Despite concerns the Smithsonian’s Flashpoints and Faultlines forum would be a bland showcase designed to obscure the institution’s commitments to First Amendment principles instead of examining them, last night’s opening panels included direct criticism from the dais of Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough’s decision to censor David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire In My Belly” from the Hide/Seek exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.
That open criticism, however, would have meant a lot more if it had not been preceded by Secretary Clough re-affirming his unilateral decision to pull the video under pressure from the Catholic League and Speaker of the House Eric Cantor, his perpetuation of a false equivalence between free expression advocates who were wounded by his decision to censor and the astro-turf campaign to attack Hide/Seek, and the idea that by pulling “A Fire In My Belly” he did not undermine but protected the succjohn boehneress of Hide/Seek and the Smithsonian itself.
While the ensuing two-plus hours of comment from dedicated and experienced curators (including Hide/Seek co-curators David Ward and Jonathan Katz) offered many insights into how museums can cope with the risks associated with the important task of representing a broader narrative of American ideas, experience, and history, they were blunted by the fact that the man at the top of “The Castle” remains unrepentant in his decision to bypass such efforts in the case of Hide/Seek. And if Clough caved within hours of the first signs of partisan pressure in late 2010, what is to grant him the courage to defend Smithsonian exhibits in the future — if controversial material is even allowed to be shown at all?
While Clough remarked that he has “much to learn” in the wake of Hide/Seek, it’s a wonder if he has learned anything at all as of yet. Still, at least he can say he faced his critics. Michael Blasenstein, co-founder of the Museum of Censored Art, used his Q&A time to call into question the purpose of the forum since Clough had already stated he did “the right thing” in censoring “A Fire In My Belly”, and addressed Clough directly to criticize a perceived reluctance to speak with the public about the Hide/Seek debacle outside of pre-screened interviews with carefully selected journalists.
As the forum ended and guests were exiting the VIP section of the auditorium, free expression activist Adrian Parsons attempted to
give a adorn Clough with a sign that read “Censor” but was escorted out of the building by security.