How a random search for a MoMA assistant curator led to an intercontinental social media dust-up

Kiepenkerl by Jeff Koons

In the age of social media, a new currency is emerging. It is the currency of outrage.

- Claire Lehmann

Preface:  Please forgive both the somewhat misleading title and my admittedly choppy take at telling the story.  I just realized I haven’t written anything this long outside of a very choppy analytical e-mail or CPA exam essay in quite some time. In my defense, I’m not even vaguely attempting to impose a structure, provide an easily extractable parable or even deliver any kind of point other than I was both unintentionally ignorant and wrong in my assumptions.

I’m a huge MoMA enthusiast, to the point where I joined the Junior Associates so that I could meet people like Ann Temkin and ask inane questions on very minor figures who played major roles…like Patty Mucha.   While Ann is generally the scholar of record, these folk called “Curatorial Assistants” bear much of the intellectual grunt work behind exhibits like Claes Oldenburg: The Street and The Store and Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New.  One of my favorite JA walkthroughs was with one of her assistants, Paulina Pobocha, whose enthusiasm for Oldenburg was as informed as it was infectious.  I wish the art world producers let that kind of genuine enthusiasm loose on the consumers a bit more.

Unfortunately, it seems that curatorial assistants are not really all that Googleable.  Pobocha has a fairly unique name and has worked on several high profile exhibitions and collected at least one really amusing only-in-the-art-world anecdote on the authenticity of yogurt lids.  However, Temkin’s assistant for the upcoming Sonnabend show is someone named Claire Lehmann.  Of course, I’d be curious to see who she is and what other scholarship she’s been a part of…but there’s not a whole lot out there.

For reasons I can’t readily recall, I ended up clicking on the blog of Claire Lehmann (@clairlemon), Master’s student, wife, mother, and reasonably popular twitter user in Sidney, Australia.  While I haven’t conclusively confirmed this, it is extremely unlikely that she’s the assistant behind the Sonnabend show.  The specific link that captured my attention  was called, “How about some evidence-based feminism?“, one which was both attention grabbing and not wholly outside my blink-speed-prejudices of what a MoMA curator might blog about.

My (unfortunately mistaken) impression of the post was that Lehmann’s core thesis dealt with pedestrian attacks on science under the guise of pop-feminism:

The distrust towards science and scientific methods is most salient in women’s magazines and news-sites which run such headlines as What science gets wrong about female desire or Everything you’ve ever been told about fertility is wrong

Sounds reasonable, right?  Who among us in the reality-based community hasn’t come across a really ignorant puff piece with an attention-grabbing headline that distorts, ignores or refutes some kind of scientific finding without addressing the science behind it?

In an article titled Five myths that need to be busted about women in 2013 published December 2012, the commentator Clementine Ford started her opine with a statement calling for an end to research conducted in the field of evolutionary biology – an area of inquiry which she described as “unfounded”. Another piece titled When you’re attracted to an alpha male discusses archetypes of romance novels while declaring that evolutionary psychology was nothing more than “mere speculation”.

A feminist calling for an end to research?  Using romance novel archetypes to dismiss evolution?  Cue instinctive rage now!  She goes on with some very salient writing on the nature of politics and science and the need for understanding:

Unlike the internal cultures of political movements, the very practices which define science (self-criticism, open debate, peer review and double-blind methods) foster humility and reduce the errors caused by bias. It is also important to remember that producing scientific knowledge is hard, it requires proficiency in statistical methods and ability to reason quantitatively. All scientists must offer up their work to be closely scrutinised by colleagues before getting published – these methods are in place specifically to reduce prejudices, not enhance them.

Bam.  It’s tweetworthy!

I should point out that my tweets auto-post to my Facebook page as well. This is an easy, lazy way of dealing with staying in touch with the world that I’ve been contemplating changing.

A little while later, my good friend Aaron Muszalski (@sfslim) thought it was tweet-worthy as well. That’s when I started to realize I completely missed some of the subtext of Lehmann’s original post:

Ella tends towards hyperbole, but I have yet to find any serious disagreement with her. My immediate instinct was to defend Lehmann’s original piece, as I didn’t recall a mention of evolutionary psychology, just one about evolutionary biology.  This turned out to be my critical mistake, as I wasn’t aware there was a field called evolutionary psychology, something very distinct and removed from evolutionary biology.  The latter is concerned with the processes involved in how life evolved on the planet, comparing the fossils and DNA of different species as evidence.  The former examines behavior, not biological output.

It’s around this time that old family friend piped in on Facebook and pointed me towards a critique of evolutionary psychology:


I had completely overlooked the fact that the major subtext of Lehmann’s post was a defense of Evolutionary Psychology, not just science that happens to be counter to one’s political agenda.  Ella seems to have picked up on the thread and ran with it, engaging Lehmann herself:

Eleanor and Lehmann proceed on with a heated, civil Twitter debate that doesn’t reach much of a resolution.   To summarize, Ella tends towards the classical academic critique against gender bias in science, rather than the intrinsic validity of scientific inquiry.  Lehmann’s original post actually supported epistemological critique; her post was against “bad responses to good science”, as Ella put it.  They actually came really close to realizing their common ground, but in the end:

Frankly, I’d rather kick myself in the nuts before accusing Ella of being anti-science.

Meanwhile, over on Facebook, my friends Rick and Meredith have a meaningful exchange of their own, though Meredith is much more deferential to Rick’s (relative) rage while moving forward with the point that they have more common ground than they thought:

Rix and Meredith on Facebook

The salient point I want to pull out from this screen capture is Rick’s assertion about the scientific validity of Evolutionary Psychology:

Evolutionary Psychology is mostly a collection of poorly designed thought experiments. She also had it playing second banana to social and cognitive psychology, in that order. which means just doesn’t know that much about experimental validity.

He goes on to say:

Rick and Meredith on EvoPsych Conclusion

Meanwhile, another friend takes the opposite tack and says that Lehmann doesn’t go far and deep enough:

It’s around this point in the story that I’ve concluded that I was wrong about the background assertions of the original blog post in favor of what I wanted to believe the piece meant.

Lehmann wrote a defense of Evolutionary Psychology.  I wanted a piece that railed against anti-science in the name of feminism.  The examples that Lehmann cited only tangentially supported her assertion.  The Five Myths piece that Lehmann criticizes isn’t doesn’t explicitly call for an end to research in evolutionary biology, it merely says we shouldn’t go on, “perpetuating unfounded evolutionary biology, or allowing straw polls run by FM radio stations to count as ‘research’.”  It isn’t until the final point that the piece actually tends to unravel by equating the visual appeal of shoes and consumer goods with a finding that women become more aroused by a storyline than an image.  The fertility piece builds its case around the debunking of bad science that led us to believe that 35 was the falling-off point for fertility in women.

Maybe I’m just proving how obtuse I am, but I don’t see much of a conclusion to be drawn from an episode like this.  The story illustrated that I deceived myself in the beginning, turned out to be rather wrong, and I learned a lot from my awesome friends in the process.  These are the consequences and the benefits of righteous indignation on social media.  I never found out anything more about the MoMA curator, but I did enjoy the unintended consequences of a search that never found its target.  In a way, this is a curious bit of output from something I never expected to generate any.  It seems that all of us in this space post and repost many things that go completely unremarked upon, and it’s a mild shock when something does interrupt that flow of ideas contemplated and tossed into the æther and forgotten.

To that end, I’ll tweet out this post with the most outrageous line I can think of herein.  I’ll throw it out on Facebook under the original, Buzzfeedesque title.  What, if anything, will happen?

Epilogue: I chose a Jeff Koons image namely because I recently read that he ascribes no hidden meanings nor embedded critiques in his works…and I somehow think that idea, coupled with the sculpture’s qualities is oddly appropriate for this episode.  It’s as if his works are definitely something, but they aren’t at the same time…and what does that reflect back upon us?