Last December, when the Smithsonian bowed to right-wing pressure and removed a work of art from a National Portrait Gallery exhibition, it prompted a national debate about censorship, free expression, religious freedom, and what remains of government funding for the arts.
This week, the Smithsonian itself will officially, albeit very belatedly, address the debate it caused, holding a two-day forum to explore the issues raised by its removal of David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly from an exhibit on the gay and lesbian experience in American art. This public discussion is being held far too late -- more than two months after the exhibit in question closed -- but I hope that it will fuel the valuable debate about sponsorship, censorship, and freedom of expression. The Smithsonian first chose censorship, then chose silence. I hope that at this forum, the Smithsonian's leaders will finally get engaged in the discussion that they have until now been avoiding.
But for the Smithsonian's forum to be valuable, the institution must be made to grapple with tough questions. Here are 10 questions that I think should be asked this week and whenever political pressure and free expression principles come into conflict in funding the arts:
- What's next? How will the Smithsonian stop the slippery slope of censorship now that one exhibit has been censored? Hide/Seek's critics wanted the whole exhibit taken down because it recognized and even celebrated gay and lesbian Americans. What if creationists threatened the Natural History Museum's funding over its portrayal of evolution? What if the religious right wanted to eliminate references to the founders' debate about the separation of church and state? Where will you draw the line?
The Hide/Seek exhibit was entirely privately funded, but the fact that it was housed in a publicly-funded museum was enough to make it the target of anti-gay activists. Any time an exhibition of a work of art has a cent of even indirect federal funding, it becomes vulnerable to politically-motivated attacks. How can institutions in the future better manage the threat of political pressure that comes with federal funding? Do federally-funded museums have different obligations than private museums in preparing for and responding to controversy?
One of the core issues at play in the controversy over Hide/Seek was the perceived tension between religious freedom and freedom of expression. Hide/Seek's opponents claimed that the entire exhibit and Wojnarowicz's work in particular were insulting to Christians, and represented an unconstitutional government-sponsored attack on a particular religion. Under that logic, would atheists have an Establishment Clause case for removing Christian devotional paintings, including Renaissance masterpieces, from the National Gallery of Art?
What impact will the Smithsonian's censorship of A Fire in My Belly have on future decisions about what exhibits to host and what to include in those exhibits? Will museum professionals, especially those working at publicly financed museums, now be less likely to take risks like Hide/Seek? How will you ensure that your decisions regarding Hide/Seek wont affect which exhibits you choose to host in the future?
What procedures did the Smithsonian have in place to deal with outside pressure regarding exhibits that might be considered controversial, like the pressure it received from the Religious Right weeks after the Hide/Seek exhibit opened? If none, has an official protocol been established? If so, what is it?
What does the Smithsonian's leadership -- the secretary, the board of regents, museum directors and curators -- believe the institution has learned about how to handle censorship pressure in the future?
In 1990, Dennis Barrie, then the director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, was tried for obscenity after his museum showed an exhibition of works by the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. It was a defining moment in a period when the so-called "culture wars" found a convenient target in art, especially that by gay artists. Is this most recent scandal just more of the same, or have things changed since the 1990s? What does it say that it was again gay art -- and even one of the same artists who came under fire in the 1990s -- that came under attack?
The "culture wars" are not only about current policy -- in a broader way, they are about how we define ourselves as a nation and even how we talk about our shared history. We see this very literally in the political battles that play out every few years in Texas over what the state will include in its history textbooks - in the last round, the Board of Education removed labor leaders, downplayed the importance of slavery in the Civil War, and erased references to the Founding Fathers' embrace of Enlightenment ideas. An institution like the Smithsonian has an obligation to serve all Americans, but how does that play out when you have powerful political groups arguing about what our history is or what science says or what art means? Does an institution face different obligations in responding to science- or history-based censorship and to arts censorship?
Supporters of free expression have always been up against a very well-organized movement in the religious right. How can free expression advocates effectively rally around challenged institutions in the future to quickly and effectively make the public case against censorship?
Unfortunately now, and maybe for a very long time to come, Secretary Clough, because of his decision to censor the Hide/Seek exhibit, will be one of the most visible symbols of censorship in the arts. The Smithsonian board has made the clear decision to retain him as Smithsonian secretary. What can the Smithsonian Institution do to mitigate the damage of our national museums being led by a person with that history and reputation?