By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 8:07 PM
Three weeks after the Smithsonian Institution ignited fury in the museum world by censoring one of its own exhibitions - removing a video that appeared in the National Portrait Gallery's groundbreaking exhibition of gay portraiture, "Hide/Seek" - the best option for undoing the damage remains the resignation of the man who made the decision.
Curators of the critically acclaimed exhibition, although lamenting the decision, continue to defend the Smithsonian in public, and the National Portrait Gallery's director, Martin Sullivan, continues to bear much of the brunt of the criticism. And yet Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough has gone missing.
Clough's defense of a decision that will almost certainly mark the nadir of his tenure has been limited to internal memos. By withdrawing from the public debate about what has been tactically, strategically and historically a disaster for the institution, he has called into question whether he shares the fundamental values of openness and engagement that should define the Smithsonian.
Given that reinstating the video - a work by David Wojnarowicz that included a brief scene of ants crawling on a crucifix - is off the table, the best option for the Smithsonian is one that seems paradoxical. The curators of "Hide/Seek," and the leaders of the National Portrait Gallery, should take control of the complex symbolism of the debate and do the unthinkable: Remove yet another work from the exhibition.
That work would be one of the show's most powerful and harrowing: AA Bronson's "Felix, June 5, 1994." Bronson wants his 7-by-14 foot photograph taken out of the show as a protest against censorship, and his request is only creating more bad optics for the Smithsonian.
At a panel discussion Monday night at the Jewish Community Center on 16th Street NW, exhibit co-curator David Ward argued for rejecting Bronson's request to maintain the integrity of the show's scholarship. And earlier that day, the Smithsonian said it had the legal right to keep it, no matter what Bronson wanted. Once again, in an effort to control the damage from Clough's reckless decision, responsible agents of the Smithsonian find themselves on the wrong side of some fundamental conflicts.
Which is why Bronson's work should go.
Returning the Smithsonian to its proper values can now be accomplished only by someone underneath the secretary, and the options are few. Although it would harm the integrity of the show, allowing Bronson to remove his work would create a large symbolic hole in the exhibition, a blank space on the wall, which could be explained as a marker of the Smithsonian's mistake and the aggression of outside forces that resist the powerful, democratic agenda of the modern museum at its best.
That agenda, the result of decades of efforts at reforming an institution that once bluntly manifested state and class power (through architecture, art and hierarchical social codes), is the backdrop against which Clough made his ill-fated decision. The modern museum has evolved from a straightforward display of power - this is Culture, so genuflect, ye masse s - to a paradoxical place where old forms of power and discipline are harnessed to create new kinds of debate and criticism.
Museums are still supported by the wealthy and privileged, who generally acquiesce to exhibitions that aim at inclusion and diversity. The government, if it gives money, indicates its support for cultural projects while (ideally) declining to dictate message or terms to the institution. Scholarship and science still reign (or they should) but are filtered through new technologies and directed at increasingly diverse subject matter.
A tactical mistake
It is a complicated dance that museums must perform, welcoming people in yet speaking at them in an authoritative voice; empowering the visitor while telling uncomfortable truths. The "Hide/Seek" exhibition, organized by Ward and co-curator Jonathan Katz, is exemplary in all respects - not least because, as Ward emphasized again Monday night, they didn't want the show to be a simplistic, "up with gay people" exhibition. Gay visitors received a classic example of the museum's paradoxical embrace: invited in, legitimized by inclusion and then forced face-to-face with art that is discomfiting in the extreme.
Clough's decision, made hastily and, it seems, over the objections of his curators and the Portrait Gallery's Sullivan, ran counter to this history of reform and showed an astonishing lack of perception about the humanities as well as the dynamics of museum culture. It was tactically, strategically and historically stupid.
It was tactically stupid because the culture wars were effectively over, at least in the museum world. Clough has re-empowered forces that will soon be back for more symbolic acts of contrition and subservience. It was strategically stupid because it harms not just the Smithsonian, but all museums. Clough may have saved his own institution from the immediate discomfort of political controversy, but he has exposed museums across the United States to new threats.
But it is Clough's ignorance of the historic evolution of museums - as places where old forms of power are rechanneled to reform culture - that is most shocking. Again and again, in public meetings and interviews about the decision to censor the Wojnarowicz video, participants have spoken in awe of how small, how short, how apparently insignificant the video is: just a few seconds, culled from a few minutes of video, itself culled from an unfinished work that was not among Wojnarowicz's best. But that misses the point. The smaller the thing removed, the shorter the material that actually gives offense, the greater the symbolism of its removal. The removal of the video was a tiny gesture of exclusion meant to thwart the powerful march of democratic openness that museums in general, and this exhibition in particular, exemplify.
Thus: Gays are allowed to be seen in the museum, but not entirely; scholars control the agenda, unless bureaucrats countermand them; new forms of the sacred can be represented, unless old defenders of the sacred take offense.
Controversy is good
It is that last conflict, between ideas of the sacred, that may linger after the exhibition ends in February. The museum has become a quasi-sacred space, with rules as complicated and inviolate as any church liturgy. People who don't find the meaning of their existence in churches are often passionate about museums, where a set of fundamental values - openness, fearlessness, truthfulness - are celebrated with all the historical trappings.
Among the most sacred doxologies of the museum is the conviction that controversy is a good thing, that it can be talked through, that it leads to progress. Clough's rapid and craven decision to remove the video, and then his absence at any public discussion of the consequences, was doubly sacrilegious: It demonstrates fear of controversy and aversion to dialogue. The lingering anger against the Smithsonian is thus very much like the anger that supposedly began the controversy: A fundamental value has been insulted, and the system is now out of balance.
Removing the Bronson might just balance it. Video leaves no hole when it is removed, no blank space on the wall. The Bronson is one of the larger works in the exhibition, and one of the most vibrant. It is also one of the most sacred, a photograph of the artist's close friend and collaborator Felix a few hours after he had died of AIDS in 1994. "Felix suffered from extreme wasting, and at the time of his death his eyes could not be closed: there was not enough flesh left on the bone," Bronson writes in an accompanying text.
A private moment has become public, an ugly fact made beautiful, with a riot of colors and fabrics on the surface. Eyes that no longer see seem to crave vision and engagement. A single, small, irreducibly human fragment of the universe insists on persisting, lingering, striving at immortality. Removing this image would honor Bronson's wishes, affirm the sacred elements of his art, and create a large blank space where the curators could acknowledge that they were compelled to change the show, limit truth, submit to power.
It would be the very essence of a sacrifice: The exhibition would be diminished, but the Smithsonian would be telling a fuller, richer, truer story that includes the events of the past few weeks. And it would be a powerful affirmation that someone, at least, fought to preserve the basic values of the Smithsonian, which cannot be entrusted to its leader.