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."