Arts Desk

Should Smithsonian Secretary Clough Go?

Philip Kennicott says yes. In an impassioned essay for the Washington Post, Kennicott calls for the resignation of Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Wayne Clough, arguing that his official decision to remove a video work by David Wojnarowicz from the National Portrait Gallery earlier this month rolled back on the progress of Smithsonian museums and exposed art museums everywhere to risk.

And of course Secretary Clough should go. Every day that he refuses to speak to the public, he registers the impression that his office is not accountable to the public. A month into a public outcry, during which a hundred or more galleries and museums have displayed Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly as a protest of the Smithsonian's decision, Secretary Clough has yet to clarify the policy or thinking behind his decision. He has stood by as "Hide/Seek" curators David Ward and Jonathan Katz have spoken to the public and the press in efforts to both defend their work and also soothe frayed nerves.

In the absence of leadership from the Castle, Katz and Ward have stepped forward bravely to meet frustrated critics and address the Smithsonian's decision. But these scholars are not the face of accountability for the Smithsonian's decision. So, too, has National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan been left largely to fall on his sword, despite the fact that Sullivan disagreed with Secretary Clough's decision to pull Wojnarowicz. That's the deal: It was Secretary Clough's decision, as a leader, and only he can speak to it. If he won't, he should go.

It would seem that Secretary Clough means to hide from the Smithsonian's critics (and also reporters) until the "Hide/Seek" exhibit comes down in February. But maybe the New Year will bring with it a change of heart for Secretary Clough. If he resolves to apologize, what would Secretary Clough's mea maxima culpa entail? And might that apology satisfy critics?

That depends on both the heartfeltness of the apology and the leniency of the critic, to be sure. But it is nevertheless helpful to clarify the specifically infuriating aspects of Secretary Clough's actions.

For the Post, Kennicott describes the censorship as "a decision that will almost certainly mark the nadir of [Secretary Clough's] tenure" and says that his disappearance during the debate has been "tactically, strategically and historically a disaster for the institution." Kennicott elaborates:

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. [ . . . ] 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.

He goes on to say that Secretary Clough's decision "demonstrates fear of controversy and aversion to dialogue." Which is indeed the case—but the true measure of the Smithsonian's tactical failure is the lack of controversy that prefaced the decision. As the City Paper has reported, it was a reporter for an outlet of Brent Bozell's Media Research Center who manufactured the complaint. That professional conservative activist organization spoon-fed talking points to flacks for incoming House leaders John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who took the opportunity to "win the afternoon," as they say, by repeating and broadcasting the Media Research Center's howls of outrage. (The damage done, the House Republicans have since dropped the issue.) Bozell sits on the board of the notorious "$400,0000 fax machine" known as the Catholic League, a conservative multiplier whose sole purpose is to amplify fringe voices. Earlier this year, the Catholic League defended anti-Semitic Hollywood star Mel Gibson following the leak of his anti-Semitic, anti-gay, anti-women rants to his girlfriend.

So to say that Secretary Clough answered to a "controversy"—when the only complaints the National Portrait Gallery received were those wrought by the Catholic League—is to say that fringe voices get to define the terms of the debate. Secretary Clough's tactical mistake was to consider anti-Enlightenment figures mobilized for a political victory as if they represented reasonable voices in a debate about Christianity, or Christmas, or GLBT rights, or the First Amendment, or really anything else about which viewers might disagree. The Catholic League represents neither exhibition viewers nor reasonable voices.

Kennicott writes: "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."

A decision by Secretary Clough to either resign or to apologize will be the right one for the Smithsonian Institution if it signals, first, that it was a mistake to see a controversy where there was none, and that second, it would have been mistaken anyway to censor a work because it made some audiences uncomfortable. If Secretary Clough will not acknowledge these fundamental principles—or acknowledge public criticism at all—calls for his resignation will only mount. But his apology, if it were to include renewed vows to distinguish between debates between viewers and professional political maneuvers, might redeem his station. (It goes without saying that Secretary Clough could start by putting Wojnarowicz back where he belongs.)

There is no reason to believe that Secretary Clough will do any of these things or that he shares these principles exactly. Kennicott, for one, believes that there is another way for the Smithsonian to stand its ground:

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.

That decision, according to Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas, rests with Sullivan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery. "Hide/Seek" curator Ward has already weighed in against this decision, describing calls to remove Bronson's work as part of a "circular firing squad" being mounted by the left. Katz, the exhibit's co-curator, told TBD something similar.

They should reconsider Bronson's calls for his art back. For the National Portrait Gallery to take a principled stance, especially a difficult one, might help to show that the Smithsonian stands on principles even when it's difficult to do so.

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  • Robert Hunter

    "the culture wars were effectively over???"

    Yes, and we Christians lost it!

    Bravo to Secretary Clough. Enough of dung on the Virgin Mary, or a Crucifix in urine....

    Just as I have long said "enough" to the Der Sturmer-inspire characterizations of Jews.

  • Steve

    The wrong-headed, [false] self-evident truths expressed above are an example of why the playpen needs to controlled by adults, and not by the fringe.

    I saw the video. It it was effective only in offending. That's what it seemed to want to do. It did it well. But there isn't a reason to publicly support the presentation of offensive material in the name of "art".

    I thought the video was in interesting social psychological statement of saddness, anger, regret and a series of other feelings. But then, if the artist felt he needed to be offensive to get that message across, then the artist bears the responsibility that when he offends someone invites him and their house.

    It's not that one can't find a private place to display such things. I'm not suggesting baning them, or blasphemy trials, or any such things. The complaint that I have with Secretary Clough's actions is that the piece was allowed to be shown. The decision to withdraw the piece, which was made by the Simithsonian management, was to CORRECT the mistake they made by allowing it to be displayed. The mangement errored in the first place in allowing the piece to be displayed.

    The Smithosonian system is our national gallery system. They need to display better judgement along with better art. ;^)

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