an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

WaPo Kennicott’s Bad Call on Clough’s Call: Seeing “Hide/Seek” in Black/White UPDATED

Philip Kennicott, Washington Post culture critic

[UPDATE: In my original post, I neglected to link to Kennicott’s article.]

Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post jumps off the deep end of irrationality today by calling for the resignation of Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough over his decision to remove David Wojnarovicz‘s “A Fire in My Belly” from the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” exhibition.

This debatable removal of one clip—which even Kennicott describes as “an unfinished work that was not among Wojnarowicz’s best”—is surely not sole criterion by which the Smithsonian secretary’s entire job performance should be judged. Reasonable people can disagree (as I do) over whether Clough made the right call. Either way, one “wrong” decision (if it was that) over one artwork should not cost Clough his job.

In asserting that Clough’s decision was “tactically stupid because the culture wars were effectively over, at least in the museum world,” Kennicott misses the point: The Culture Wars may (or may not) be “over” in the museum world, but recent events have proved that they are not over in the minds of those on the other side of this “war”—some politicians and conservative commentators. We’ll never know if Clough’s conciliatory efforts might have calmed down the video vigilantes, because the Culture Wars have now been escalated by the very people who have the most to lose—the champions of artistic and academic freedom.

Kennicott writes that Clough’s decision has “ignited fury in the museum world,” but while some museum professionals may be privately simmering (and have shown the video removed by the NPG), the “fury” has been emanating chiefly from gay activists and some art  writers.

Lost in the brouhaha is the fact that this video is hardly worth fighting for, except as a symbol of oppression and discrimination for those who see its removal as “censorship.” No one (except me) has paid any attention to the fact that this “Wojnarovicz” video is not even an authentic work by the artist, but was significantly altered by the curator, Jonathan Katz, who said he got permission from the artist’s estate to render it more suitable for museum display (as was explained publicly, in great detail by the curator himself during a recent discussion at the New York Public Library). Instead of focusing on supposed censorship, we might more properly focus on the moral rights of an artist not to have his work posthumously tampered with.

Also overlooked in this debate is the fact that the Smithsonian is a federal institution with direct Congressional oversight—by virtue of both its funding and the fact that six member of Congress sit on its board. If any non-government museum did what the NPG has done, I’d say it was inappropriate. In this case, I’d call it politically prudent.

I’ll give Kennicott one thing, though: I agree that Clough does need to step out of his office and address this brouhaha forthrightly in a public forum. The courageousness and compassion with which the National Portrait Gallery’s director, Martin Sullivan, extemporaneously addressed the criticism of audience members at the end of the New York Public Library’s event was a model of museum crisis management. (You can see my video of his full remarks at the end of this CultureGrrl post.)

After Sullivan handed over the microphone, the hostility of the crowd melted into applause. As a former university president, Clough must surely have experience in addressing opposition and building consensus. He needs to call upon those skills right now.

As a public servant, serving at the discretion of Congress, Clough needs to go public.

an ArtsJournal blog