Why Secretary Clough Won’t Leave the Smithsonian

The scandal that erupted when the Smithsonian’s secretary G. Wayne Clough decided to remove David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” from the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek exhibition under Republican political pressure shows no sign of calming down. Only in the past week, the Warhol Foundation has threatened to cease funding the Smithsonian’s programming if the piece isn’t restored (it will not be), the New York Times has published an op-ed by Frank Rich declaiming the move as “gay-bashing,” and one of the artists involved with the show is requesting his work be removed from the exhibition.

The anger has expanded to the extent that some are calling for Secretary Clough, the single individual responsible for the censorship decision, to resign. Here’s why that won’t happen, no matter how much we might shout.

@Museumnerd, a vocal advocate for all things museums, was one of the loudest voices on Twitter spreading the #CloughMustGo hashtag in the past few days. The indignation over the decision to remove the Wojnarowicz is fully justified, but I don’t think this call for resignation is the correct response, nor an effective one. The Smithsonian has already proven that it is not willing to give an inch on the issue of the video — despite a very public withdrawal of funding from one of the most visible foundations in the art world, they barely acknowledge any sort of negative response to their actions. They just ban the protesters.

Like it or not, the art world is largely disconnected from Washington. Pressure from the entire art population of New York City does not equal the influence of a single lobbyist. Of course, it should exceed it. But Clough is a very public figure in DC, and I don’t think it’s possible to take him down. If the Republicans are behind Boehner’s pressure on the museum to remove the “offensive” piece, can you imagine the reaction if mere art were to put him out of a government job? The Smithsonian is no democracy.

To demonstrate the inefficacy of the Warhol Foundation’s removal of funding, art blogger Tyler Green quotes Smithsonian sources saying that these art people “obviously don’t understand Washington.” The quote applies as well to this situation. Sadly, no one will be forced to resign over the PC-induced removal of an artwork. It’s simply not shocking enough to the vast majority, the dominant political and cultural currents of contemporary America, nor to a DC that has rarely been particularly sensitive to the arts.

“A Fire in My Belly” on view at the New Museum (image from New Museum)

What we as art world defenders can do is show the Smithsonian, and the Republicans, that the Wojnarowicz piece will be seen no matter what. They can no more censor it than they can censor the internet. The video is already being shown in dozens of art spaces nationwide. It is omnipresent online. I suggested that the National Portrait Gallery put a sign where the piece originally resided, acknowledging that the piece was removed under Republican political pressure. Tyler Green has a list of constructive suggestions as well.

A question popped up on Twitter between artist and art writer Stephen Truax and @Museumnerd: Can the US have public funding for art without censorship? Well, we don’t have a very good track record. But we can do everything in our power to protect and project the right and responsibility of free speech in our own space. We can make sure Wojnarowicz’s voice is heard. Clough’s not going anywhere, but we will not remain silent.

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