Recently an issue has caused me such personal anguish and sadness that I felt I had to step over an invisible line I’d drawn for myself. As @museumnerd on twitter and elsewhere, I have heretofore avoided politics. Recently something occured which truly horrified me and forced me to cross that line.
Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough decided to remove David Wojnarovicz’s video “Fire In My Belly,” (which is about what it felt like for the artist to be dying of AIDS), from the exhibit “Hide/Seek” at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. This occured because two Congresspeople, prompted largely by a group called the Catholic League (not affiliated with the Catholic Church), which also believes that “Funding Museums Is Class Descrimination,” threatened to cease funding the Smithsonian if they didn’t close the show down. This decision reinforces bigotry and takes action on the threats of severely misguided people who have no idea how much museums benefit some of the poorest school children throughout the U.S. among so many others.
The action I have taken in protest is to start a hashtag on twitter to symbolize my feelings to the 33,000+ people who I am extremely lucky to have as an audience. These are the exact people who I hope to energize because I know they ALL know how important museums are, not just to poor children, but to our amazing diverse communities all over the country.
The hastag I created is #CloughMustGo. It represents my feeling that Wayne Clough, the de facto director of the Smithsonian Institution (which I love and grew up visiting frequently), should step down because his decision was an aggregious error which has far-reaching repercussions and suggests that censorship is a solution to bullying.
I recognize it seems very extreme, and that Wayne Clough is in most respects an admirable man, but because he has accepted responsibility for the decision, I think our push for change must be directed at the person directly responsible.
I feel terrible for the Smithsonian staffers, especially at National Portrait Gallery (and now at Cooper Hewitt who will have hundreds of protesters yelling at them with anger). They are not responsible. I think more pin-pointed political move is to focus the protest on the person who has claimed responsibility, but I will still march.
I admire Clough for taking the responsibility of the decision on himself, but our outcry needs a strong focused statement that rejects leadership which reinforces the warped viewpoint of an organization (The Catholic League) which says, “all public monies for the arts should cease.”
I wish that I had more time to write on this more eloquently. I have been very lucky to have had the ear of the brilliant Nancy Proctor, Head of Mobile Strategy & Initiatives at the Smithsonian Institution, who had written the following on Linked In:
I am deeply disappointed by the decision to remove the video from the exhibition. I am also embarrassed and disturbed by the treatment of the protesters in this video by SI guards:
Handcuffing them and banning them from SI for life is not the right answer. An opportunity to have a substantive conversation about the issues raised by the exhibition and the complaints about it has been missed. We should have been using this debate to build our communities, not cull them.
I asked Nancy what she thought of #CloughMustGo and she expressed the following objections to me in an email and agreed to let me quote her.
Although I disagree with Dr Clough’s decision and NPG’s affirmation of it (not to mention the treatment of the protesters in the museum shown in that distressing video), I don’t agree that Dr Clough should be removed from his post because of it. That feels to me like an act not unlike the decision to remove the video from the exhibition, and “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” I don’t think the response to contentious events and topics should be to remove, censor, switch off, shut down, or otherwise silence parties to the debate. Rather, as I indicated in my post to the MAAM group, I’d like to see us courageously and wholeheartedly join the conversation, with open minds and ears, and be willing to listen as much as we talk. I am not so naïve as to think that all we need is a good chat and we’ll walk away as friends. On the contrary, I suspect some differences of opinion are irreconcilable. But if we have at least surfaced all points of view fully, we can map the scope of the issues and perhaps approach the topic better informed and more sensitive to the full context of the conversation, so as to engage in it more productively in future. And maybe, with time, we’ll evolve into better human beings who can find ways to work together rather than issue ultimatums and cut off bits of one another, be that funding or leadership.
In that spirit, I am glad that you are taking steps to express your views on this critically important issue, and commend you for encouraging the conversation more broadly. I would like to see the Smithsonian do the same through town hall meetings and other events on the exhibition, the artwork, and the questions of censorship, control and funding for the arts that the protest has raised. There is a great opportunity here to engage with crucial topics for both the arts and, as you say, civil rights. I hope we don’t shut the door to it.
I respect Nancy’s opinion, but still feel #CloughMustGo is a non-hysterical, considered political move. Unfortunately, politics is very broad brush. You ask for something big to get something small (like putting a video back into an exhibit).
I also had intelligent, considered, detracting feedback for from Koven J. Smith on his blog:
I am all for debate. I am all for subtlety and nuance, but I also have some inkling of how politics works and do feel strongly that we should only “attack” those who are directly responsible for what we are outraged by.
I apologize for the very rough nature of this post and if I find the time I will come back and clean it up, but timing is everything right now.
If you are of like mind or just want to protest the removal of Wojnarowicz’s video, please come to the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sunday at 1pm to march with us to Cooper Hewitt (a Smithsonian museum), an act which is meant to be symbolic and not to express anger at any of the great Smithsonian staff (except Wayne Clough).