One story that has received ongoing attention on the pages of the Washington Post has been the decision by the Smithsonian Museum to remove a controversial film from an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. The film in question – “Fire in the Belly” – by artist and gay activist David Wojnarowicz included an image of ants crawling on a crucifix, which led Catholic League leader William Donohue to lodge strenuous objections to the exhibit. In quick order, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough directed National Portrait Gallery’s Director Martin Sullivan to remove the film from “Hide/Seek,” an exhibit that explores portrayals of homosexuality in American art. A controversy has raged ever since.
The decision by the Smithsonian has elicited widespread denunciations against censorship, none more vocal and articulate than the Post’s art critic, Philip Kennicott. In a recent column in the Post, Kennicott called for the resignation of Secretary Clough as well as arguing that another piece in the exhibit be removed in accordance with the wishes of its creator, AA Bronson. Kennicott argues that both these steps would have the effect of restoring the proper relationship of art to the democratic polity, which – he argues – is one in which art and the artist, and the museums that house the works of art, act as catalysts for debate, social criticism, and ultimately “progress.”
What’s striking about Kennicott’s argument is that he states his view of the relationship of art and the polity as if it were beyond debate and criticism, as a settled issue that the rest of the citizenry should simply accept as a directive from the the artistic vanguard who have arrived at this conclusion about art’s public role, even when it is the sensibility and beliefs of the public that are to be challenged by their own tax-supported institutions. Surely this is a moment when Kennicott’s own dogmatic presuppositions should be subject to the very forms of debate and criticism that he suggests should be the purpose of art – except, it seems, when it would challenge his own presuppositions about art’s purposes.
The heart of Kennicott’s argument – which I take to be representative of much of the artistic community that has rallied in its condemnation of Smithsonian “censorship” – is to be found in his recent column calling for the resignation of Secretary Clough. In a summary statement, Kennicott lauds what he describes as “the historic evolution of museums … as places where old forms of power are rechanneled to reform culture…. Among the most sacred doxologies of the museum is the conviction that controversy is a good thing, that it can be talked through, that it leads to progress.”
Thus, for Kennicott, museums – including publically supported museums like the Smithsonian – are to be agents of “progress” in the nation, loci of the “reformation” of culture. By this understanding, the existing form of culture is always insufficiently “progressed,” always likely to contain outmoded tendencies that need correction and “rechanneling.” Museums, and the art they contain, are to be sources of cultural correction for the masses.
Kennicott further explains:
The agenda [of the museums], the result of decades of efforts at reforming an institution that once bluntly manifested state and class power (through architecture, art and hierarchical social codes), is the backdrop against which Clough made his ill-fated decision. The modern museum has evolved from a straightforward display of power – this is Culture, so genuflect, ye masses – to a paradoxical place where old forms of power and discipline are harnessed to create new kinds of debate and criticism.
Museums are still supported by the wealthy and privileged, who generally acquiesce to exhibitions that aim at inclusion and diversity. The government, if it gives money, indicates its support for cultural projects while (ideally) declining to dictate message or terms to the institution. Scholarship and science still reign (or they should) but are filtered through new technologies and directed at increasingly diverse subject matter.
One can’t help but detect a certain presumptuousness in this passage – those who support the arts, whether the “wealthy and privileged” or the “government” (i.e., you and I, the taxpayers) are to fork over the dough and then be silent if and when artistic decisions offend or attack. Moreover, Kennicott appeals to “scholarship and science” as the impartial arbiters of such decisions, as if in the realm of artistic decisions there are not deep and inescapable values that are at issue. It’s quite clear that he seeks to invoke the authority of “scholarship and science” to place his preferred artistic displays beyond the “common sense” judgment of the community. But this is precisely what art in a democracy must consider and respect, the sense and sensibility of the commons.
It seems to me that the community whose “culture” is being offended is, in the first instance, under no obligation to support the persons or material that is doing the offending. The cries of “censorship” are designed to elicit immediate outrage, but they are severely misplaced – the word has been used so often, and so inaccurately, that we have forgotten what it means. “Censorship” occurs when a public entity represses or forestalls some form of expression. In this case (as in so many other similar instances) the government was not exercising “censorship”; it was not preventing the artist or the artwork from being created or displayed. Rather, the Smithsonian decided it had erred in giving space in its museum to this offensive artistic expression and decided to withdraw the exhibit from its space. This did not, nor does not, prevent this expression from being displayed in nearly an infinite number of other spaces (including the internet). The government did not censor – it exercised prudential judgment about the use of its facilities, just as the Post does everyday in what it decides to run and what it decides to leave off of its pages. Does a decision not to run a piece in place of an essay by Kennicott (or anyone else) amount to censorship? I think not.
But, imagining for a moment that the facility were not a museum supported with public funds, then it seems to me that objections and protests to such a display would be no less misplaced (think, for instance, of those who burned the CDs of the Dixie Chicks after they expressed shame at sharing Texas roots with George Bush. Or, for that matter, cries of public outrage after Dr. Laura Schlesinger used the “n-” word on her program). In a liberal democracy, an artist has every right to seek (though no obligation) to offend or incite public mores and opinion. But, by that same token, the community has every right to object to any such portrayal, and to reject the artist’s message. What the artist cannot ask is for the community simply to receive the critical or offensive message without a suitably strong reaction.
The poet, essayist, novelist and farmer Wendell Berry has written about this appropriate reaction by a community with great eloquence. He writes,
I know that for a century or so many artists and writers have felt it their duty – a mark of their honesty and courage – to offend their audience. But if the artist has a duty to offend, does not the audience therefore have a duty to be offended? If the public has a duty to protect speech that is offensive to the community, does not the community have the duty to respond, to be offended, and so defend itself against the offense? A community, as part of a public, has no right to silence publicly protected speech, but it certainly has a right not to listen and to refuse its patronage to the speech that it finds offensive. It is remarkable, however, that many writers and artists appear to be unable to accept this obvious and necessary limitation on their public freedom; they seem to think that freedom entitles them not only to be offensive but also to be approved and subsidized by the people whom they have offended. [“Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community”]
If one can fault the Smithsonian for anything, it is not withdrawal of the piece – it is its decision to have displayed it in the first instance without appropriate reflection upon the offensiveness of the imagery in its exhibit. Such institutions are regularly bullied by artistic sensibilities and need rightly from time to time to be reminded of the public’s taste and sensibilities.
Finally, one could – and should – take issue with the basic presupposition of the artistic community that Berry attributes to it for about the last century, and which Kennicott assumes to be settled dogma about the purpose of art. For such artists and critics, the role of art is to incite and even offend so that it can provoke “rechanneling,” “reformation” and “progress.” This is a contestable assumption – and one that has many counter-examples. Much of the history of art is the effort to render ever more perfect representations of the deepest cultural commitments of a community – perhaps to provoke, but not through offense, but aspiration and inspiration (consider the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for starters). At the very same museum where – and at the very same time when – the offending artwork was removed, there was also an exhibit of work by the painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell. Rockwell’s work serves as the appropriate counterpoint to Kennicott’s arguments (an artist that Kennicott, unsurprisingly, regards as “facile.”). Rather than seeking to offend the society in which he was creating his art, Rockwell most often sought to show that society its best self. In emphasizing family, patriotism, and the homely American virtues, he was not disinterested in moving his audience to embracing their better selves, but Rockwell sought to do so by showing them at their best, by inspiring and, at the same time, confirming the basic decencies of the society that provided him the avenue to speak and perform freely. His entire oeuvre was imbued with a kind of gratitude and decency, in contrast to spirit behind images intended to offend such as the work that was ultimately withdrawn from the Smithsonian
This is not to say that Rockwell was not a critic of America – he was that, particularly its damnable record on racial injustice. But Rockwell understood that education in a democracy always involved a gentle art of persuasion, one that neither too indecently offended nor too ingratiatingly flattered. In the words of my teacher, Wilson Carey Mcwilliams (from an essay in a forthcoming book that Susan McWilliams and I have co-edited), the artist in a democracy bears as much responsibility of a respectful treatment of his audience as the audience bears in a responsible reflection upon the intended teaching. According to McWilliams,
In one area, however, censorship would be both safe and possibly helpful: the censorship of one’s self. Artists, scientists, philosophers, and intellectuals generally owe themselves and their fellow citizens the duty of gauging their utterances, works, and writing in terms of their likely impact on the life of man. There is no requirement that “all things be revealed” directly; as the greatest of teachers knew, parable and allusion will suffice for those “who have ears to hear.” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., to take only one of many American examples, found it possible to say “shocking” things in an idiom which did not affront respectability (or at least, not often; audiences read more carefully in those days, and at least one critic discerned “obscenity” in Elsie Venner). And Twain was even more a master of the art.
There are, moreover, things which one should not say at all and research which one should not reveal in even the most guarded ways. The path of evil crosses the human highroad too often for some tools to be put into man’s possession. Scientists need that admonition, for their record contains crimes greater than any that may be charge to obscenity…. The decision to write or not to write, to speak or remain silent, to portray or to leave hidden, is always a political decision to be judged by its impact on men. If truth is a “good in itself” and art is truly for “art’s sake” neither needs a public revelation. That public expression is necessarily political, and sometimes of greater import for good or ill. Art and science have dignity because they matter, and artists and scientists acquire dignity from that fact. But dignity, like liberty, involves discipline and constraint. Surely that is the vital lesson we owe our fellow citizens and each other in our shadowed times.
It is worth debating the purpose and role of art – and in this sense I agree with Kennicott that art can and should provoke critical reflection – but it seems to me that the conclusion that we the People are to draw about art ought not to be dictated by the artists, but also by the judgment and sentiments of the people for whom they are ultimately being displayed. For all of Kennicott’s invocations of the words “democracy,” in the end I came away from his stance on the controversy concluding that he doesn’t like the demos very much at all.