Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Hirshhorn board “deeply troubled” by Smithsonian censorship

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Just days before an important Smithsonian Institution board of regents meeting next Monday, the board of trustees of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has released a statement in response to Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough’s censorship of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Read it here, on the Hirshhorn’s Smithsonian-hosted website. The museum is also encouraging comments about the statement/issue on its Facebook page. This is apparently the first response to Clough’s actions from a Smithsonian art museum. Here’s the toughest part:

The attempt by any individual or group to restrict the content-not only artistic, but cultural, historical, and scientific-that may be shown in an institution that serves the public as a whole is counter not only to the founding American principle of freedom of thought and expression, but also to the spirit of inquiry at the core of the Smithsonian’s mission. Hence we are deeply troubled by the precedent the Institution’s leadership has set with its decision. We believe that bowing to pressure with regard to the works on view in its galleries harms the integrity of the individual Smithsonian units and the Institution as a whole. If dissension arises over the presentation of a piece, then rather than remove it, that is the very moment to initiate conversation so that all perceptions may be heard in an effort to create greater awareness and understanding.

So far no Smithsonian art museum director has publicly addressed Clough’s decision. (I understand that in off-the-record events with Smithsonian staff that nearly every art museum director has expressed outrage at what Clough did.) I’ve offered MAN Q&As to several Smithsonian art museum directors. None has yet responded to the offer.

Also: There’s one passage in the statement that bothers me: “This decision raises crucial questions-for us, for our visitors, artists, museum supporters, and colleagues-about the role and responsibility of publicly supported museums to engage with complex and sometimes sensitive topics.”  Gays and lesbians are not a ‘sensitive topic.’ They are humans and Americans. That there have been gays and lesbians who have contributed to  our nation’s history and to the history of art is simply part of our story.

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  1. tda says:

    Can you please stop jumping to the conclusion that people think gays and lesbians are a sensitive topic? Honestly, everything you written about this controversy feels way too personal, and what this situation needs better, clearer analysis.

    This controversy has nothing to do with gays and lesbians. It has to do with what many people perceive to be the desecration of a cross. It’s the same old story as all of the other culture war controversies with religious imagery, really nothing different.

    I’m more suprised that you aren’t critical of the curator editing a work of video art. Do you think other artists – Bill Viola or Bruce Naumann – would look favorably on curators editing their work after their passing? C’mon! This is absolutely unacceptable and you’re refusal to raise it as a key topic in this debate is wrong.

    Another point: I finally saw the show last week and there was another video which I believe was 20+ minutes. It wasn’t edited by the curator, to my knowledge, and I’m now wondering why no one is talking about how one piece was edited due to length but not another? Inconsistent.

    Finally (my apologies for going off here but I’m so tired of this controversy – it doesnt feel constructive to me)….this show felt like a million other gay/lesbian shows that have been done over the years. Identity politics, gender studies, etc etc I feel like I’ve seen this show too many times before. I could have curated a better version of it. You probably could have as well. Did this exhibition even say one new thing?

  2. Bob Chorba says:

    What is the controversy? What was edited?

  3. Eric says:

    LGBT history *is* a sensitive topic, as is the representation of any minority by a major institution. The Hirshorn’s statement, though late, is well-written. And maybe slowing down the reaction cycle is needed. Major museums were too quick to rip apart the Portrait Gallery and fall on the sword of anti-censorship, without offering much nuance or praise for the exhibition.

    There’s a reason why lots of young people have no knowledge of LGBT history and art, that is until game-changers come about like Hide/Seek.

  4. DonKeysHoTea says:

    Although I very strongly disagree with the decision to pull a controversial artwork, I also can understand why. One of the reasons the Smithsonian museums are free to the public is the tax money that helps pay the bills. With a new Republican majority in the House, beholden to Fundamentalists and Tea Party folks, Secretary Clough can see the writing on the wall. Do we dig in our heels and fight the good fight, and then see funding cuts that impact the whole museum system, or do we let discretion be the better part of valor? Sarcifice one artwork, and get the badly needed budget money. The new kids on the Hill have already taken Del.Holmes-Norton’s vote away, proposed eliminating federal funding for Metro, and proposed having the Smithsonian museums change $7.50 entry fees. Does anyone really believe Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, BAE Syatems, etc. are going to see budget cuts to help fund the Smithsonian? The Smithsonian is filled with “lazy, overpaid government workers”, plenty of “elitist” PhDs, and people who create exhibits about evolution- anyone else see the cross hairs? Secretary Clough should be given credit for having the wisdom to gauge which way the wind is blowing. Don’t like it, but that’s the world (and country)we live in.

  5. Jamesonian says:

    This is a purely political discussion and should not be obfuscated by other issues. LGBT or not is irrelevant. Political influence over art displayed in a public gallery is an old irritant that predates the emergenc of such terms as LGBT.

  6. […] farce: The group was asked about how seriously they took the Hirshhorn board of trustees’ pointed rebuke of the secretary. Clough said that the Smithsonian has 30 advisory boards and that he valued the […]

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