Arts Desk

Clough Joins Censorship Debate With Pledge That Debate Will Continue

Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution G. Wayne Clough has emerged from the high castle towers to talk to The Washington Post's Jacqueline Trescott and The New York TimesKate Taylor. If Clough's pledge that the Smithsonian will "continue a dialogue" is to be believed, it is a dialogue that will take pace at a glacial pace. Witness, for example, that Clough says that he will "continue a dialogue" without in fact responding to anything that anyone is saying.

Clough pledges a public forum to discuss his decision to call on the National Portrait Gallery to remove David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly to take place some time in April. With January's wintry mix still clinging to the ground, April's cherry blossoms seem impossibly far off. He hints at what he might discuss in a spring forum in his remarks to the Times:

He called the decision “painful” and acknowledged that he wished he had taken more time and consulted with more art museum directors within the Smithsonian. But "in the interest of that exhibition and this institution and its legacy and maintaining it in the strongest possible position, I think I made the right decision — in that context,” he said. “I’ll let the art world debate it in another context.”

The entire debate hinges on how the institutional context (?) trumps the art context, it being a work of art in question—one installed in a museum, no less. The Post offers a Clough quote to clarify that institutional contextual question: "We are not a local or niche player."

Indeed not. Perhaps Clough is referring obliquely to Transformer or the Mapplethorpe Foundation or the New Museum or AA Bronson or the many other figures and organizations that have complained about the Smithsonian's decision or shown A Fire in My Belly. The Smithsonian Institution answers to a higher authority: the taxpayer.

Or maybe that authority should be Penny Starr. To welcome Clough to the debate, I would first ask him two questions that have circulated in galleries, e-mail threads, kitchen conversations, and publications like this one: 1) Why did it take him so long to get back to everyone? And 2) Is it the case going forward that any time a conservative activist spoon-feeds a quote to flacks for House Republicans, the Smithsonian will also take those marching orders?

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