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Smithsonian Director Unrepentant, Curator Talks “American Taliban,” Catholic League Gets a Beer

by Kyle Chayka on December 16, 2010

At a conversation held with Hide/Seek curators Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward at the New York Public Library this past Wednesday December 15th, a few things became clear about the censorship scandal: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan is far from repentant over the decision, and the Catholic League, who initiated the “offense” at David Wojnarowicz’s piece, are largely absent.

The Washington Post reports on the conversation, whose express purpose was to discuss the Hide/Seek exhibition and the curators’ groundbreaking research in uncovering gay and lesbian themes in historical art work. Reporter Philip Kennicott reports that curator Katz was particularly outspoken in his denouncing of the censorship decision,

Katz lamented that gays and lesbians were “once again being offered as raw meat” to political activists and the Catholic League, which he accused of being a hate group and anti-Semitic. “We have an American Taliban that we have not called as such,” he said.

Kennicott goes on to pose the conversation as a turning point in the debate over the Smithsonian, pointing out that the conversation is looking like “a referendum on Clough’s tenure,” nothing that he feeling in the room was not that the Smithsonian as an institution is at fault or should suffer.

Things picked up in the question and answer section of the conversation, when Bill Dobbs, who is organizing a protest against the Smithsonian, made a direct request to Smithsonian director Martin Sullivan (who was also present at the talk) to restore the Wojnarowicz piece. The museum has already refused to do so. Kennicott quotes Sullivan’s response,

“Yeah, I know… And I know a lot of people are angry.” [Sullivan] said the decision was complicated by the architecture of the exhibition. If the curators had a separate video theater, they might have been able to segregate the video for viewers squeamish about Wojnarowicz’s imagery… “The specific decision was the secretary’s,” he said. “We have a parent institution.”

And thus the blame falls back onto G. Wayne Clough, who commented on the scandal in an annual holiday letter to Smithsonian staff but has not offered an official public response. Kennicott pulls out all the stops retelling the Catholic League’s reaction to the NYPL conversation: they planned to have a beer.  William Donohue, who kicked off all of the Wojnarowicz “offense,” decided not to attend the curators’ talk. “There was a fast remedy [the removal of the piece], and if I overreact, I run the risk of becoming a fool,” he says.

Too late for that. Sullivan comes off as wishy-washy and unsupportive of his curatorial staff, but the Catholic League just looks stupid. They got the reaction they wanted but are not willing to present any visible face or participate in any sort of dialogue. As the officials involved in this debate make no progress whatsoever, the art world is moving: today, artist AA Bronson has requested his piece be removed from the exhibition.

For more recaps of the NYPL talk, check out Carolina Miranda’s post at WNYC and Kate Taylor’s retelling on the NYTimes.

[UPDATE: The Smithsonian has refused to remove AA Bronson's piece from the exhibition.]

Check out Hyperallergic’s interview with Hide/Seek curator David C. Ward, as well as Tyler Green’s conversation with the two curators.

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