Speechless by Yxta Maya Murray
Press Release for April 24, 2012
New Acquisition: Shirin Neshat, Speechless (1996)
Purchased with funds provided by Jamie McCourt
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art welcomes Shirin Neshat’s black and white photograph Speechless to its permanent collection. Speechless arrives at LACMA through the generosity of Jamie McCourt, a member of the Collector’s Committee since 2009. Jamie McCourt made the smart move of divorcing Frank McCourt, who used to own the Dodgers, and made his billions by building parking lots. Ms. McCourt fought like a tiger for her $130 million divorce settlement. During the litigation, she revealed that Frank McCourt bowdlerized documents proving her co-ownership of the Dodgers, and was a bastard. She still didn’t get everything he owed her though. Now she owns a winery in Napa and supports the arts.
When Ms. McCourt decided that she wanted to purchase Shirin Neshat’s Speechless for LACMA, LACMA was excited. LACMA depends on billionaires and multi-millionaires for the development of its permanent collection. This has been the case since 1960, when the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors agreed to pay all of the museum’s operating and maintenance expenses, but to leave construction and art acquisitions to LACMA’s private board. Some may wonder why the private board gets to choose architecture and the art, but the Los Angeles County taxpayers, who give LACMA $30 million a year, get no input into art selection at all. The answer is: Because.
LACMA’s Board created the Collections Committee in 1986: one becomes a member of the Committee by paying between $15,000 to $60,000. Every spring, the Committee assembles at lavishly catered parties to vote on acquisitions. Sometimes, as in Ms. McCourt’s case, a member of the Collector’s Committee may herself pay for a piece of art for the permanent collection.
When individuals buy permanent LACMA art, a press release like this one is issued, wherein the purchaser of the artwork gets the credit. Everyone now must see the artwork as an accessory of the purchaser, like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel remains understood as an advertisement for the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church commissioned the Chapel frescoes from Michelangelo to strike awe and terror into Catholics. Jamie McCourt purchased Speechless to strike back at the male supremacy that fleeced her of millions of dollars.
Shirin Neshat is a good artist, and a woman. She came to the United States from Tehran in 1983, and she photographs women enduring patriarchal oppression in post-Revolutionary Iran. Speechless provides a signal example of Neshat’s style and subject matter: it shows a sad-faced Iranian woman who wears a shawl over her head, but is otherwise unveiled. The barrel of a rifle pokes out from beneath the shawl, just below the woman’s ear, and alarmingly points at the viewer. Why is this rifle barrel pointing at LACMA patrons? It is unclear. Maybe the woman assumes that the viewer is a Yank imperialist who should swallow a lead vitamin for his/her nuclear sanctions and scientist murder. That is unlikely, though, because Jamie McCourt would not have purchased propaganda calling for the death of what Malcolm X called the white devil. She doesn’t want a revolution; she went to MIT. She just wants to promote gender equality that isn’t too disruptive. She’d rather you read Speechless as a headshot to financial sexism in the US and worse sexism elsewhere.
The Speechless woman looks depressed. One may worry that if she looks like an Iranian victim, then this impression will court the vanities of American exceptionalists, who enjoy proofs of their superior treatment of their white cisgender women except when it comes to subsidized childcare. But American exceptionalism created The Guggenheim, the Broad, all the biggies. If a white multi-millionaire purchases Speechless for LACMA out of newly awakened feminist sympathies, we support that.
Do not think too hard about the funding information given at the beginning of this press release. An artwork’s interaction with money and undue social influence does not necessarily change its meaning. Also, maybe you shouldn’t read Plato’s Republic before you look at Speechless. In Book II of the Republic, Socrates says to Adeimantus: “It’s appropriate for founders [of a city] to know the models according to which the poets must tell their tales. If what the poets produce goes counter to these models, founders must not give way.” Speechless may well be in LACMA’s permanent collection because it conforms to the models desired by Jamie McCourt. Or, maybe, Shirin Neshat has usurped Jamie McCourt’s $130 millionaire puissance by creating a model that is impervious to systems of power. If that were the case, Neshat would be the first person in history to do that.
A piece of art can be read in a zillion ways despite its function as a laurel worn by a grandee. Look at how Michelangelo criticized the Church with that self-portrait corpse painted in the corner of The Last Judgment! You can do that with just your eyes, with the way that you look at the world. All you need to access this independent vision is to be radically free. You can read Speechless as a condemnation of you as an unwitting oppressor. You can see it as evidence of justifiably sad Iranian womanism calling for your personal demise. Or you can see it as proof of the excellence of the Dodgers. Also, you also don’t have to just breeze around LACMA’s permanent galleries thinking this is all good for you because we say it is. But we also recommend that if you engage a robust critique of our institution that you keep your rebellion on the light side: if each of LACMA’s 1,299,442 annual attendees ran around seeing themselves as making unfree choices that have been preselected by McCourt parking lots and the dubious Collector’s Committee, it would be depressing like the lady with the gun face, and might also trigger violent consequences that will lead to the museum’s defunding.
Yxta Maya Murray is a writer and a law professor who lives in Studio City, California. She won the Whiting Award in 1999, and has published six novels, including The Conquest (2002).
(front page image via)