Removing Ben Fountain from the DMA Recalls the 1950s in Dallas

 

ONE OF THE MOST jarring pieces of cultural news in Dallas this fall concerns something that is not going to happen. Ben Fountain, the distinguished local author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, will not be speaking at the Dallas Museum of Art about his newest book, Beautiful Country Burn Again as expected. According to published accounts, he’s been disinvited by the museum’s new director, Augustin Arteaga, because Beautiful Country Burn Again, a collection of essays about the 2016 presidential election written for U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, is presumed to be “divisive,” in Arteaga’s words, as quoted in D Magazine’s online blog that broke the story.

The book is not out yet, but its subtitle, Democracy, Rebellion and Revolution, plus the publisher’s synopsis were apparently all Arteaga needed to yank Fountain from an “Arts & Letters Live” appearance that coordinator Carolyn Bess had been planning with him. (Fountain has appeared at the DMA’s speakers series before.) “Ben Fountain argues that the United States may be facing a third existential crisis,” reads the advance advertising from Harper Collins, “one that will require a ‘burning’ of the old order as America attempts to remake itself.”

“The museum is all about inclusivity,” Arteaga said, by way of explaining his decision. Inclusivity that does not include Ben Fountain.

Is this a big deal? Let’s see. Ben Fountain is Dallas’ pre-eminent writer of the moment. His 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, an unmistakable literary achievement that got under the surface of Dallas, the Iraq War, Hollywood and the NFL all at the same time, was a finalist for the National Book Award and a bestseller made into a feature film by Ang Lee. If Arteaga, who came to the DMA two years ago from the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City, is unaware of this, you’d think someone could tell him. Keeping Fountain out of the museum is likely to bring charges of censorship and timidity at the DMA, not to mention pissing a lot of people off.

MAYBE ARTEAGA (or someone who sets his salary) is afraid that Fountain’s unblinking views of America in the age of Donald Trump are going to piss off museum patrons and donors. Politics. Hard to escape these days. The museum has been in political controversies before, memorably in the McCarthy era of the 1950s when it was assailed by local citizens groups (one funded by oil baron H.L. Hunt) demanding that no works of art created by suspected communists be allowed on the walls – including Diego Rivera, George Grosz and Ben Shahn. Such was the fear in the air.

This is not quite the same – and Ben Fountain is a writer, not a painter – but removing or blocking him from the DMA’s popular Arts & Letters Live series raises the same issue of pre-emptive censorship at the museum, a public institution.

Unacknowledged by Arteaga in his spin-doctored rationale is that Dallas and the nation are already divided – as sharply and emotionally along partisan lines as anyone can remember – and that is likely a part of what Fountain explores in his reporting on the 2016 election. We expect our artists, visual and literary, to reckon with conflict and crisis in our midst, don’t we? Or would we prefer they look away and avoid it altogether?

Back in 1955 the museum’s critics and guardians of the public’s virtue worried that modern art was subversive and politically dangerous. Taking a cue from a Republican congressman’s assertions that art museums were agents of communist aggression, a group called the Dallas County Patriotic Council pressured the Park Board to cut off funding for the museum for “giving aid and comfort and prestige to [our] enemies.”

I remember some of this as a kid whose father was then the business manager of the museum, but the whole saga is chronicled in Francine Carraro’s 1994 biography of former director Jerry Bywaters for the University of Texas Press. It’s worth revisiting to remember how Bywaters and the museum stood up to that pressure. Bywaters rebuffed the Council’s demands to remove paintings by Rivera and others, and his board, headed by Stanley Marcus, backed him up with a statement that said, in effect, the citizens of Dallas were intelligent enough to view the offending paintings and make up their own minds.

THE FOLLOWING YEAR Bywaters and the museum took more flak ahead of the arrival of the traveling exhibit, “Sport in Art” – 85 works, four of them by artists with possible communist ties, including Ben Shahn, a Lithuanian-born American known for his social realism and left-wing views. His piece in the exhibit was a drawing of a baseball player. A prominent banker lobbied Stanley Marcus to have the four works removed, but Marcus pushed back. The show went up.

John Rosenfield, the respected Morning News art critic at the time, supported the museum in an editorial, quoting President Dwight Eisenhower, who at the celebration of the Museum of Modern Art’s 25thanniversary in New York had said, “Freedom of the arts is a basic freedom, one of the pillars of liberty in our land.”

Freedom prevailed against cant and fear in the art world of Dallas in the 1950s, in what looks now to have been a defining moment for the city, a demonstration of courage and principle that comes to mind as the museum today shows a different side of itself in closing the door to Ben Fountain. In the 1950s the attempted censorship was from outside the museum; this time it’s from within. It seems to me that is kind of a big deal.

Fountain will have other opportunities to speak about his book around town (publication date is Sept. 25), but that’s not the point. The point is that if the visitors to the museum were intelligent enough in 1955 to make up their own minds about art, surely they are capable of doing the same in 2018.

Editorial Note: I submitted a version of this column to the Dallas Morning News as an opinion piece for its Viewpoints page, and it was rejected — with the explanation that “the column makes an assertion that it doesn’t back up, that Fountain was censored by Arteaga or the board for political reasons.” Really? What other reasons would there be? 

Texas Monthly has a short interview with Fountain about the new book and his being disinvited by the DMA, in which he refers to Arteaga as “gutless.” Not sure if he meant that in a political way or some other way.

https://www.texasmonthly.com/the-culture/ben-fountain-thinks-the-revolution-is-coming/

 

 

 

About Sean Mitchell

SEAN MITCHELL is a journalist, critic and former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Dallas Times Herald. His articles and reviews have also appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, USA Today and other publications. He is the recipient of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music and the George Jean Nathan Award for distinguished drama criticism. Born in Bethlehem, Pa., he grew up in Dallas and is a graduate of St. Mark’s School of Texas and Brown University. He lives in Dallas.
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