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Posted at 6:41 PM ET, 12/27/2010

The true villains in the 'Hide/Seek' story

By Thomas Bower, Washington

Clarification: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this letter neglected to note the writer's past association with the Smithsonian Institution. The version below has been corrected.

What hectoring faux bravery Philip Kennicott exhibited in the Dec. 24 Style article “Smithsonian chief’s next call should be to step down.”

It was the arrival of the new Republican Huns and the threat of severe budget cuts by the presumed new speaker of the House that caused G. Wayne Clough, the secretary of the Smithsonian, to slightly diminish the “Hide/Seek” exhibition, featuring gay portraiture, at the National Portrait Gallery. Such budget cuts could lead to the end of decades-long careers and crush research, whereas the show and its message of sexual difference are still up for the full planned run.

Protecting the Smithsonian’s mission of 160 years-plus of knowledge expansion is heroic, not craven. Keeping wisdom going sometimes requires knowing that the better part of valor, if not the most dramatic, is indeed a virtue.

Removing a tangential, AIDS-related film from the exhibition was unfortunate, but AIDS, while tragic, is a disease, not a gay issue, per se, the theme of this exhibition. If anything, AIDS has made lesbian and gay issues more public, not the hidden-in-plain-sight concept so wonderfully exhibited at the Portrait Gallery. The curators and leadership at the Smithsonian are to be commended on their intelligent and beautiful presentation of a long overdue subject and their skill at keeping it before the public.

If you want to attack the proper villains in this story, look to the small-minded and bellicose Catholic League and Republican leadership, not those who created a landmark illustration of gay and lesbian history.

The writer is a former employee of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

By Thomas Bower, Washington  | December 27, 2010; 6:41 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, National Mall, arts  
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Comments

The writer is correct about the original villains in this debacle, but his conclusion that we should therefore give Clough a free pass doesn't follow from that.

It's like claiming that a general should never be relieved of command or demoted for making a bad choice in the face of an enemy attack. Or that no surgeon should ever be charged with malpractice for removing a body part without justification. A similar rationale would be given in both instances: Don't blame them, blame the enemy (invaders; disease)!

Sorry, it's just not that easy to walk away from personal responsibility. Part of Clough's portfolio -- in a time when we see the mob once more at the gates waving their scythes and pitchforks -- is to stand firm against these outsider attempts at blatant censorship.

A ferocious attack such as this one must be resisted equally ferociously. Clough, in contrast, fired a couple of blanks and then waved the white flag.

Posted by: laboo | December 28, 2010 5:56 AM | Report abuse

The writer is spot on. The new regime taking office in January needs to keep it's mitts off the public arts. For all their talk of liberty and freedom, and the Constitution, they are more than willing to heap censorship onto the Smithsonian. Keep small-mindedness and lack of creative thought (as demonstrated by the parties involved) out of artistic FREEDOM. Is this still America, or a third world nation that suppresses views not in keeping with the ruling class?

Posted by: jckdoors | December 28, 2010 8:16 AM | Report abuse

As having been born in the 1950's and raised at a time of notable changes in how we as a society view human rights, I am always amazed at how those who I have helped to be unrestricted in their personal life demand that they be given a right to denegate others. So I am completely disappointed when people like Mr. Bower and the other bloggers write and post the above statements.

Why does an art exhibit about "a landmark illustration of gay and lesbian history" have to denegrate, insult and ridicule Christains, and in some cases specifically the Catholic Church? It just appears to many, like me, that rather than trying to address the theme of AIDS affect on gays, it was more of an effort to get back at a group that the artist (and those in support of the offending art) is mad at.

Having lived in an area of the country when AIDS ran rampant, I remember that gay-activists who tried to convince their community changes in behavior were necessary to prevent the spread of AIDS were treated poorly by their own. I also remember Catholics coming forward to give aid and comfort to those affected and eventually died from AIDS, even at the risk of their own life.

If one of the purposes of public-funded art is not to help bring us together, then what is the purpose? In my opinion, it is not to infringe on the rights of others in a way that you would find objectionable if done against you. Would you find it acceptable if an artist painting was shown at this exhibit graphically depicting the folly of gays who refused to accept that AIDS required a change in behavior in order to fight the spread of the disease (i.e., the closing of bath houses and the use of condoms)?

I ask those who wrote the letters and blogs against those who objected to the art to consider this: Publicly funded museums and art galleries should be done as an effort to bring us together, not to separate us. Rather than having art to insult, why wasn't art selected that shows how certain Christians (and particularly Catholics) came forward to help those in need when others would not. Then you would have had an art exhibit that gays, lesbians, Catholics, and Republican could all support.

Please think about what I wrote. I have and will continue to support fair treatment of all to live the private life they want with dignity and respect for others. Do not try to depict me as some sort of anti-gay bigot racist because I side with the Catholic League and several of the Republican leadership on this particular issue. You would only be going down the same road that you say your detractors are on.....

Posted by: ARickoverNuke | December 28, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

The true villains in the "Hide/Seek" controversy are the politicians who found it expedient - once again - to score political points and shore up their conservative bonafides. Those of us who are of an age recall the cultural war that was waged against the National Endowment for the Arts several years ago and it looks as if we are in for more of the same. I take issue with the author's conclusion that "removing a tangential, AIDS-related film ....." The video was anything but tangential. It represented the anger felt by the artist at the anti-gay religious insanity at the time ("AIDS is God's revenge on gays", Fags Will Go To Hell" etc.) that continues today. Also if AIDS is not, per se, a "gay issue" I don't know what is. What impressed and saddened me was how clearly the "Hide/Seek" exhibit brought home the devastating effects of AIDS on an entire generation of talented artists. The tag lines ".... died from AIDS related illness in ......" on so many of the biographies was as thought provoking and moving as the artwork on display.

And for the commentator who believes that art should "bring us together" - nothing could be further from the purpose of art. it is designed to provoke.

Posted by: scotts747 | December 28, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

ARickoverNuke; I'm not trying to depict you as anything for your thoughts. My issue is censorship, period. And censorship always seems to come at the hands of conservatives and those that profess "freedom and liberty". It's tiresome. Also, it's those that want to censor have usually not read, hear, or seen what they wish to deny others. We have choice. Exercise that, not censorship.

Posted by: jckdoors | December 28, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Removing David W's video artwork re-empowered the marginal right, possibly setting back public discourse about contemporary art by at least 20 years. This will have an immediate chilling effect on all Smithsonian exhibitions dealing with anything even vaguely controversial, but especially homosexuality. Standing on the Smithsonian's founding principles was the that way to go (as the NY Public Library and the Brooklyn Museum successfully have under similar circumstances in recent incidents), but such a principled stance has been debased by Secretary Clough. The fact that Clough has refuses to discuss his decision implies that he was told to make it and shut up, but but whom?

Posted by: FactCheckPlease | December 28, 2010 11:42 PM | Report abuse

Let's try to edit this letter to the editor slightly, to see if anyone finds it more acceptable:

"Removing a tangential, Jew-related film from the exhibition was unfortunate, but Judaism, is a religion, not a Semitic issue, per se, the theme of this exhibition. If anything, Judaism has made Semitic issues more public, not the hidden-in-plain-sight concept so wonderfully exhibited at the Portrait Gallery. The curators and leadership at the Smithsonian are to be commended on their intelligent and beautiful presentation of a long overdue subject and their skill at keeping it before the public."

Does anyone believe that would be acceptable? Or what if we used the words "poverty" and "African Americans"? Would it be OK to talk about blacks in America without talking about poverty?

No. But Mr. Bower would arue it is OK.

Posted by: Timmy1965 | December 29, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, but at the end of the day, Clough's the one who knuckled under.

Posted by: anaximander471 | December 29, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

jckdoors, while I understand your arguement, I must strongly disagree with your logic.

What you are saying is basically if it is hate-speech you agree with and it is removed, that's censorship. In addition, look at Mr. Bower's letter for more overt hate-speech by using terms like "huns" and "villians" to describe only "Republicans" objected to the "art". I also know of many Democrats from where I grew up who would also disagree with the "art" that was shown. Are they villians and Huns also???

You say you are against censorship. But what does many on the left want to do now? Namely to have only certain people on open-to-all commercial radio be removed or restricted for "fairness".... But that is nothing but radical political jargon for "censorship".

So, you, Mr. Bower, and others on the Left do not get to define what is hate-speech to Calothlics and other Christians. Even Republicans have a right to stand up and object to hate-speech directed at them.

I must end by asking you to please try to explain the big dichotomy in the Left's and your line of thinking (hate-speech vs censorship). I would be very interested in seeing a logical explanation because I do not think it is possible to provide one....

Posted by: ARickoverNuke | December 30, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Bravo Tom! As the uncompromising critics on the left seem determined to add insult to the Smithsonian's injury, I can't help but compare the episode to President Obama's exasperation last month at the "sanctimonious" members of his party who cling to "unrealistic" "purist position[s]" in the political arena. While I don't entirely agree with how the Smithsonian (also my employer) handled the situation, I also think this whole thing has been blown way out of proportion and, like the aftermath of the Enola Gay fiasco, will only serve to make the Institution more cautious in the future.

Posted by: mtmac94 | January 1, 2011 9:48 AM | Report abuse

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