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Smithsonian Show Not “Gay” Enough for Artinfo?

by Kyle Chayka on November 4, 2010

Artinfo's Smithsonian article Facebook thread (click to expand)

A Facebook post is sometimes a dangerous thing. When Artinfo’s “What’s Troubling about the Smithsonian’s Gay Art Show” (now less specifically titled “What’s Troubling About the Smithsonian’s Hide/Seek Show”) article was posted to their Facebook page, it was re-captioned with the admittedly punchy line: “Are sexuality and gender appropriate themes for a Smithsonian art exhibition?” The ensuing response thread involved commenters, the show’s curators, and a game of journalistic hedging.

The Artinfo article is a critique of a Smithsonian exhibition that takes as its topic the embedding of LGBT influences within art history, influences that await analysis and recovery. The Artinfo article, however, critiques the exhibition and curators David C. Ward and Jonathan Katz for trying to pigeonhole artistic practices as gay:

… strictly circumscribed categories — from race to nationality to gender and sexuality — are the very things that contemporary artists around the world are questioning today, in their work and in the way they choose to live their lives.

The critique doesn’t exactly match the show’s purpose.

In their article, Artinfo quotes Ward with, “Telling the history of art without the history of gay people is like telling the history of slavery without mentioning black people.” What he actually said, and reiterates in the comment thread, was that not considering the role of gays and lesbians in art history was like “writing the history of slavery without considering the role of black people.” The thing is, the exhibition’s not about gay artists. Rather, it’s about the presence, or lack thereof, of gay artists in art historical discourse.

Commenter Claro Quesiputa points out that sexual orientation doesn’t immediately imply an “otherness” that’s implied in Artinfo’s criticism. Co-curator Jonathan Katz also weighs in, “Your review of Hide/ Seek conflates the presence of gay artists in history with the writing of an art history alive to gay themes. They are hardly the same, as should be self-evident.”

What also became apparent in the course of the thread was that the anonymous writer behind the Artinfo article had not actually seen the exhibition, and was simply analyzing it from press reactions and curatorial writing. Artinfo claimed that the piece was not actually a review and was actually an opinion-based news piece, but it is clearly framed as a review of the exhibition in question. The piece makes such claims as, “the 105 works on display in the show, which will run through February 13, don’t obviously cohere, or rarely cohere in the same way to the proposed theme,” arguments which would appear to rely on first person experience of the show.

Public discourse is tough. The Facebook thread provided an immediate forum for readers to react to Artinfo’s misdeeds, which led to the publication retitling and re-writing parts of the article in question. It’s a clear journalistic and editorially mistake to frame writing such as this as a review when it so clearly is not. Rather than trying to backpedal, Artinfo should have admitted its mistake, taken down the article, and either reformatted it to be more truthful or just axed it. I recommend the latter.

Social media strikes again!

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