportunities to tackle those hallowed institutions of power. I can’t help but think it would have been a far more potent display of Gadsby’s wider point had they decided not to go with the Sackler name and instead publicly call out an obviously shoddy attempt to use a feminist sheen to further bolster their reputation. Nothing makes poorly researched moralizing fall flatter than the reminder of the big money at play.

Gadsby’s audio guide for the exhibit says, ‘Humans are not doing great. We are unsettled. I blame Picasso. That’s a little joke. Or is it? I don’t know.’ That faux-jokey uncertainty is at the heart of the problem here. As this year marks the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death, many celebratory shows will note the occasion over 2023. The Brooklyn Museum and Gadsby certainly had an appropriate lens through which to view this, but it seems they failed in favour of the easy way out, one that didn’t take Picasso or any female artist seriously. Perhaps they can use this moment to take a break and watch the documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.