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.

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...

2 replies on “Why Secretary Clough Won’t Leave the Smithsonian”

  1. Really well thought out, rational thoughts on the issue. Clough indeed will not leave, unless this snowballs so far the board forces him to resign in an effort to save face- but again, not likely. However, I’d like to touch on the issue of the art world versus the government and politics. The two are in no way strangers to one another, especially publicly funded institutions such as the NPG. When an institution depends largely on government and other forms of public funding, they know exactly what they were getting into, especially being a Smithsonian institution. Museums and organizations know all too well the delicate relationship with government funding. Here in NYC we have the cultural institutions groups, a coalition of over 30 orgs in the city including the Met, American Museum of Natural History, Brooklyn Museum, Carnegie Hall, Bronx Museum, BAM, NY Hall of Science etc. Many don’t realize it, but all of the places are technically owned by the city (well their buildings, electric bills, some general operating and such), so when the economy is bad, these vital hubs of culture and education are the first to get slashed with budget cuts, even though in a way they’re the heart of tourism and the millions of dollars it brings in. It feels like a slap in the face when the gov’t says “hey, thanks for serving city school children and helping our sinking economy, sorry we’re cutting you by 30 or more percent this year!”. In the same manner, it’s a giant slap in the face when an institution who very well knows it’s close ties to politics and responsibility to serve the larger public gives into the pressures of a small, ignorant minority. Shame on you, Clough. This is disgusting betrayal of trust. I probably didn’t get my thoughts out clearly or straight but needed to rant.

    1. Thanks for the comment, it’s a valuable perspective that art institutions are never full independent. It’s tough to be reminded that it’s almost impossible for art to be entirely independent of stupid political power playing like this.

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