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Critic's Notebook: Smithsonian chief digging a deeper hole

January 18, 2011 |  6:30 pm

Clough Anne Cusack  Los Angeles Times Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough speaks Thursday afternoon at a Town Hall Los Angeles event at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel on Pershing Square. Arranged last summer, the talk is billed as focusing on initiatives to increase local access around the nation to the Smithsonian's scientific, historical and cultural research, mostly centered in Washington.

Sounds rather routine.

Under the circumstances, however, it is anything but. Those circumstances concern censorship at what the event also bills as "the world's largest museum and research complex" -- censorship the secretary continues to defend.
 
The problem stems from the sudden November withdrawal of an excerpt of an artist's videotape from "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," a critically admired exhibition at Washington's National Portrait Gallery that had been on view for a month. (It remains through Feb. 13.)  The show's subject is gender and homosexual identity in American art since the late-19th century. It includes acknowledged masterpieces by Thomas Eakins, Georgia O’Keeffe, David Hockney, Jasper Johns and many more.

Less important work is also on view. A short, edited passage of David Wojnarowicz's 1987 video, "A Fire in My Belly," was among them, but Clough ordered it pulled.

Why? No one really knows, since Clough has remained largely mum. On Tuesday, anticipating questions at Thursday's Los Angeles address, he defended his decision in brief conversations with reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post and in an e-mail to staff. Mostly, though, he just kicked the can down the road, promising an April forum on the matter.

Clough was apparently working on the recommendation of Richard Kurin, undersecretary for history, art and culture. Complaints had been lodged by two powerful Republican congressmen, neither of whom had seen the video.

Clough's rash decision blew up in the Smithsonian's face. The Assn. of Art Museum Directors released a stern rebuke. A sharp editorial in the New York Times called the removal "absurd." A Washington Post critic argued for Clough's resignation.

Two big foundations issued a public moratorium on future Smithsonian funding, while others who contributed money to the privately underwritten show are known to be furious. Art museums and galleries around the country -- and even in Europe -- lined up to present the censored video. Last week the Museum of Modern Art went even further, acquiring the work for its permanent collection.

The Town Hall event is Clough's first public appearance since the censorship took place. An e-mail from a Smithsonian spokesman said that the secretary would "touch on" the issue in his talk and meet briefly with press afterward. Both gestures suggest we shouldn't expect a full accounting of what happened in the internal decision-making process -- or why.

That's disappointing. His defense of his actions on Tuesday -- "I think I made the right decision" -- makes matters worse. What the secretary actually needs to say when he "touches on" the controversy can be simply stated: "I screwed up."

Speculation has been rife that the decision was a blundered defensive measure, taken in the immediate aftermath of midterm elections that saw conservative Republicans assume control of the House of Representatives. Small agencies such as the Corp. for Public Broadcasting forecast a fight over federal appropriations. Expect the same for the Smithsonian.

Thirty million annual visitors might love going to its 19 museums, most of them free; but anyone who thinks appeasement will prevent an assault from the right on already modest cultural budgets is naive in the extreme. And a defensive measure that alienates supportive centrist and liberal constituencies is just plain dumb.

The Smithsonian's dilemma was ginned up by a single source: the Catholic League, which New York Times columnist Frank Rich has aptly described as "a right-wing publicity mill with no official or financial connection to the Catholic Church." Wojnarowicz's video partly laments widespread official apathy early in the AIDS epidemic and uses a crucifix as a specific symbol of general Christian indifference. The Catholic League called it anti-Christian, but the symbol is in fact more correctly described as anti-Catholic League and its ilk.

Here's why: William Donohue, the $400,000-a-year head of the organization, and L. Brent Bozell III, who is on the league's advisory board, are ardent anti-gay activists. So are House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who called for the censorship. Whether or not Clough, his undersecretary Kurin or others at the Smithsonian were aware that they were tailoring historical scholarship to quiet ideological opposition is just one among many unanswered questions.

Yet, it certainly looks that way. And there is reason to believe skittishness led the secretary to act in haste.

Ben Davis, a reporter for the website Artinfo.com, unearthed a 2006 case at Georgia Tech, where Clough was president just prior to taking the Smithsonian post. Clough and the school were sued by a conservative Christian legal association over a gay rights issue.

Among the claimed offenses: By mandating a hospitable environment on campus for lesbian and gay students, Davis wrote, Georgia Tech policy came under fire because it "discriminated against religions promoting anti-gay views and favored religions that preached tolerance." Donohue and Bozell were making a similar complaint about the Smithsonian's hospitable environment.

At the school, Clough reached a settlement with the plaintiffs. Perhaps he thought that's what he was also doing when the National Portrait Gallery was being bullied.

If so, he is mistaken. Clough erred by choosing censorship, throwing gasoline onto a brush fire.

Backing down to bullies never works. What works is reporting bullies to the authorities -- in this case, the authorities being the American public. There are diplomatic ways to do that, but the secretary didn't even try. Apparently, he won't be trying at Town Hall, either.

Now, almost two months later, the secretary is weakly defending his administrative error. The agenda for the Smithsonian Board of Regents' Jan. 31 meeting includes the censorship fiasco, but much of it will take place behind closed doors in executive session. If Clough thinks he made the right call, then he's merely digging a deeper hole.

--Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photo: Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough; Credit: Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times

 

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