- Ted Walter
- November 7, 2018
Last week, I came across something I didn’t think I would ever see. But in hindsight, it shouldn’t have surprised me: one of the country’s leading left publications, The Nation, rebuking New York art museums and galleries for showcasing critical perspectives on official narratives of major events — or what we’ve come to know as “conspiracy theories” ever since the media’s embrace of the CIA campaign in the 1960s to discredit critics of the Warren Commission.
The article, “Conspiracy Theories Are Not Entertainment,” takes aim mainly at two exhibitions that opened in September: “Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy,” on display at the Met Breuer until January 6, 2019, and Fredric Riskin’s “9/11: The Collapse of Conscience,” which ran from September 11 to October 13 at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in Soho.
Zachary Small, a young “arts journalist” and “theatremaker,” purports to be writing art criticism, but his overarching point is a purely political one: Art institutions should not legitimize, intentionally or unintentionally, anything considered by the mainstream to be “conspiracy theory.” Doing so, he argues, “mutes the destabilizing and degrading effects of conspiracy on democracy.”
Small is not entirely opposed to the idea of “Everything Is Connected.” His complaint, rather, is against the show’s combining of pieces that “take an investigative approach,” documenting things like “the very real existence of government-sanctioned torture and money laundering,” with works of “artistic interpretation” that “revel in the passion of discontent” or that “glorify the notion that the September 11 attacks were an inside job.” (The latter are the paintings of Sue Williams, one of which shows the Twin Towers with the word “nano-thermite,” somewhat smudged out, hovering almost playfully above them.) Small insists that this mix “helps mollify the viewer toward conspiracy.”
But who decides what is “very real” versus “conspiracy” toward which the viewer must not be mollified? Perhaps that line is not so sharply defined for curators Douglas Eklund and Ian Alteveer, who apparently want to nudge viewers to be more skeptical of official narratives. In the final moment of the show’s video preview, Eklund affirms: “I would like to bring back the idea of art as a way of jolting people to get rid of their preconceived notions and to hopefully question more.”
Instead of probing his own preconceived notions about the topics explored in the art, Small berates Eklund and Alteveer for believing “there is value in scavenging through the most contested chapters of American history to find plausible alternatives to today’s hard truths.” In Small’s view of the world, it seems, everything he believes is “hard truth.” Everything he doesn’t believe is “conspiracy theory.”
The blinding effect and harsh consequences of Small’s immovable boundary between truth and falsehood are on full display in the second part of his piece for The Nation, which turns into a diatribe against Fredric Riskin and his installation “9/11: The Collapse of Conscience.” The primary target of Small’s attack is Riskin’s contention that the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and Building 7 collapsed not because of the airplane crashes, but from controlled demolition.
Partway into his assault, Small lays bare his extreme lack of knowledge about the science of the World Trade Center’s destruction when he alleges that Riskin “baldly ignores the available evidence, produced by MIT’s Civil Engineering Department less than a month after the attack.” Small goes on to call the omission of this evidence “purposefully irresponsible.”
In fact, the article by MIT professor Thomas Eagar and his research assistant, Christopher Musso, was positing a theory of the Twin Towers’ collapse that was in vogue in the first year after 9/11 but that official investigators would rule out by 2004. Eagar was hypothesizing that the “weak points . . . were the angle clips that held the floor joists between the columns on the perimeter wall and the core structure.” “As the joists . . . gave way and the outer box columns began to bow outward,” Eagar speculated, “the floors above them also fell.”