I am an artist. I am a photographer. I am a human.
I am saddened by the reports that Julián Zugazagoitia of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City has become a political figure. In doing what he did over the weekend, he entered into the politics of the national discussion about “racial conflict.” This saddens me greatly. It is also very irresponsible to disregard law and order.
As reported by the Art Newspaper and Kansas City Star, Zugazagoitia “regrets” the Kansas City Police Department was able to use the grounds as a staging location to attempt to restore law and order in the Plaza just a few blocks away. By doing this, he made me clear that he sees local law enforcement as the “enemy of the people.”
As a society, we have to have laws and we have to have social boundaries. Anarchy is not a possibility. If that happens, anyone who wants a painting could bust in the museum and just take for their living room. This is exactly what the Police in Kansas City was trying to stop at the Plaza. People busting up and robbing high dollar items from local stores. You would think that Nelson-Atkins would share that concern.
Protecting business from looters
At the end of the day, this is not about racial conflict in Kansas City. To this point, as a city, we have had quality relations between different ethic groups. This is about economical envy. Outside of the mayor and the congressman (that was mere political grandstanding), the protest and looting was more about economical status than racism. I have noticed that few affluent black Americans were in the protest and there was many cash strapped white people involved.
Why does this matter? It seems that statement made by Julián Zugazagoitia asking the police to not use the grounds is a disregard for law and order in the city. It was basically a political statement that he was against the establishment of legal control for society. This grieves me as an American and as a photographer.
The police presence in the Plaza for the protest was not a “us against them.” It was simply to keep people practicing their constitutional right peaceful. The first amendment requires that the right to assembly to be peaceful. Anyone that is “offended” at peaceful protest needs a refresher on American civics from middle school.
Why couldn’t Julián Zugazagoitia come out and say, “We support the police to make sure the protest of racial conflict remains peaceful and everyone can express their differences in a civil matter.” That is remaining neutral and asking for discourse that honors the other point of view.
It is worth stating that the Kansas City police has many (12%) officers who are black and is controlled ultimately by the mayor, which is also black. You should also consider that there is 5% Hispanics and 15% women. That means that almost a third of the police on the streets are minorities.
Fine Arts will struggle
I have expensive gear. Cameras are not cheap. Lens are not either. A lack of police authority makes it unsafe for me as a photographer to operate even if I have constitutional rights. I can not take the change that some criminal wants my gear more than I do and he has a weapon in hand. Without the proper protection from society, the fine art will struggle more than they are right now.
I should not have to carry and conceal a firearm just to be a photographer. That is the point where we are as a people if we do not celebrate societal boundaries (we call those laws). As I said, anarchy is the way to go and this is what we are seeing happening at the Plaza and other places. There is nothing positive for the artists of Kansas City to come out of this.
The bottom line is this is not a fight that the fine arts can afford to have. Funding in the high school is being lost. Art is not a popular major in the universities either. It is not respected or valued in the modern discourse like it was a century ago. As artists, we need all the help we can get to practice our crafts. Supporting a political cause is not going to get us to that end.
As for me, I will continue to protect my ability to be a photographer but not covering events where these is lawlessness. I can’t remove thousands of dollar from a theft.
The bigger picture
Julián Zugazagoitia has become very political in recent years. He hold to a far left position on many things. With some socialist leaning, it has impacted the operations of Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. An example of this is their project to showcase Americans artists that were hand picked to be minorities. It was not the best artists in the country but nothing more than affirmative action within the art community.
I celebrate when an artist who is Black or female or Asian excels in their craft and become the best in their area of interest. This is what we need. We need everyone to become the best they can at their chosen discipline without regard to their color of skin.
While the student body at Kansas City Art Institute is less than 7% black (and should concern us), the good news is that is dozen of artists with great craft are coming to society in the next few years. That is something we can celebrate.
In recent years, there has been many photographers come onto the scene that are minorities but it was their skill behind the camera that earned them respect. I hope this only increases in the coming years.
What am I trying to say here? We need to leave politics out of the arts. Our job is to tell the story of society but not be directly part of that story. We are storytellers but we are not the story itself. This needs to be reminded to people like Julián Zugazagoitia that have seemed to forget this.