“The culture wars are back”

“The culture wars are back”

The National Portrait Gallery's Hide/Seek exhibition has closed but the controversy around Smithsonian director Wayne Clough's decision to remove a work by David Wojnarowicz from the show lingers on. The Smithsonian has said it will host a forum on the lessons learned from the dispute in April, but the details have yet to be released. Meanwhile the Corcoran Gallery of Art has hosted an all-day symposium on the issues raised by the affair titled Culture Wars: Then and Now. The keynote speaker was Robert Storr, who declared that “the culture wars are back” according to the Washington Post.
Recently the advocacy group People for the American Way also put out a lengthy report proposing lessons for museums gleaned from the Hide/Seek affair titled How Not to Respond to Political Issues: Lessons from the Smithsonian's Response to the Manufactured Right-Wing Controversy over Hide/Seek. The new report seeks to address the sense that the Smithsonian is trying to sweep the issues raised by censorship under the carpet.
The report offers five helpful bullet points for museums seeking to respond to future flare-ups:
  • Don't panic: have a plan and follow it (a piece of common sense Clough has a history of ignoring);
  • Defend core principles (of which freedom of expression should be a core one)
  • Understand and expose your opponents (exposing extremist records, anti-freedom agendas and general disregard for truth demonstrated by right-wing culture warriors can undermine the impact of their attacks);
  • Embrace debate (the best response to irresponsible speech is more speech… Short-circuiting debate by trying to avoid controversy prevents arts institutions from having a potentially transformative impact on public debate);
  • Demonstrate accountability (ie Clough should have been fired for his admitted mismanagement).
You can read our earlier posts on the controversy here.
Image: The temporary Museum of Censored Art located outside the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery to show David Wojnarowicz's video A Fire in My Belly