Two trains of thought are emerging with regard to the controversial “Hide/Seek” exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. (For those who remain unfamiliar: the right-wing objected to the inclusion of a David Wojnarowicz video, and Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, capitulated and had it removed.) Not to be reductive, but I think the lines are well drawn.
Call those on one side The Infuriated. They believe the right-wing, in a bath of oats following the recapture of the House of Representatives, gains in the Senate and big electoral wins elsewhere, will soon begin to exercise its political muscle — maybe as early as when the new session of Congress commences on Jan. 3. The Infuriated believe the rapidly metastasizing fracas around “Hide/Seek” presages a resumption of the culture wars of the 1990s, except this time the right-wing’s intent isn’t just to abolish the National Endowment of the Arts, as was the case in the Gingrich era, but to quash other manifestations of publicly funded art, or at least render it unoffending, unchallenging, and, in essence, as vanilla as beans. The Infuriated believe Clough’s removal of the Wojnarowicz video doesn’t signify curatorial editing but censorship. Thus, The Infuriated believe Clough should resign, and calls are growing for him to do so.
Call those on the other side The Anti-Alarmists. They acknowledge that while the “Hide/Seek” controversy arose out of right-wing objections to the Wojnarowicz video, the situation doesn’t axiomatically mean a renewal of culture wars. In fact, The Anti-Alarmists believe the right-wing has more critical political and legislative plans in mind for next year, from eviscerating the American social safety net to repealing health care reform. The Anti-Alarmists believe Clough’s authorization of the removal of the Wojnarowicz video doesn’t signify censorship but curatorial editing — that, indeed, it’s the right of any curator, museum head or programmatic poo-bah to make decisions around inclusion or exclusion based on cultural sensitivities, among other factors. These people want The Infuriated to calm down. They do not feel Clough should resign.
If someone cocked a gun at my head, I’d side with the former group — though I will allow there’s merit to the argument that hysterics, per se, are counterproductive. My problem is that I’ve seen this drama before and I know how it ends — or, more precisely, I know how it could end. Recently, I wrote a post about blogger Lee Rosenbaum, a.k.a. CultureGrrl, in which I satirized her unmistakably pacifist view of the situation, a sort of Neville Chamberlain with lipstick. Unlike Rosenbaum, I believe appeasement encourages troublemakers to indulge. Bullies — and I don’t think anyone would disagree that the right-wing’s demand to remove the Wojnarowicz video was cultural bullying — are rarely defanged by appeasement. Generally, they are emboldened.
On her blog, Rosenbaum recently boasted than none other than Bill Ivey, a former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and now director of Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy, had come out in favor of her position. We, basically, should just let this one pass:
…Those who take absolutist positions often seem to have something other than a happy outcome in mind, as inflammatory language only escalates and entire enterprises of real value can be threatened over rather inconsequential issues.
A sense of proportion is required as it is not a good idea to convert every small offense into a fight over principles. …The show is the thing, not one tiny (already-edited) piece. Let’s calm down and get on with it.
I take second position to no one in my admiration for Ivey, as readers of the CFR are well aware. Even when I question Ivey or disagree with him, I deeply respect the man. And I do disagree with him in this respect: the offense at hand is not small. I agree a sense of proportion is required; I agree compromise is king. But the time to compromise, frankly, was before “Hide/Seek” was unveiled to the public, not after the right-wing ginned up controversy. Let’s “get on with it,” indeed.
(Digressing slightly: does anyone find hypocrisy in the fact that Rosenbaum, on her blog, doesn’t entertain comments? What is she afraid of? Why does she need to run to Ivey for cover?)
Most likely the smartest approach is to draw conclusions and tactics from The Infuriated and The Anti-Alarmists both. As I said, if you put a gun to head, I’d side with the former, but there’s no gun: Unless and until the right-wing begins to attack more exhibits, funders, organizations, agencies and leaders, “Hide/Seek” will remain a sore point but an isolated incident. The sky isn’t falling down — yet. Unlike Rosenbaum, a political Pollyanna, I simply believe artists and the arts must remain vigilant. Hasn’t history taught us to do so?