Even after successfully demanding that the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery censor part of its “Hide/Seek” exhibit, congressional Republicans and conservative commentators have continued their attacks on the Smithsonian. House Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor joined right wing extremists like Bill Donohue and Glenn Beck to pressure the Smithsonian to remove a video by the late artist David Wojnarowicz in an exhibit on the ways art portrays homosexuality and AIDS.
Georgia Republican Jack Kingston, who is in the running to become chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, called for a Congressional investigation into the art at the Smithsonian with hopes to strip the museum of its funding, despite the fact that the exhibit was entirely funded by private donors. Speaking to Fox News, Kingston said that parts of the “pro-gay exhibit” are “really perverted” with “lots of really kinky and questionable kind of art.” Kingston went on to say that the Smithsonian “should be under the magnifying glass right now” and is “a waste of tax dollars, and during these hard budget times we can’t afford it.”
With the prospect of congressional investigations of art and the de-fuding of museums, critics of censorship are speaking out.
PFAW President Michael Keegan writes in his new Huffington Post Op-Ed that “the path from David Wojnarowicz’s struggle with AIDS to the director of a Smithsonian museum announcing, ironically on World AIDS Day, that Wojnarowicz’s artwork might spoil someone’s Christmas, says a lot about American politics at the start of a new era of right-wing power.”
Blake Gopnik, the arts critic for the Washington Post, spoke out against the Right’s blatant attempts at censorship in a must-read Op-Ed for the Post. In his November 5th review of “Hide/Seek,” written well-before the Right cultivated the controversy, Gopnik in his description of a painting by Andrew Wyeth said that “it’s that censor-baiting force that clearly made it worth painting for Wyeth — and worth looking at for all the rest of us.” Now, Gopnik is pushing back on the conservatives’ demands for censorship:
If every piece of art that offended some person or some group was removed from a museum, our museums might start looking empty – or would contain nothing more than pabulum. Goya’s great nudes? Gone. The Inquisition called them porn.
Norman Rockwell would get the boot, too, if I believed in pulling everything that I’m offended by: I can’t stand the view of America that he presents, which I feel insults a huge number of us non-mainstream folks. But I didn’t call for the Smithsonian American Art Museum to pull the Rockwell show that runs through Jan. 2, just down the hall from "Hide/Seek." Rockwell and his admirers got to have their say, and his detractors, including me, got to rant about how much they hated his art. Censorship would have prevented that discussion, and that’s why we don’t allow it.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has said that taxpayer-funded museums should uphold "common standards of decency." But such "standards" don’t exist, and shouldn’t, in a pluralist society. My decency is your disgust, and one point of museums, and of contemporary art in general, is to test where lines get drawn and how we might want to rethink them. A great museum is a laboratory where ideas get tested, not a mausoleum full of dead thoughts and bromides.
In America no one group – and certainly no single religion – gets to declare what the rest of us should see and hear and think about. Aren’t those kinds of declarations just what extremist imams get up to, in countries with less freedom?
Of course, it’s pretty clear that this has almost nothing to do with religion. Eleven seconds of an ant-covered crucifix? Come on.
The attack is on gayness, and images of it, more than on sacrilege – even though, last I checked, many states are sanctioning gay love in marriage, and none continue to ban homosexuality.
And the Portrait Gallery has given into this attack.
Artists have the right to express themselves. Curators have the right to choose the expression they think matters most. And the rest of us have the right to see that expression, and judge those choices for ourselves.
If anyone’s offended by any work in any museum, they have the easiest redress: They can vote with their feet, and avoid the art they don’t like.