The Dangerousness of the 12 inch Politician (or the Half Million Dollar Arts Administrator)

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Chuck Mobley at SF Camerawork.

More than a month ago, following the censorship of an edited version of David Wojnarowicz’s film “A Fire in My Belly” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, I was inundated with a flurry of emails. Within a week and with the speed and determination of a flash mob, SF Camerawork hosted a screening of the unedited film and seven speakers, including co-curator of Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture Jonathan D. Katz via Skype. More than 130 people attended and the discussion, begun at 7:00 p.m., lasted more than three hours.

Dialogue, an integral part of this event, was exactly what did not accompany Smithsonian Institution Secretary Wayne Clough’s decision to summarily excise the Wojnarowicz work from the National Portrait Gallery exhibition. When Clough autocratically exercised his authority in the matter he essentially abdicated his responsibility to the institution he represents and acquiesced any professional authority his position affords him to two willfully ignorant Congressmen. Refusing all public discussion of his decision proves his complicity in this act of censorship; the expeditiousness of his reaction clearly demonstrates the extreme elasticity of his ethical waistband.

Secretary Clough’s predecessor was paid nearly twice the salary he now receives and left the position in a haze of financial scandal. Clough, president emeritus of Georgia Tech, was lauded for his financial acumen and high ethical standards at the time of his appointment. Under Clough, The Smithsonian Institution’s vision points toward “the increase and diffusion of knowledge” and their values (supposedly) include diversity or capitalizing “on the richness inherent in differences” and integrity which is to be reflected in how they carry out all of their “work with the greatest responsibility and accountability.” The National Portrait Gallery, somewhat unbelievably and more than a little disingenuously, purports to tell the “stories of America through the individuals who have shaped our nation, from pre-Colonial times to today, including poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists.” Those are mighty big words for an institution whose leader exhibited prodigious haste in silencing the knowledge and difference to be found in Wojnarowicz’s work. Work, by the way, created with great sensitivity and vulnerability by an artist and activist who struggled to overcome great odds in order to contribute something meaningful to a society that, more often than not, tried to silence him and circumscribe his work.

At the time of this writing there have been two slender, patronizing, and utterly artless statements—one, bizarrely, an “interview” with “the Smithsonian” by a disembodied questioner—issued by the National Portrait Gallery that further illustrate their complete incomprehension of their actions. Dismissing the censored work as merely “a short segment in a four-minute video” that could be “optionally accessed by visitors on a small touch screen in the exhibition,” they argue that the “change that was made was intended to clear up a misunderstanding” that ostensibly “overshadowed the importance and understanding of the entire exhibition.” Rather, it is the very act of censorship of Wojnarowicz’s work, not a change that was made in order to clear up a little misunderstanding, that has indelibly overshadowed the entire exhibition. Also, given this kind of language, it must be asked: who exactly is the audience the Smithsonian imagines for these banal and contemptuous statements?

While a position such as Secretary Clough’s may be unenviable to some, or even most, it is certainly not a thankless job. As Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Clough exercises power over the dissemination of art and ideas through a (largely) publicly funded nonprofit market, and is compensated with a nearly half-million-dollar salary for the privilege of having that power and responsibility. To whom much is given, much is also expected. The Smithsonian Institution has 6,300 employees for whom Clough, as its leader, must set an example. Those 6,300 employees have unequivocally been told to begin the process of self-censorship because lending their voice in defense of art and ideas will not be heard. Likewise, living artists (and the trustees of those deceased) have been sent a clear signal that any work forcing Secretary Clough to contemplate the concept of the separation of church and state will be banned.

Does the action Clough has taken reflect a lack of imagination, a lack of influential contacts needed to navigate political thin ice in merciless economic times, and/or an unwavering, albeit misguided, belief in a fiscal pragmatism that one must not bite the hand that feeds? Was it a matter of picking battles and this particular battle—defending a work of art that reflects the great pain and struggle endured by many—was something he did not have the stomach for? If the integrity of a program and constituency that Clough represents (as outlined in its vision and values) are so easily sacrificed, what exactly could he be raising money for and why? Do his actions reflect the values of his superiors?

Unfortunately all of this begs the obvious: what and where is the fire in the belly of Secretary Clough?

Above: iPhone photo of Jonathan Katz on Skype, by Chuck Mobley.