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posted by Christopher Howard — Apr 26, 2011

Svetlana Mintcheva is director of programs at the National Coalition Against Censorship. She is also the editor, with Robert Atkins, of Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression (New York: New Press, 2006) and the curator of Filth, Treason, Blasphemy? Museums and Censorship, shown at the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum in Chicago, Illinois, in 2007.

Hide/Seek: Museums, Ethics, and the Press: A Symposium Report

Hide/Seek may be remembered as the censorship controversy that launched a hundred discussion panels. There were public statements and street protests, of course, letters to the Smithsonian Board of Regents and articles in the press, but most of all, there were the conferences. Starting with a gathering at the Jewish Community Center in Washington, DC, spreading to the West Coast, and featuring major public events at the Corcoran and the New Museum, these discussions responded to an apparently endless desire to analyze and assign blame, to blow off steam and extract lessons, and to place what happened within the history of Culture Wars in America.

An April 9 symposium, “Hide/Seek: Museum, Ethics, and the Press,” organized by the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University and the Institute for Ethical Leadership at Rutgers Business School, had the goal of framing the issues surrounding the Hide/Seek controversy as ethical ones. Daniel Okrent, former chairman of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), opened the event by posing several key questions: Is choosing to do a controversial show an ethical decision? Should a show ever be changed after opening? What happens after a controversy in terms of institutional definition and future planning? A diverse group of participants from such disciplines as art history, law, political science, and philosophy, as well as Smithsonian representatives and one journalist, attempted to grapple with these issues and more.

Mounting a show on a controversial topic was, indeed, a decision requiring courage and commitment to the concept of the museum as a space where important cultural conversations should happen. Over forty-five other arts institutions had rejected the idea of a canonical show of queer art before the NPG took it up. With the curators Jonathan Katz and David Ward, the museum went forward with Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture even though it expected—and was prepared to respond to—controversy and homophobic reactions. Unfortunately the NPG was not as capable of resisting the internal hierarchy of Smithsonian decision-making.

The attacks on the show came a full month after its opening, just as the museum was ready to declare the Culture Wars over. Detractors latched onto a few seconds of video portraying a plastic crucifix, taking the position of the offended victim of hate speech, rather than that of the intolerant bully, which would have happened if they had focused on what really annoyed them: the queer content of the exhibition. The rest of the story is familiar: the NPG’s preparedness to face public complaints was never tested as Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough unilaterally—and within a single day—ordered the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly, with its eleven seconds of ants crawling over a crucifix. Clough’s ill-conceived effort to appease Republicans in Congress backfired, and the censorship controversy hit the headlines.

Clough’s decision appears to have pitched the pragmatic, that is, protecting funding for the Smithsonian from congressional assault, against the ethical: protecting the integrity of the institution and free-speech principles against partisan pressure. As Abe Zakhem, a philosophy professor at Seton Hall, commented: when normative ethics and practical considerations are in conflict, the need for courage arises. Courage and, perhaps, some political sense: it is far from certain that oppositional bluster in Congress would have succeeded in cutting the budget for the venerable Smithsonian. Worse, it is almost guaranteed that the artwork’s removal will only encourage future interference with the Smithsonian’s curatorial independence.

Failing to demonstrate either courage or political sense, Clough comes out as the villain in the story. Even his supporters on the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents criticized his decision as rash. What about the other actors in this drama? Symposium panelists discussed the role of Penny Starr, whose outrageously titled article—“Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts”—published on November 29, 2010, for the Cyber News Service (formerly the Conservative News Service) appears to have started it all.1 Starr was the first to isolate the eleven seconds of A Fire in My Belly; she also described and photographed other pieces from Hide/Seek and, in an email, goaded Republican Representatives Eric Cantor and John Boehner, among other congressional leaders, with questions about the offensiveness of these images.2

The panelists agreed that the press was indisputably the instigator of crisis in this case, as it has been in many others.3 No matter how detestable and biased one may find Starr’s cultural “intervention,” the press has the right, even the obligation, to direct the public’s attention to matters of importance, including the curatorial politics of the Smithsonian. As the cultural journalist and blogger Lee Rosenbaum noted, Starr was practicing “Journalism 101” when she contacted stakeholders to elicit a response in a potentially controversial case.

The actions of politicians who, alerted by Starr, threatened to cut funds to the Smithsonian remained virtually unquestioned—perhaps because Republican congressmen were so clearly in the wrong, or perhaps because such actions have become politics as usual. Nevertheless, if we have learned anything from the Hide/Seek controversy, it is that museum leaders do not make their ethical decisions in a vacuum but must negotiate a path spiked with the demands of politicians, the eyes of the press, and the campaigns of special-interest groups. Could things have gone differently? Should Martin Sullivan, director of the National Portrait Gallery (and symposium participant), have resigned in protest? Should the Smithsonian’s secretary have attempted to persuade the detractors in Congress—some of whom admitted they never even saw the show—to temper their threats? The possibilities are many, but none present a magic-bullet solution. The Smithsonian has bent under political and interest-group pressure before, and neither the resignation of a museum director nor attempts to appease critics by exhibition script revisions has won any victories.

There is reason to believe that something moderately positive may come from the situation. Sullivan welcomed the new policy adopted by the Smithsonian Board of Regents, which states “in the absence of actual error, changes to exhibitions should not be made once an exhibition opens without meaningful consultation with the curator, director, Secretary, and the leadership of the Board of Regents.” The regents have also decided that the director of the specific museum should make the call regarding the fate of an exhibition, not the Smithsonian secretary, whose decisions are heavily influenced by the risk-averse Office of Congressional Relations.

Another new Smithsonian policy is much more ambiguous, if not ominous. Criticized as “curating via crowdsourcing,” the policy requires solicitation of public input during the exhibition-planning process.4 In previous instances, including the Enola Gay exhibition at the Air and Space Museum (1995–98) and the show of photographs from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge at the National Museum of Natural History (2003–4), preexhibition input has had dire consequences for curatorial freedom.5 One can easily imagine the effect of public input in which the Catholic League or a similar professional “offense hound” attacks a show in the vulnerable period of its gestation.

In his memoir about the attacks and subsequent cancellation of the Enola Gay exhibition, Martin Harwit, who resigned as director of the Air and Space Museum in protest, writes that “our nation has begun to settle important issues … not through substantive debate, but through partisan campaigns aimed at victory by any means.”6 Apparently little has changed since.

Nevertheless, it was encouraging to hear Rachelle V. Browne, associate general council at the Smithsonian, clearly state that the First Amendment protects museums from having to choose between government funds and self-censorship. She also formulated the most unequivocal ethical message of the day: that concerns about financial sustainability do not override the museum’s obligation to sustain integrity and free speech.

Notes

1. Penny Starr, “Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus, Naked Brothers Kissing, Genitalia, and Ellen DeGeneres Grabbing Her Breasts,” CNS News, November 29, 2010, http://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/smithsonian-christmas-season-exhibit-fea.

2. In an email obtained by Brian Beutler of Talking Points Memo, Starr wrote to House and Senate leaders from both parties asking for feedback on her story. The email reads: “The federally funded National Portrait Gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian, is running an exhibition through the Christmas season that features an ant-covered Jesus and what the Smithsonian itself calls ‘homoerotic’ art. Should this exhibition continue or be cancelled?” Boehner and Cantor responded by immediately asking that the exhibition be pulled. See Brian Beutler, “Ant Jesus: An Anatomy of the Latest War on Christmas Scandal,” On Capitol Hill (blog), Talking Points Memo, December 1, 2010, http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/author_blogs/2010/12/ant-jesus-an-anatomy-of-the-latest-war-on-christmas-scandal.php.

3. Recent examples include the leadership role taken by the New York Daily News in the efforts to boot the Drawing Center from a proposed new space at Ground Zero in 2005 (which succeeded) and to close the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation show in 1999 (which did not).

4. Bob Duggan, “Mob Rule: Curating via Crowdsourcing,” Picture This (blog), Big Think, April 7, 2011, http://bigthink.com/ideas/37784.

5. For a fascinating story of the workings of the Smithsonian’s politics, see Martin Harwit, An Exhibit Denied: Lobbying the History of “Enola Gay” (New York: Copernicus, 1996).

6. Harwit, vii.

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