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The Smithsonian Institution’s website features a collections search tool that helps people check out works from across its many museums and institutes. Visitors can tag artworks and artifacts with metadata to make them easier for other users to find.
Few entries on the site bear any user tags, but a portrait of Bill and Camille Cosby does. An anonymous user gave the portrait that appears in the catalog for “Conversations”—the exhibition of Cosby’s artworks at the National Museum of African Art—a tag that says “rapist.” (At the time this article posts, the tag is live. A screenshot is above for posterity.)
Yesterday, the Smithsonian put its own tag on “Conversations.” The National Museum of African Art posted a sign at the entrance of the exhibition indicating that the Smithsonian does not condone Cosby’s “behavior”—the behavior in question being rape.
Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Undersecretary for History, Art, and Culture, tells the Washington Post‘s Philip Kennicott that taking down the exhibition would set a dangerous precedent. (Or rather, it would follow one: In 2010, the Smithsonian removed David Wojnarowicz‘s “A Fire in My Belly” from the National Portrait Gallery in 2010.)
The danger in the Smithsonian’s present course of action is that sets a different precedent—or, again, follows one from 2010. Back then and today, the Smithsonian sided with power against the powerless.
In 2010: G. Wayne Clough, then Secretary of the Smithsonian, censored Wojnarowicz’s video from a show of LGBTQ portraiture after the National Portrait Gallery was subjected to an outrage campaign manufactured by an activist group run by Brent Bozell, founder of the Parents Television Council.
Today: Kurin and Johnnetta Cole, director of the National Museum of African Art, continue to lend the Smithsonian’s imprimatur to the Cosbys, even after a federal judge unsealed court documents that reveal that Cosby’s admission to buying Quaaludes in order to incapacitate and rape women.
There is one big difference between 2010 and today. Then, thousands of conservatives made scripted calls to the National Portrait Gallery to complain about a museum mounting a show of queer artists (allegedly because it was near Christmastime). The Bozell operation prompted replies from the press shops of prominent conservative congressmen demanding the work come down.
Now it’s just a handful of art critics saying that a show that celebrates Cosby has no place at the Smithsonian. Critics, and perhaps the alleged victims of Cosby’s “behavior.” Power can take art out of an exhibition, and power can just as easily keep it there.