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Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution G. Wayne Clough released a statement today addressing his decision last month to pull a video from the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” exhibit. Read the full statement below.
But first, some notes! My persistent position on this issue is that it was not a controversy. There were not two sides engaged in a debate that Clough then arbitrated and resolved, as he would have you believe. There is Penny Starr, a fringe activist who described an artwork as “anti-Christmas.” There is the conservative activist network, which includes figures like the Media Research Center’s Brent Bozell and the Catholic League’s Bill Donahue, who find it politically useful to portray liberal institutions as engaged in a war against Christianity, Christmas, families, and so on.
Then there are flacks for conservative congressional leaders who are happy to feed a quote to a conservative reporter working in a useful capacity. It’s not like Starr alerts the press office for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and a spokesman then interrupts House floor proceedings to drag Speaker Boehner off to the National Portrait Gallery. Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) don’t care about art, at least not in this instance. But their spokespersons are perfectly happy (and indeed, obligated) to lend finger-wagging quotes about the left to a useful, dyed-in-the-wool conservative reporter.
Clough portrays the crisis as a debate between symmetrically opposed factions. What you in fact see is one conservative journalist, Starr, complaining about 10 seconds of one video work, on the one side, versus a silent majority of viewers who toured the exhibit in record numbers for an entire month without complaining at all.
But this is nothing new—and nothing Clough should not have predicted he would face with sooner or later. Today, an arts leader must be prepared to protect his institution from the structural asymmetry of politics, and in particular the asymmetrical warfare that the contemporary conservative right has down to an art.
It goes beyond the culture wars. Consider the so-called debate in 2004, when a crew of fringe conservative activist-journalists proffered that Sen. John Kerry lied to collect war medals in Vietnam in order to bolster a presidential campaign that would come decades later. The media covered this as a swift-boat debate between two reasonable and equally weighted camps. For a while, stories about intelligent design were all the rage, and media outlets would run stories about a so-called debate about evolution, in which one side was represented by a handful of scientists working at one institution, the Discovery Institute, while the other side was represented by any of the other scientists in more or less the whole world. So you have any one of a few dozen anti-evolutionists appearing on NPR to debate any one of thousands and thousands of scientists who support the theory of evolution, and every time that happens it sounds like one camp saying one thing, the other camp saying another thing, and who can decide between them? When in fact there is no debate about the validity of the theory of evolution.
Just as there was no debate over this video. How many people complained about A Fire in My Belly being anti-Christmas factoring out the Catholic League crowd? The National Portrait Gallery’s director, Martin Sullivan, told me: zero. Does the Smithsonian know what “tyranny of the minority” means?
On to Clough’s statement:
The National Portrait Gallery exhibition, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” has generated its share of controversy. Some have called for the removal of the entire exhibition because they object to its content, while others have objected to the decision to remove a video from the exhibition by the artist David Wojnarowicz. Throughout it all, the exhibition has continued to serve its purpose. Large audiences have attended and learned about the contributions of gay and lesbian artists to American portraiture and many more will continue to do so.
I enthusiastically supported the Portrait Gallery’s plans to host the first major museum exhibition that focused on sexual difference in the making of modern portraiture in America because the exhibition opened a window on the art of the period and illuminated the history of our changing societal norms. The exhibition helps all of us understand American portraiture through the eyes of those artists who were forced to speak to us through code and symbol and who paid a price for doing so. Included are portraits by artists John Singer Sargent, Grant Wood, Andy Warhol, Thomas Eakins and Annie Leibovitz, as well as two other works by Wojnarowicz.
We believed from the beginning, and continue to believe, that our role was to use the power of the Smithsonian’s national visibility to reach the largest possible audience. However, the often sharp discourse of the past month illustrates how the Smithsonian’s mission, if thoughtfully executed, can also place it at the intersection of national debates about cultural transitions. This is not a complaint but an acknowledgment that our role as a publicly supported institution is complex.
More than 15 years ago, a document entitled: E Pluribus Unum: This Divine Paradox, Report of the Commission on the Future of the Smithsonian, summarized these challenges in the following terms:
“Museums in general, and the Smithsonian in particular, are increasingly flash points in the debates that characterize our nation’s transition from a society that depends for coherence on a single accepted set of values and practices to one that derives its strength and unity from a deep tolerance of diversity. This happens because museums must prepare exhibitions that record and illuminate this transition. This sometimes results in acrimonious and contentious debate… [The Smithsonian’s] position is especially challenging because it is a national institution with large and complex collections and missions.”
These words still hold true. For 164 years, the Smithsonian has provided visitors from across the nation and around the world with an opportunity to learn about the American experience. We sit on the National Mall, the nation’s front porch, and we benefit from the support of its 300 million citizens. Together they represent all facets of the American story, each part of which deserves to be told in a way that exposes people to our history, as well as presents new ways of looking at the world.
In early December, after consultation with the Portrait Gallery director and curator and the Under Secretary of History, Art, and Culture, I made the decision to take a video work out of “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” I did this because it is my responsibility as Secretary to take actions that are needed to sustain the long-term strength of an institution I care deeply about and to allow it to continue to serve its important educational mission. I also still believe this decision was the best option for ensuring the exhibition remained open through the completion of its scheduled run.
During the past few weeks, I have heard from and reached out to many thoughtful people regarding this decision. I respect and appreciate the opinions and advice they have shared with me, particularly with respect to how the Smithsonian communicates and consults on important issues. I am committed to improving these processes so that this Institution can meet the challenges of its public mission, including our role in educating about complex topics that involve social transitions or incorporate, in art or objects, cultural or religious symbols.
These are not subjects of easy consensus, but if anything is to be learned from the events of the past month, we must continue to encourage discussion. In the near future, we will hold a forum with key constituencies and the public to continue the dialogue these topics deserve. Our focus continues to be deepening knowledge of art, science, history and culture, and sustaining public trust in the Smithsonian as a place to learn and be inspired.