A good crowd gathered Sunday at the Henry Art Gallery for a Seattle-based conversation on censorship in response to the Smithsonian's removal last month of the video A Fire in My Belly from the National Portrait Gallery's gay portraiture exhibition Hide/Seek. It was heated—or just human—right from the start, when Tacoma Art Museum curator Rock Hushka (who’s organizing an exhibition on AIDS and art with one of Hide/Seek's curators), opened with a discussion of "eliminationism," the far-right idea that when you don't like something in the political dialogue, you eliminate it (see Hitler, Jared Lee Loughner). The Arizona shootings hung over the conversation, and Hushka stood up not only as an institutional representative for TAM but as a gay man who'd marched in the New York protests against the Smithsonian's act of removal.
It was fascinating to notice the difference between Hushka’s urgency and the more theoretical bent of the museum directors whose panel he was moderating—clearly a crew of folks who are used to working for slow, large institutions. In some ways, this tension is not just a social tic but at the core of the discussion.
In a breakout group after the directors’ panel, I caught Henry chief curator Liz Brown venting her frustration at the common misperception that an artist who depicts violent acts is necessarily condoning them. There wasn’t time for me to ask the natural follow-up: How is the relationship between artists and their subjects like or unlike the relationship between museums and the artists they show?
And while it's okay to advocate for certain artists, is it okay for museums to be explicitly political in their advocacy? (Is showing an explicitly political artist a stance of supporting those views?) Do less political artists have a better chance at being shown in institutions because institutions have to be inherently apolitical? The question was never asked directly but Brown spoke to it in the final panel of the afternoon when she said, "We can't be strident voices on a particular issue—we're not allowed to." As an aside, she told me, "I really do think our time right now is much more repressive than it's ever been."
At the end of the event, artist Wynne Greenwood suggested that questions from the audience be recited, and it was powerful hearing the group speak in individual voices. Questions and statements from that list and of my own below. (For more information about the freedom of artistic speech, visit the Campaign for Freedom of Expression here with a helpful pamphlet here.)
1. Why has not a single Democratic pol spoken out against this baseless censorship?
2. What is the art institution’s role in the face of manufactured outrage as this was, as opposed to someone who is genuinely offended by art?
3. “Museums have to be places where people can see themselves and their values reflected”—okay. But how do and should museums make decisions between reflecting their communities and leading them? (This is what newspapers have struggled with.)
4. If museums are “reflective,” should a museum reflect the system of oppression in the community they’re situated in? (This one takes off from the way that the video A Fire in My Belly links systems of oppression in its imagery.)
5. What are the sacred cows?
6. What makes a work offensive to a gallery or museum versus shocking/non-malicious?
7. How can we keep conversation about a work from censoring the work by obscuring it?
8. If we live in a God-fearing country, should institutions be God-fearing?
9. How do we get loud?
10. Diversity shouldn’t be a code word for the gay community or the non-white community. We’re really not open to diverse viewpoints; we’re disingenuous about diversity in this country.
11. How do museums reach everybody? We don’t.
12. Is controversy education? Are we moving toward an overly safe society and how do we combat that?
13. The Museum of Modern Art just acquired A Fire in My Belly. Does that mean the museum didn’t consider the video worthy of its collection before it became the center of a historical event? If so, why? And how do museums balance aesthetic considerations with political ones?