Smithsonian chief's next call should be to step down
Friday, December 24, 2010
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