Alex Beam

You’ve been recontextualized!

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has canceled a Chuck Close exhibition because of accusations of sexual misconduct that have engulfed the artist in controversy.
Ryan Pfluger/New York Times/File 2016
The National Gallery of Art in Washington has canceled a Chuck Close exhibition because of accusations of sexual misconduct that have engulfed the artist in controversy.

MY FAVORITE NEW TERM of art is “recontextualize.” I first encountered it in a New York Times account of how the career of zanily over-promoted portrait painter Chuck Close is plunging southwards, in light of reports that he sexually harassed models.

The National Gallery of Art has postponed a Close show sine die, raising the question of “whether the work of other artists accused of questionable conduct needs to be revisited or recontextualized,” according to the Times.

As an example of Artists Behaving Badly, the Times reported that the Baroque master Caravaggio “was accused of murder,” although the facts are grimmer indeed. Caravaggio butchered a rival – and the pimp for one of his female models – in an attempted castration.


Because these events occurred in 1606, I think they fall outside the statute of limitations for recontextualization. But one never knows, does one?

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Right now, recontextualization is bursting out all over.

In the grand tradition of casino moguls everywhere, Steve Wynn might have thought it OK to ask one of his female employees for a special favor now and then. Not any more! Thanks to a Wall Street Journal investigation into his extramarital (and extralegal) dalliances, Wynn is out of a job, and institutions such as his alma maters, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Iowa, are tearing his name off of donated buildings faster than you can say seven-come-eleven.

Hey, Wynn — you’ve been recontextualized!

“Recontextualize” reminds me of the equally voguish multisyllabic nonsense word “intersectionality,” which more or less means: Be very very careful what you say or do in any social interaction, because you almost certainly are violating some behavioral norm that was put in place the day before yesterday.


When in doubt, just remember: Recontextualize generally means “ban.” “We are thinking about recontextualizing Woody Allen’s movies” means, “We are thinking about taking them out of the theaters.” (Allen is either a shameless child predator, or a blameless, caring stepfather, depending on which side of the multifarious accounts of his behavior you choose to believe.)

Helpful example: You may think, along with Ernest Hemingway, that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ ” but you might want to keep that opinion to yourself. “Huckleberry,” along with “To Kill a Mockingbird,” perhaps the 20th century’s most moving story about combatting racial injustice, is in the process of being recontextualized, i.e. removed from school syllabi.

I suspect that “Papa” (Patriarchy!) Hemingway won’t be far behind.

Donald Trump is, of course, recontextualizing what it means to be president of the United States. It was one thing for Andrew Jackson to lift his muddy boots onto the White House furniture, it is quite another thing for the president to rise at dawn and tweet out vile accusations against all and sundry.

Where the presidency is concerned, I could do with some pre-contextualization. Trump makes me long for the days when the White House tweeted out pictures of Barack Obama’s goofy Portuguese water dog, Bo, or updates from Michelle’s Marie Antoinette-like (“Let Them Eat Kale”) vegetable garden.


Another time, a different context.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.