Museums respond to Smithsonian self-censorship

It’s been a bad week for the Smithsonian.

Last Tuesday the museum pulled a video by artist David Wojnarowicz from its exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” after taking heat for the video’s controversial subject matter (the video depicts a christ figure on the cross, covered with ants). Critics of the video claimed they felt it was anti-Christian.

Since the video was removed, many in the art world have protested the Smithsonian’s actions, including the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s own Kaywin Feldman, who heads the Association of Art Museum Directors. The AAMD released the following statement on the incident:

It is extremely regrettable that the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, a major American art museum with a long history of public service in the arts, has been pressured into removing a work of art from its exhibition “Hide/Seek.”

More disturbing than the Smithsonian’s decision to remove this work of art is the cause: unwarranted and uninformed censorship from politicians and other public figures, many of whom, by their own admission, have seen neither the exhibition as a whole or this specific work.

The AAMD believes that freedom of expression is essential to the health and welfare of our communities and our nation. In this case, that takes the form of the rights and opportunities of art museums to present works of art that express different points of view.

Discouraging the exchange of ideas undermines the principles of freedom of expression, plurality and tolerance on which our nation was founded. This includes the forcible withdrawal of a work of art from within an exhibition–and the threatening of an institution’s funding sources.

The Smithsonian Institution is one of the nation’s largest organizations dedicated to the dissemination and diffusion of knowledge–an essential element of democracy in America. We urge members of Congress and the public to continue to sustain and support the Smithsonian’s activities, without the political pressure that curtails freedom of speech.

Other protests have included a man standing in front of the exhibition, playing the video clip on his iPod. Here’s the controversial video in its entirety – easily found on YouTube: