Experts Debate Smithsonian Censorship of Gay Artist’s Work
Museum experts are weighing in on a censorship controversy at the Smithsonian Institution and what it means for publicly funded museums at a time when arts funding has been targeted for deep budget cuts.
At a symposium Tuesday night and Wednesday, the Smithsonian hosted many curators who objected to the world’s largest museum complex bowing to political pressure last fall and removing a video from the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture."
It was the first major exhibit to explore gay themes in art history. About a month after it opened, and shortly after the 2010 election drew Republicans into power in Congress, the exhibit drew complaints from conservative groups over a video that depicted ants crawling on a crucifix. It had been created by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, who was gay and died of AIDS.
Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough had the video removed when complaints from the Catholic League drew threats to the Smithsonian’s funding from Republican leaders in Congress. Clough did not attend the symposium Wednesday, though other high-ranking Smithsonian officials did.
Several curators and art critics said a few conservatives had seized on a religious symbol to generate objections that could disrupt the show because of its gay themes.
"Once again, art museums allow themselves to be used. We were used for someone else’s agenda," said Kaywin Feldman, president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. "What happened wasn’t about this exhibition. It was complete homophobia, and we have to stop putting up with that."
Newsweek art critic Blake Gopnik joined a panel and said the uproar was "gay bashing," not a real public controversy over the art.
Curators within the Smithsonian also objected to the removal of the video, including those who had no role in the exhibit.