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Critic's notebook: Smithsonian regents didn't solve the problem

February 1, 2011 | 12:59 pm

Smithsonian close up
Monday's special report and press conference in response to the censorship scandal at Washington's National Portrait Gallery did not solve the Smithsonian Institution's problem. But it did imply a potential resolution, which doesn't have much time left to succeed.

In a nutshell: Uncensor the show.

A special review panel was convened by the Smithsonian Board of Regents to investigate the abrupt removal of an excerpt of a work of video art from an exhibition. The panel included two outsiders with deep Washington connections -- Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, and CNN political analyst and Harvard professor David Gergen -- as well as regent John W. McCarter, president of Chicago's Field Museum and panel chair.

Their two salient conclusions:

-- Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough has been an effective leader overall and still enjoys the strong support of the regents and the special panel.

-- Clough stumbled badly when he made the hasty decision to remove the excerpt of David Wojnarowicz's video, "A Fire in My Belly," from the portrait gallery show.

Fair enough. The Smithsonian receives the lion's share of its funding from Congress -- six House and Senate members also serve as regents -- and he who pays the piper calls the tune. However prematurely, Clough thought he was protecting the Smithsonian from congressional critics, real and imagined.

Hirshhorn Still, the damage he did is hardly minimal -- not least to important principles of scholarly integrity and independence. That matters, especially within the professional ranks of the Smithsonian's far-flung museums in history, science and art. Trustees at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden last week issued an open letter saying they were "deeply troubled by the precedent" represented in Clough's action. Nothing that happened Monday does much to change that reasonable worry.

Chairman McCarter, when pressed, also told reporters that curators were entirely correct to include the contested video in the NPG show, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." No curatorial error had been made. The six-page report goes on to say that -- "in the absence of actual error" -- exhibitions should not be changed after opening, without meaningful consultation with all levels of Smithsonian hierarchy.

And therein lies the solution to Clough's problem going forward, which is how to repair the damage he caused. "Hide/Seek" is still on view at the National Portrait Gallery. (It remains through Feb. 13.) The regents' expression of support for the secretary means that he's the one who makes final decisions.   Having pulled the video, Clough should now acknowledge his error and direct that it be restored.

Will he? According to a Smithsonian spokesman, there is no plan at present to reinstall the work. So far, Clough has maintained that removing the video was the right decision -- even though it seems clear that the special panel disagrees, as do many, if not most, in the museum field.

There's still time to do the right thing, but the clock is ticking. The ball is in Clough's court. "I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix'd and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament," said Shakespeare's stubborn Julius Caesar -- just before being dispatched by his once-faithful coterie.


A man dressed as Julius Caesar in font of the Colosseum Reuters Complete Smithsonian coverage

Group protests art censorship at Smithsonian chief's speech in L.A.

Critic's notebook: Smithsonian chief digging a deeper hole

-- Christopher Knight


Photos: Top, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough and regents Patricia Stonesifer and John W. McCarter. Credit: Associated Press. Middle: Hirshhorn Museum. Credit: Smithsonian. Bottom: A man dressed as Julius Caesar in front of the Colosseum during a December snowfall. Credit: Reuters.

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"The secretary has enormous support from the regents," said John W. McCarter, a regent and president of the Field Museum in Chicago.
McCarter said including the video by gay artist David Wojnarowicz, which had a few seconds of ants crawling on a crucifix, "was not a mistake." The mistake was not having enough time to explain the iconography of the art itself and its meaning at the onset of the AIDS crisis.

I imagine the Board of Regents and The Secretary of The Smithsonian Insitutiton have had time to read the Press Release issued by The Estate of David Wojnarowicz on Friday Dec 3, 2010 explaining the iconography in the artists words. In case they missed reading it, here it is:

PRESS RELEASE: David Wojnarowicz - Smithsonian, National Portrait Gallery - A Fire in My Belly Fri 12/3/2010 4:43 PM

P•P•O•W and The Estate of David Wojnarowicz disagree with the Smithsonian’s decision to withdraw the artist’s 1987 video piece “A Fire in My Belly” from the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition entitled “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” P•P•O•W has represented Wojnarowicz’s work since 1988 and maintained a close working relationship with the artist until his death in 1992. The gallery now represents his estate.

On behalf of the estate, the gallery would like to offer the artist’s words to illuminate his original intentions. In a 1989 interview Wojnarowicz spoke about the role of animals as symbolic imagery in his work, stating, “Animals allow us to view certain things that we wouldn’t allow ourselves to see in regard to human activity. In the Mexican photographs with the coins and the clock and the gun and the Christ figure and all that, I used the ants as a metaphor for society because the social structure of the ant world is parallel to ours.”

The call for the removal of “A Fire in My Belly” by Catholic League president William Donahue is based on his misinterpretation that this work was “hate speech pure and simple.” This statement insults the legacy of Wojnarowicz, who dedicated his life to activism and the arts community. David Wojnarowicz’s work is collected by international museums including the Museum of Modern Art, NY, The Whitney Museum, The Library of Congress, The New York Public Library, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Reina Sofia in Madrid, Museum Ludwig in Cologne, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, etc. Wojnarowicz is also an established writer; his most well known memoirs are Close to the Knives and Memories That Smell Like Gasoline, which are included on many university syllabi.

In 1992 the artist won a historic Supreme Court case, David Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association. The courts sided with Wojnarowicz after he filed suit against Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association, who copied, distorted and disseminated the artist’s images in a pamphlet to speak out against the NEA’s funding of exhibits that included art works of Wojnarowicz and other artists. We are deeply troubled that the remarks, which led to the removal of David’s work from Hide/Seek, so closely resemble those of the past. Wojnarowicz’s fight for freedom of artistic expression, once supported by the highest court, is now challenged again. In his absence, we know that his community, his supporters, and the many who believe in his work will carry his convictions forward.

Three versions of “A Fire in My Belly” will be posted on P•P•O•W’s YouTube channel for viewing and screening, http://www.youtube.com/user/PPOWGalleryChelsea?feature=mhum. This includes the original 13-minute version edited by Wojnarowicz, a 7-minute posthumously edited and audio re-mix featuring Diamanda Galas, and the 4-minute version shown at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, edited by Jonathan Katz. We invite anyone to download and to screen; please include this statement with any screening and inform P.P.O.W when the film is being shown so we may keep a record and list venues on our website and social media pages.

Additional images of his other works, including “Christ with Ants” and “Untitled (One Day This Kid…)” can be found on his artist’s page: http://ppowgallery.com/selected_work.php?artist=14

For further information or a DVD of these videos please contact the gallery at
(212) 647-1044 or email info@ppowgallery.com

Download PDF version of statement here: http://ppowgallery.com/news.php

I imagine the Board of Regents and the Secretary of The Smithsonian Insitution trustees of “The world's largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums, 9 research centers and more than 140 affiliate museums around the world” have had the time to go to their own Smithsonian Institution Research Information System SIRIS database, locate and read one or all of the 9 books by or about David Wojnarowicz in The Smithsonian Libraries.

In case they need help locating the books, here’s the titles and Smithsonian Call Numbers. Nine titles, fourteen copies all checked in and available to read.

Three copies of Witnesses : against our vanishing / / David Armstrong ... [et al.] ; organized by Nan Goldin. available at the American Art Portrait Gallery and at the Hirshhorn Call Number N8217.A49 W82 1989.

One copy of Memories that smell like gasoline / / by David Wojnarowicz.
available at the American Art Portrait Gallery Call Number N40.1 .W8476A1m 1992.
Two copies of Close to the knives : a memoir of disintegration / / David Wojnarowicz available at the American Art Portrait Gallery Call Number N40.1 .W8476A1 1991 and at the Hirshhorn Call Number RC607.A26 W63 1991

One copy of Rimbaud in New York 1978-79 / / David Wojnarowicz.
available at the American Art Portrait Gallery Call Number TR647.W847 W65 2004

One copy of David Wojnarowicz by David Wojnarowicz available at the
Hirshhorn Call Number N6537.W635 A4 1986

Two copies of David Wojnarowicz : tongues of flame : exhibition / / organized by Barry Blinderman. by David Wojnarowicz available at the American Art Portrait Gallery Call Number N40.1 .W8476B6 1990 and at the Hirshhorn Call Number N6537.W635.A4.1990.

Two copies of Fever : the art of David Wojnarowicz / / Dan Cameron ... [et al.] ; edited by Amy Scholder by David Wojnarowicz available at the American Art Portrait Gallery Call Number N40.1.W8476 N49 1998 and at the Hirshhorn Call Number N6537.W63 A4 1998.

One copy of In the shadow of the American dream : the diaries of David Wojnarowicz / / edited and with an introduction by Amy Scholder by David Wojnarowicz available at the American Art Portrait Gallery Call Number N40.1.W8476 A1i 1999

One copy of The waterfront journals / / David Wojnarowicz ; edited by Amy Scholder ; [introduction by Tony Kushner] by David Wojnarowicz
available at the American Art Portrait Gallery Call Number N40.1.W8476 A1w 1996.

When G. Wayne Clough the Secretary of The Smithsonian Institution says
"I am a little wiser than I was six months ago," I trust the Secretary has had ample time to educate himself and “to explain the iconography of the art itself and its meaning at the onset of the AIDS crisis ” to whomsoever he pleases.

The time is now to return the film “A Fire In My Belly” by David Wojnarowicz to the wall of The National Portrait Gallery from which it was removed.

Does it really take six months to understand four minutes ?


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