Commentary on the Commentary

An Art Historian’s Response to an Art Critic’s Reaction to the Cosby Exhibition

As controversies swirl around the Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue exhibition, art historian and museum educator John Welch joined the critical conversation. This article is the first of two commentaries on the exhibition.  While this initial article takes issue with points made in a review of the show, it is not intended as an apologia for Bill Cosby.  The second article will discuss the "conversations" occurring within the extensive exhibition (the media coverage of which has been obscured by on-going developments stemming from the allegations against Cosby).  The second article also will offer a perspective on the social and media dynamics surrounding the exhibition within a larger history.

Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue from the Collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and Camille O. and William H. Cosby, Jr., NMAfA, Washington, DC, November 9, 2014 – January 24, 2016 

Simmie Knox, Portrait of Bill and Camille Cosby, 1984, oil on canvas, collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr. Photo: David Stansbury, permission courtesy of the artistIn the museum world, the Cosbys have long drawn criticism for their refusal to loan works from their large collection to major museum exhibitions.  Because Camille Cosby is widely admired and respected, the criticism is usually aimed at her spouse.  For example, when they refused to Horace Pippin, The Holy Mountain I, 1944, oil on canvas, 30 x 36,” Collection of Camille O. and William H. Cosby Jr., photo: Frank Stewart, permission courtesy of the artistlend Horace Pippin paintings to Bill Cosby’s hometown museum, the Pennsylvania Aacademy of Fine Arts (PAFA), for the largest museum exhibition of Pippin’s work ever mounted, a Philadelphia Inquirer art critic said: “When a prominent collector who is also a role model owns eight paintings by an important artist, it's hard to understand why one or two couldn't be spared for a few months, or several in rotation. Cosby is one of this country's most prominent African Americans, a doctor of education, who certainly must understand the impact this exhibition will have in cities with large African American constituencies.”  

And now the vaunted status of the collection and the tastes of the Cosbys have been called into question by art critic Philip Kennicott in his November 10, 2014 critique in The Washington Post. He asserts that Cosby is a ‘grump’ who remains nostalgic and out of touch with contemporary African American culture. His posture, Kennicott maintains, informed the collectors’ lack of interest in acquiring angry black modernist during the 1970-90s, and contemporary African and African American artists now. The result is a ‘tame’ collection, Kennicott insists.

The art critic’s approach, setting up an opposition between grumpy versus angry people, and his labeling of Cosby as grump, appear to center on the reception of the comedian’s 2004 "Pound Cake" speech, and follow-up statements by Cosby about current conditions of African American life and personal responsibility. While Cosby’s statements are not well-received in many quarters, and have led to claims that he is out of touch with contemporary African American culture; they should not serve as a license for the reviewer to denigrate Cosby’s personal aesthetic tastes, or as a justification to question the comedians motives for buying and living with art that resonates with his spouse and family. I believe it is still widely acknowledged that collectors have no responsibility to collect art beyond their particular aesthetic taste and desire to live with particular works. 

Kennicott’s review also attacks the curatorial approach and intellectual substance of art pairings (correspondences) explored in the current exhibition; the museum ethics of a public institution showing a private collection without promise of gift; and the appearance of nepotism due to inclusion of a work by Cosby’s daughter. As even the reviewer admits, the “conversations” concept is an established approach that has been used by many art institutions. He may think the method intellectually weak and without substance but well regarded institutions such as The Barnes Foundation might argue that any opportunity that affords the mind and eye the occasion to interrelate fine objects of varied media or cultures is invaluable to aesthetic insight and joy. 

The ethics questions raised are also a longstanding hodgepodge in museum history. Colleagues tell me that some institutions without munificent resources exhibit private collections without promise of gift because they contain significant examples of works the museum could not afford to secure on loan for exhibitions of their own. This may not be the NMAfA's predicament, but we can say the practice is hardly unknown, and the benefits to the public are often great, as with this exhibition.  Exceedingly few, if any, major museum retrospective exhibitions have been mounted without the loan of some works from private collectors.

One of the greatest potential contributions of the Conversations exhibit seem easily dismissed by the reviewer. Namely, the power of the Cosby brand in relation to reach of non-traditional museum audiences and its potential for affording the museum the opportunity to foster enhanced public understanding of African American art. If this exhibition acquaints a wider public with the existence and importance of a Joshua Johnston or Robert Duncanson, or even the Hudson River School; the exhibition will have made a vital contribution. A random sampling of average citizens in D.C. or elsewhere will no doubt reveal that far too few people know anything of artists or art movements about which this show promises education. Where traditional art museums have worked on the problem of reach for decades, and continue to do so, the Cosby brand, even where controversial, may drive traffic among his millions of diverse fans to the exhibition and thereby to art more generally. The potential for a watershed moment looms.

Instead of genuinely factoring in this fantastic possibility among the exhibition’s merits, we have an insider’s view of collecting from Kennicott.  His focus on what is not in the exhibition; ‘the history of African American art not collected by Cosby is a history of anger that is productive, transformative and liberating’ is more appropriately the concern of contemporary collectors, dealers, or other art aficionados rather than the general public. The review’s sour tone appears squarely aimed at Cosby’s documented statement that he preferred not collecting or coming home to ‘angry’ art after dealing with daily racism in the world writ large. Angry art or identity-laden art is in vogue, as it was in the mid to late 20th century among the intelligentsia and art world insiders. This fact, coupled with Cosby’s controversial reception among the hip, may have colored the reviewer’s assessments here. His case-in-point of the Rubell family’s 30 Americans exhibition at the Corcoran Museum (2011 and later traveling), featuring mostly rising and emerging African American contemporary artists, belies the current preferences of the art establishment but hardly those of the uninitiated.

Predictably, Kennicott’s review speaks to what those in the know might want to know from this exhibition and fails to look beyond that perspective. If the show finds its broad-gauged national audience, especially among African Americans, it will be because so many not in the know came to know African American art—its relevance and significance—with Cosby’s celebrity as conduit, and his art selections as guide. It is a fitting legacy for a gifted performance artist who introduced this art to millions through his beloved TV programs.

John Welch, Ph.D., is an art historian and museum consultant.