The Smithsonian Defends Censorship

G. Wayne Clough, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, has given his first interviews since he ordered the removal of the video "A Fire in My Belly," by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, from the National Portrait Gallery's exhibit "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." Perhaps he should not be giving interviews just yet. He has done himself, and his institution, no great favors.

The exhibit, an exploration of sexual difference in American portraiture, is exhilarating. I toured it before the faux-controversy arose (faux because the Smithsonian pre-caved to synthetic opposition from a small group of powerful Republicans who had not even seen the exhibit), and it represented curating at its best: It opened up a world for me (a world I barely knew existed) with elegance, sophistication and bravery. (Andrew Sullivan, who was on the same tour, has written eloquently, and more extensively, on the exhibit.)

The Smithsonian yanked the Wojnarowicz piece, a staggering and deeply disturbing stream-of-consciousness visual representation of the onslaught of AIDS, because it featured a few seconds of video depicting ants crawling on a crucifix. I've seen the video; it didn't strike me as blasphemous; quite the opposite. And unlike many of my more secular-minded colleagues, I consider blasphemy a serious matter. I also consider freedom of speech a serious matter, and it is here that Clough and the Smithsonian have failed. In his interviews, Clough defends his decision to censor the exhibit, but suggests that he could have handled the video controversy differently, by conducting a "better listening cycle... before the fact."

Recommended Reading

Sorry, no. This is not an issue about process; it is about a museum director's responsibility to protect his exhibits, and his curators, from political interference. Much of what Clough had to say was pablum: "We are not here to cause controversy," he told the Washington Post. "We are here to help people understand these issues that are important to our growth as a society." One could argue whether the Smithsonian's job is provoke controversy; I would say yes, of course -- museums that don't go out of their way to challenge settled and safe ideas become, over time, deeply boring museums. But put this aside: What is most troubling in these interviews is that Clough seems to be blaming this controversy not on intolerance, or the threat of censorship, but on his curators. It is the job of a museum head like Clough to hire the best possible curators and then let them curate. The two curators on this exhibit, David C. Ward and Jonathan Katz, two widely-recognized and admired academics, did a superior job. But Clough goes out of his way to question their judgment:  "We didn't see that particular work through the lens of how someone else would perceive it -- as religious desecration," he told Lee Rosenbaum. "We could have done a better job there. And we will learn from that." And in the Post, he is quoted as saying, "We probably have to have a little more laser-like focus when we design our exhibitions."

I imagine that right about now, curators across the Smithsonian's broad collection of museums are feeling a bone-cracking chill in the air. Clough has justified the censorship of "Hide/Seek" by complaining about the funding climate in Congress: "We are going into a period which I would describe as probably the most difficult period for funding for federal agencies in our lifetime." Worrying about funding is obviously a big part of Clough's portfolio. But an even bigger part of Clough's job is to worry about the future of free expression. And here, he's not worrying enough.