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Clough’s LA Flip-Flop on the Removal of “Hide/Seek” Video UPDATED


Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough appears to be changing his story.

Mike Boehm of the LA Times reports
that during a brief interview after the public Los Angeles forum addressed by Clough yesterday, the Smithsonian’s head stated (in Boehm’s words) that he “didn’t consider [the removal of David Wojnarovicz‘s video from the “Hide/Seek” exhibition] an act of censorship
because in making the decision, ‘I didn’t judge this work of art.'”

UPDATE: Sue Manning‘s Associated Press account of the LA event presented a longer and more revelatory quote from Clough on this point:

Censorship is when you are making a judgment about a work of art and
you’re making a judgment about whether that work of art, per se, should
be part of an exhibition. That’s not the basis of my decision. The basis
of my decision was to protect an exhibition and thinking about the
whole institution itself and thinking about the audiences we serve.
That’s part of my job,” he said.

Clough had been far more judgmental about the removed work of art in his comments to me, when I interviewed him in his office on Tuesday for yesterday’s report in the Huffington Post. He surprised me during our conversation by indicating that his decision was based not only on strategic pragmatism, as I had thought, but also on a personal judgment about the work itself. (This despite his later admission to Boehm that he hadn’t personally viewed the video before ordering it removed.)

The Smithsonian’s secretary essentially privileged the judgment of outside critics over that of his curators.

Here’s our exchange on that point, verbatim. The three dots mark a place where his own words changed direction without his completing the sentence’s initial thought. No words have been excised from these remarks:

Rosenbaum: Do you personally feel that the video should have been in
the show or not? What’s your own feeling?

Clough: No, I don’t think it should have been. I think that in
retrospect, if we had thought about all the ways people view things…we had a
strong focus on what we were doing, and that was to present the contributions
of gay and lesbian artists in the art of America. We didn’t look at that
through that lens, I don’t think, as well as I think we should have.

Rosenbaum: What do you mean by that?

Clough: We didn’t see that particular work through the lens of
how someone else would perceive it—as religious desecration. We could have
done a better job there. And we will learn from that.

This could be a very bad lesson.

I can understand a strategic decision to remove one work from an important temporary exhibition at a federal institution that’s under intense Congressional scrutiny and pressure. But I can’t understand an ongoing policy to remove or avoid showing works on the grounds that “someone else” is likely to object to them, based on very subjective, highly debatable interpretations. This could lead to the hijacking of not just one exhibition but the entire professional mandate of curators and museum directors.

Where are the Masters of Strategic Communication when Clough really needs them? Actually, now he’s got one!

an ArtsJournal blog