Smithsonian Responds to Censorship Critics By Basically Creating David

UPDATE: Since publishing this story, IN THE AIR has learned that there was a reason this move by the Smithsonian seemed odd. In short, we got pranked. You got us, you puckish mystery scoundrel(s)! And hats off to you: the fake National Portrait Gallery Web site was professionally done, and the press release too. (Though we really should have noticed the smiley faces.) People for the American Way got suckered as well, apparently. Anyway, read on. We’d take the post down but it’s just too funny.

After outraging the art world, several of its funders, and a giant chunk of its constituency with its fatal decision to remove David Wojnarowicz‘s “Fire in My Belly” from the National Portrait Gallery‘s “Hide/Seek” show, the Smithsonian has chosen to respond to its critics in a dramatic, and rather odd, fashion: instead of returning the work to the exhibition, the institution has turned the National Portrait Gallery’s Web site into an all-Wojnarowicz-all-the-time resource center, complete with a “special online-only screening” of the original 13-minute long version of “Fire in My Belly.”

Occupying the top of the site’s home page, the embedded video is accompanied by text explaining that it “expresses the suffering, marginalization and physical decay of those afflicted with AIDS,” with the scene featuring ants crawling over a crucifix — the imagery the right wing used as the pretext for its attack on the gay-themed show — squarely “in the tradition of art that uses such imagery to universalize human suffering.” This is followed by a disclaimer: “Please be warned that the video may be considered graphic or offensive to some viewers.”

Then, below the video, is a set of links to “learn more about David Wojnarowicz,” references to art works and performances created in protest of the censorship, and a rather comprehensive catalogue of the media coverage of the controversy. Included here are links to several of ARTINFO‘s stories on the topic, including one revealing National Portrait Galery director Martin Sullivan‘s leaked contrite memo about the incident and a report on the massive protest march on the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt museum in New York, along with some of ARTINFO blogger Tyler Green‘s excellent coverage.

However, in a press release issued Friday night (a great time to bury news, incidentally), the Smithsonian announced that it will not accede to calls to return Wojnarowicz’s artwork to the exhibition. Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough (read about his background here), Sullivan, and the institution’s “Secretary for History, Art, and Culture” (apparently Richard Kurin, usually referred to as the under secretary) “have taken great time to consider the requests of both supporters and opponents of the work’s display, and feel this compromise is fair,” according to the release.

Neither the Web site nor the press release address calls for other works to be removed from “Hide/Seek” in protest of the censorship, or the Warhol Foundation‘s intention to cut funding to the institution if “Fire in My Belly” is not returned to view (though there is a link to foundation president Joel Wach’s letter demanding the video’s reinstatement).

The Smithsonian’s move to put the video — which is by now widely available elsewhere online, and has been screened since the censorship in other museums across the country — on the Gallery’s Web site is a puzzling gesture this late in the game, and it does nothing to change the fact that right-wing pressure from a tiny faction of Christian fundamentalists and Republican congressmen succeeded in forcing the institution to change its exhibition to suit an ideologically motivated agenda.

Do you agree with the Smithsonian that “this compromise is fair”?