museums as political weapons

The recent decision by the National Portrait Gallery to remove artist David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from its “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” exhibition has, quite expectedly, caused a a flood of reaction.  Everyone from bloggers to media watchdogs to the Catholic League have weighed in on the video’s merit, or lack thereof. With all of the hand-wringing and proselytizing regarding whether the four-minute video (only 11 seconds of which depicts Christian imagery)  is “art” or “hate speech” or its removal  “censorship”, the larger point is lost: Why this exhibition? Why this video? Why now?

don’t ask, don’t tell

Surely it’s pure coincidence that this controversy presents itself in the midst of the Pentagon’s release of its report on repealing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ban on homosexual and bisexual men and women openly serving in the United States military, right?  The chief finding of that survey is “a solid majority of Service members believe repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will not have a negative impact on their ability to conduct their military mission.”  Everyone knows that this last vestige of legal segregation is on its way out the door. What better way to mobilize the opposition than by juxtaposing gays in the military with gays in federally-funded museums? See what happens when we let them work out in the open? Chaos!

there’s a new sheriff in town
One of the loudest opponents of Hide/Seek is U.S. Congressman Jack Kingston (R – GA).  A member of the all-powerful House Committee on Appropriations, he is openly bucking for the top spot of Chairman. With stars in his eyes, he has single-handedly taken up the charge of ensuring federal fiscal responsibility in these challenging economic times. He has gone so far as to call for an investigation of the Smithsonian’s funding (his first act of business once he assumes the throne Chairmanship, undoubtedly).

Absolutely we should look at their funding.  If they’ve got money to squander like this – of a crucifix being eaten by ants, of Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, men in chains, naked brothers kissing – then I think we should look at their budget. — Jack Kingston, via Fox News.

Take heart, Smithsonian employees, Mr. Kingston has your back! Once he dismantles the world’s largest museum and research complex, he can continue to vote against extending unemployment benefits for the jobless.

fear mongering & funding

Arts and culture under assault by the U.S. Government is nothing new. Whether via public condemnation, reduction or outright elimination of financial support, many politicians on both sides of the aisle have gladly picked up this political football in an effort to further their own agendas and propagate the idea that government should not be in the business of  supporting the arts.  Recent examples [all emphasis mine]:

  • 1956: U.S. Congressman George Dondero (R – MI) likens modern and contemporary art to Communism, writing: “Modern art is a term that is nauseating to me. We are in complete accord in our thinking regarding this subject and its connection with communism. No one is attempting to stifle self-expression, but we are attempting to protect and preserve legitimate art as we have always known it in the United States.”
  • 1988: Senator Jesse Helms  (R – NC) rails against the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs.  While not a federally-funded museum, the Corcoran received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency. When the museum’s leadership caved under the pressure and nixed the exhibition, Helms was dismayed that he no longer had an axe to grind. Not one to be outfoxed, he switched his focus by introducing an appropriations amendment to forbid the NEA from funding projects deemed “obscene or derogatory.”  The Helms amendment ultimately failed but did result in new restrictions to NEA funding.
  • 1994-1995: Veterans groups, the Air Force Association and a bipartisan delegation of 81 Congressmen protest the National Air and Space Museum’s planned exhibition of the  Enola Gay, the B-29 airplane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, claiming that it portrayed the Japanese as victims rather than military aggressors. Despite pleas from historians, repeated changes were made to the Enola Gay exhibition. Ultimately Dr. Martin Harwit resigned his position as the museum’s Director before the revised exhibition opened stating, “I believe that nothing less than my stepping down from the directorship will satisfy the museum’s critics and allow the museum to move forward with important new projects.”

history will teach us nothing

To me, the most striking thing about this “controversy” is despite having past lessons to draw from, the National Portrait Gallery swiftly removed the contested artwork while simultaneously reiterating its belief that A Fire in My Belly is not sacrilegious (with the full support of the American Association of Museums in direct opposition of its strategic plan) and ignoring its obligation to honor the intentions of the exhibition’s private funders.

Boiled down: We stand by this art, but we’re not willing to make waves to do so. 

With howls of protest ringing in his ears, National Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan, in a phone interview with Jeffrey Brown, continued to defend the action but admitted “in retrospect, there may have been better ways to do this, but we certainly wanted to focus the attention on the exhibition as a whole.”

It’s shameful that this museum’s actions have only achieved the opposite.

Do you agree with the National Portrait Gallery’s decision? What is a museum’s role concerning censorship?