The Burden of White Liberal Intellectuals

The initiative of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to change politically incorrect names of its exhibits is big news now.

NYT: The Rijksmuseum is in the process of removing language that could be considered offensive from digitized titles and descriptions of some 220,000 artworks in its collection. Words that Europeans once routinely used to describe other cultures or peoples, like “negro,” “Indian” or “dwarf” will be replaced with less racially charged terminology.

The museum’s management believes that black people coming to galleries would be offended by portraits of long-dead black people painted by long-dead white artists. I think that this assumption is very contemptuous of black people and is, in fact, racist.  This belief assumes that black people are intellectually inferior: unlike white curators, black visitors are incapable of understanding that, sometimes, a historical artwork needs to be viewed in its historical context to be appreciated.

This theory of black people’s inability to come to terms with historical facts is justified by Martine Gosselink, a high-brow Dutch curator of the museum, through what she believes is a valid parallel with a nickname the Dutch are referred to by other Europeans.


First, I don’t see a problem here. People of Wisconsin, also called Cheeseheads, be they dark or fair-skinned, seem to have no objections to cheer-cheesing anytime, anywhere. Perhaps, a Wisconsin consultant could enlighten the Dutch on ways to embrace and enjoy it, rather than resist it.


Yes, the guy in this photo looks like a grumpy cat, but I am sure it's not because he's wearing a silly hat. I bet it was an awkward question about his performance during the football game.
Yes, the guy in this photo looks like a grumpy cat, but I am sure it’s not because he’s wearing a silly hat. I bet it was an awkward question about his performance during the football game.

Second, the curator exaggerates the offense. A cheese tasting room in Amsterdam openly invites visitors to “become a cheesehead” and no one complains that the slogan is cheesy.

Third, “Cheesehead” may represent an ethnic slur for the Dutch, but – come on! – the Dutch are famous for their cheese, and they make a lot of money out of it. It’s ridiculous to equate it with the offense contained in the word “Negro”, which reminds black people of the times when they were slaves and worked for food and not being beaten by their owners, staying destitute after decades of hard labour if they were lucky to survive.

The curator’s artless cheese vs.slavery analogy reminds me of a story a friend told me about her birth-giving experience.

She goes into labour; her hubby is at her bedside, holding her hand. While thrashing about in acute pain, she notices her husband’s suffering expression: he is, obviously, in agony, but is doing his best to hide it. She asks him through clenched teeth, “Darling, what is it? I can see you’re in pain!”. “Yes,” he answers, pointing at the elastic band of his disposable med cap, “it’s killing me. It chafes my forehead terribly!”

She started laughing so hard she pushed the baby out.

Yet, there is a voiceless minority group that might be actually offended by this anti-offense campaign. It is the group of dead artists whose artworks are being renamed.

Simon Maris, “Young Girl Holding a Fan,” circa 1900. Old title: “Young Negro-Girl.”
Simon Maris, “Young Girl Holding a Fan,” circa 1900. Old title: “Young Negro-Girl.”

Simon Maris made his name painting female portraits, and being a friend of Piet Mondrian.

At the time, black women were employed as domestic help or concubines, which was not hugely different from slavery. They were referred to as Negroes. They were being dehumanised by “scientists”, white elites, and common people. A year before the painting, Kipling’s The Burden of the White Man was published. Racism, that justified invasions and atrocities in “less developed countries”, was on the rise.

It was at this point that Maris painted a Negro-girl as a princess, bringing out her humanity for everyone to see.

It is not a young girl holding a fan. It is a brave statement that a Negro-girl is as beautiful, graceful, intelligent, and interesting as the most refined white lady.

I guess, Maris, and the girl he painted, would be deeply offended if they learned the title of the painting was changed to please…no, not “a million people deriving from colonial roots, from Suriname, from the Antilles, from Indonesia, and so on” of whom the curator pretends to care, but the curator herself.

Even though I can’t stop white liberal intellectuals in their pursuit of boasting to the world how liberal they are (no one, actually, can stop them), let me know if you agree or disagree with me on this particular case of liberalism mopping up [art] history. 


  1. She is beautiful, dignified… but looks like she knows damn well that someone has dressed her up for this portrait, and it’s not how she’s allowed to live the rest of her life. The artist’s good intentions–to humanize her–are a spectacle. She knows more than he did what the score is. Changing the title wipes that all away.

    1. There’s a great line in your comment, about something I felt but couldn’t express it: she knows more than the artist what the score is. She lets the artist do the humanisation act, but and she appreciates it, but she understands it is an act that can’t change her life or anything. Thank you!

  2. I personally don’t think it matters a lot in any case. Titles are almost always given later by the public, writers, art historians or museums. They don’t necessarily have any connection with the artist’s intentions. I think its perfectly fine to rename them except in cases where we’re absolutely certain that the artist him/herself named the painting in the first place and B- Did so for

  3. As language changes, disconnects like this happen. It’s maddening. Historians, art historians among them, have the documentation to bring context to human experience. Words may become antiquated, but the context doesn’t. That should not be shorted. Good post.

    1. No, I think it’s not about money, it’s about fame and climbing up the career ladder. She’s now “known”, and if not for her work as an art historian, then for her progressive views. This is, in a way, her personal capital that’s worth more than any UN grant,

  4. Interesting painting. The young girl possesses poise and culture. Her features are regular and appealing. She seems to have some status in society and this of course is what stands out. The artist was trying to make a statement and he does it well. The original title gives further weight to the painting. To me, to change the title defeats to purpose of the painting.

  5. I agree with you. One of the values in studying historic art is as a lens to view how civilization has progressed (or not progressed). Some of it is offensive by today’s standards but that is the point. Sanitizing the past is a way of forgetting. Forgetting is what allows history to repeat itself.

  6. I totally agree with you, unfortunately, to be, as it were, politically correct, there are people that go beyond common sense. Like us, in Italy, there are principals of schools banning Christmas carols, or cribs, for not to “offend” pupils of other religions, forgetting our traditions and our history. (I’m not a believer, but this attitude makes me angry, because it is an attitude idiot and foreign scholars had not complained about our customs and traditions).
    Good afternoon.

    1. Traditions are a great way of passing on values, from generation to generation. Xmas carols, I imagine, is one of those traditions that now has less to do with religion, but with establishing the festive atmosphere of a new year, new hopes, and new beginnings. Yes, drawing an X over Xmas is very wrong.

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