What Van Gogh would have thought of the Guggenheim's golden toilet offer

Bathroom humor is always good for a cheap laugh, but one that’s juvenile and tasteless. You expect it from a 12-year-old boy. You don’t expect it from one of the world’s great art museums. But now the Guggenheim Museum has defied expectations by offering to loan the White House a fully functioning solid gold toilet that the Washington Post reports has an estimated worth of over $1 million.

According to the Post, the New York City museum’s chief curator, when asked to lend a favorite Van Gogh painting to the Trump White House, chose instead to undermine the mission of the historic museum (to expand appreciation for art) and dishonor the French impressionist, mocking the White House with the counteroffer of the 18-karat, fully functioning gold toilet.

The work of “art” is titled “America” and spent a year in a public restroom at the museum. The toilet artist, Maurizio Cattelan, offered the golden toilet to the White House on a long-term loan. His other “masterpieces” include a sculpture showing Pope John Paul II lying on the ground after being hit by a meteorite and Adolf Hitler kneeling. Seriously.

Guggenheim curator Nancy Spector, who turned down the White House request to borrow the Van Gogh painting – a standard request to borrow art that White Houses have made of museums for many years – made clear in a museum blog that she detests President Trump and wrote that “Trump is synonymous with golden toilets.” 

An act of dignity, class and appreciation for art and nature would create a bridge, not yet another brick in the wall of misunderstanding that separates two groups of Americans. It is a unique opportunity, not an obstacle.

Spector also wrote: “In Trump’s America, the sustained assault on basic human and civil rights –the travel ban being only one example – calls for a decisive and unflinching response from the art community.”

This absurdity shows what is wrong with the modern liberal mindset. Offered a chance to be exemplary, generous and true to mission, Spector and the Guggenheim chose the low road. Neither Van Gogh nor the museum’s founder, an inveterate New Yorker himself, would recognize their act as one promoting appreciation for art.

Van Gogh himself would probably have been honored to display his work in the White House. He was often spurned, found himself the object of dispute and derision, and sought escape from that world in the French city of Arles, where he painted the “Landscape in the Snow,” the requested piece.

Imagine, a man who only sold his first painting in 1890, being able to display “Landscape with Snow” (1888), a spellbinding and transcendent piece of art, right there in America’s White House, a global symbol of democracy, to be admired, appreciated and talked about by visitors.

To this end, the artist, who painted that snowy picture as an attempt to uplift his own dim spirits, as well as those of others, once said “a good picture is equivalent to a good deed.”  Indeed.

As art museums across the world know, if a piece of artwork stops the hurried dash of busy people as they move from point to point to briefly pause and see in that work beauty, nature and our common lot, that is a gift given.

Every pair of eyes that falls upon that painting, each time it is seen anew or once again, widens the circle of gift-giving. Van Gogh, I think, would have liked that. He would have wished his art shown at the White House. He would have been uniquely proud to have it there.

But the Guggenheim’s tasteless, one-off political statement has summarily trumped a great 19th century artist’s lifetime yearning to more widely share his art.

Is that the end of the story? For the sake of who we Americans are, I should hope not.

The Van Gogh painting is not even on display presently in New York, according to the Guggenheim’s own website. So, even now, it could readily be lent for display in the White House.

At least there it would often be seen, and we know it would be appreciated by the First Family. Those are added reasons to reverse this great New York museum’s oddly venal act of political pique. The reversal, if done with taste and intent, might even help reset the tone otherwise so prevalent.

Adding to the value of a prompt, apolitical rethink, lending that painting to the White House would say that art is where politics stops, where appreciation for nature, beauty and our common humanity begins.

Loaning the painting to the White House would make a profoundly positive statement about the Guggenheim’s fidelity to its mission, and to the timeless aspiration of one of the world’s greatest artists.

And finally this:  An act of dignity, class and appreciation for art and nature would create a bridge, not yet another brick in the wall of misunderstanding that separates two groups of Americans. It is a unique opportunity, not an obstacle.

Van Gogh himself, although later suffering for not being understood, once remarked: “It is not the language of painters, but the language of nature which one should listen to ... realty is more important than the feeling for pictures.”  He might have added, or politics.

So, the Guggenheim leadership might just rethink their default to politics and pique, satire and politicizing art. They have the great gift of fine art to share; withholding it seems to do more harm than good.

Robert Charles is a former assistant secretary of state for President George W. Bush, former naval intelligence officer and litigator. He served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses.