The Death of an Artist Podcast Failed Ana Mendieta

Janice K. Johnson

The true crime premise of the podcast series Death of An Artist relies on the “silence” of the art world in the decades since Ana Mendieta’s tragic and untimely death. For the purpose of her investigation, host Helen Molesworth attempts to break this silence despite the admittedly inherent limitations of the story. Nobody really wants to talk, save for a few outspoken friends, an NYPD detective, and some voices from the art world. And why would they? On the one hand, the details of the case are pretty straightforward. You just can’t state the obvious for fear of litigation: he probably did it. And to get away with it — the accused was cleared of murder charges in 1988 — he had help, from the justice system to the art world. Still, the complicity of the latter is not as sensational as the podcast posits, as if a cabal of museum directors and art dealers conspired to hide the truth. Silence can be attributed to different factors, like waning interest over time or the lack of incentive for both the Mendieta family, which remains steadfast in its refusal to participate in such remembrances, and the art world insiders who may doubt their friend’s innocence — it’s not like anyone offers an explicit defense for the accused at any point during the original six-episode cycle.

None of the abovementioned presents an obstacle for the podcast, but rather an invitation to dig deeper. But like many true crime podcasts, Death of an Artist doesn’t uncover new evidence, rather it presents archival information and source material, such as journalist Robert Kat’s 1990 book, Naked by the Window, in an accessible format with strong production value. Perhaps all that’s missing is a call to action for amateur sleuths to join the investigation.

Ultimately, the biographical details of Mendieta’s life are offset by the parity with which Death of an Artist focuses the life and career of her alleged killer. It’s the kind of media bias that draws false parallels, an approach that is only magnified by the art world’s insistence on separating the art and the artist. Accordingly, the narrator introduces the artists as opposites or foils: Diego and Frida, man and woman, White and Latina (read: exotic), gringo and refugee, rich and poor, feeling and unfeeling, etc. Nevertheless, these characterizations and the type of dynamic they convey lean heavily to one side, regardless of the notion of objectivity. Race, religion, gender, class — all of the themes Death of an Artist purports to address — sharpen as the narrative unfolds, for better or worse. They are the deciding factors as to why justice was not served. Perhaps things would be different today. The protests and mobilizations in support of Mendieta are the most effective way in which the podcast explores the visceral quality to her living legacy. Why then revisit her death, that fateful moment that has given way to such a vibrant dialogue with a new generation of artists and admirers?

Throughout the series, Molesworth inserts herself into the narrative as a woman who has also faced the wrath of the art world. Not murdered, but fired from her position as chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2018. That silence, however, comes via a non-disclosure agreement, which dramatically softens whatever introspection or damning testimony would connect Molesworth’s experience to Mendieta’s, or the art world at large. A cameo by Roxane Gay in the final episode puts the back and forth of this moral dilemma in perspective, though her conclusion comes too late: “I don’t think we’re preserving anything when we preserve the work of murderers […] The world will be fine without Carl Andre.” In other words, it’s okay to lose one White man, however influential, to the margins of art history. Moreover, elevating the transcendental nature of “art” as if it exists in a (White) vacuum, as if were not intricately connected to humanity and nature and life and death, is against the very principles found in Ana’s work.

In the end, these intellectual debates fail to assert basic humanity, the absolute fact that Mendieta’s life mattered. The irony here is that the voice that speaks directly for Mendieta, that of Tania Bruguera, is subdued, only heard in a series of voiceovers as Mendieta herself. One imagines a much more compelling dialogue between Bruguera and her decade-long engagement with Mendieta’s work, i.e. a direct throughline to the living legacy that has come to define Mendieta beyond her death. From 1985-1996, Bruguera would re-enact many of Mendieta’s performances, conjuring new ways of “experiencing” the late artist’s work, an affective connection between flesh and earth. This seemed like a missed opportunity to further connect contemporary artists’ devotion to Mendieta’s life and work, not just the efforts for justice surrounding the context of her death. The sensationalism of the podcast reaches its peak in the penultimate episode, a cliffhanger in which the listener is left in the lobby of a luxury apartment building in Manhattan, primed for a confrontation with Death of an Artist’s looming, yet absent antagonist. Nothing happens in the end. The narrator passes a note to the lobby attendant and there is no response. We are back where we started. The final episode includes more discussion on cancel culture, essentially recycling the debates of every other cultural sector of society, albeit with less conviction.

If museum institutions continue making empty promises built on grand ideas of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and still choose to champion white supremacy, then perhaps we should begin to question the relevance and need for those institutions. Or perhaps imagine alternative sites and actions for preserving culture and art. It brings to mind the 2019 film Bacurau, in which the town’s “museum” has a double function in both preserving history and storing defense weapons for community members who resist a colonial takeover.

Death of an Artist’s final episode made obvious that museum institutions are relics of a past world, frozen in time, and actively refuse to represent and include voices other than the status quo. Perhaps they are not the best places to preserve Ana’s legacy. White supremacy killed Ana Mendieta, and like so many others, we grieve for her. We were born after her death, but feel like we know her. The injustice speaks for itself, and Molesworth’s most inspiring words arrive towards the end of episode six, where she does not provide a concrete solution, but rather, encourages “lifting the silence with compassion.” We hope to continue to be in dialogue about the dark themes in Mendieta’s work — something suggested in the podcast through sinister background music — but even more so about the abundant and generative life in Ana’s work.

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