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.

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  1. Why are your thoughts on the work in question not included in this essay? You say “It is worth debating the purpose and role of art,” and yet you don’t debate the purpose or the role of the artwork in question. Is William Donohue the be all and end all of Catholic—or, say, Christian—opinion in this country? “But this is precisely what art in a democracy must consider and respect, the sense and sensibility of the commons”—and yet you don’t engage that sensibility of the commons. Which/whose commons? William Donohue’s commons?

    The larger issue I have with this logic is that it smacks of cherry picking the commons. There are no numbers in your essay, no data to give life to the commons. Just a vague Christianity that is offended by blasphemy.

    • It would seem that the piece in question functioned merely as a catalyst for Mr. Deneen’s musings. If the article were intended to address his views of Wojnarowicz’ work, I’m sure it would have done so. The same goes for the role of Donohue; his reaction serves as a catalyst to Deneen’s discourse but nowhere does Deneen pass judgment on Donohue’s perspective, nor is this article intended to do so.

      • Perfectly understandable. I should have mentioned that even though I’m against the Smithsonian’s decision to remove the work, I also abhor the overuse of “censorship” as a cri du couer, and that I found the essay overall to be extremely well written and well argued. But the line, “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,” at the least—and subtly—expresses approval for the removal of the work in question.

        Deneen uses the words from one vocal and angry art critic as a stand in for the entirety of one side of the argument, and yet William Donohue is a passive stand in for “the commons.”

        My apologies if my initial comment looked accusatory. I’ve been reading about this controversy for a while now and, conversely, have been turned off by all the mudslinging. I saw here an extremely compelling counter argument and waded in a little too strong.

  2. It seems to me that museums are the place where art goes to die; they are reminders that art is no longer a part of the public square, but safely isolated in elaborate, if open, tombs. art in a museum is not really art at all, but an artifact, a remembrance of things past, but no longer possessing a useful life in the community. The museum itself is an artifact of the separation of art and life. Now we have art that goes directly to museums, without ever playing a role in, say, decorating a Church, or displaying the wealth of some patron, or being in any way part of the life of the community.

    The most important art is from the artisan, who incorporates art into everyday life, and so defies the merely utilitarian. Now that art has been replaced by product design, which is not quite the same thing. The artist, with nothing much to do, makes himself the arbiter of everything, the guardian of progress, etc. But he is totally divorced from the life of the people, and comes to despise them.

    • I agree. A Titian, a Brueghel or a Donatello has its charms, but a fine feat of joinery, a deftly turned teapot. . . now, such things as these are *art*! Perhaps we could all use a little more Roycroftery—or something like it—in our lives?

      I’ve often thought of taking up woodworking myself. But time and ten thumbs seem to bar the way.

  3. Shouldn’t the sensibility and beliefs of the public always be challenged, especially when extremely “common”? If history has taught us anything, it’s that the “sensibility of the commons” is very often not sensible, not prudent, and not conducive to well-being. Norman Rockwell may well be a better diplomat than Wojnarowicz, but censorship due to lack of diplomacy? Might as well cut Voltaire, Richard Dawkins, and the Bible out of public libraries, if that’s the case. True respect for one’s audience often means offending its sensibilities.

    Quality, on the other hand, is something the art scene could do well to focus more on.

    • I agree. The “common” people just have too profound a sense of and reverence for the divine. They are too committed to self-government and self-restraint and inadequately loose with their sexuality; indeed, I bet some of them still believe that there is more to morality than “being safe” and that the highest good for the human person is not the fulfillment of every concupiscent desire. We poor benighted common people need Wojarnawicz to set us free!

      I realize, Tim, that your comment is a general defense of a particular romantic theory of the didactic function of art rather than of the obscenity that occasions this essay, but too often these questions are engaged exclusively at a level of fearful abstraction. Most Americans seem afraid to address questions of art, beauty, taste, and morality at the level of abstract “rights talk” rather than examining what is really at stake.

      In a manner of speaking, it does not so much matter that the film was obscene, but that it manifests a conception of human life completely repellent to anyone who thinks that human dignity and freedom is not based upon our capacity to reduce our sexuality to yet another consumer choice. It proclaims that a reverence for God can be freely traduced and belittled simply because it refuses mankind’s attempt to make a cult out of its bodily desires.

      The reason most contemporary art is so bad is precisely because most artists — and, frankly, most people — no longer believe that there is anything worth expressing other than the elimination of the cultural and moral ties that have previously bound the individual. But, as Philip Larkin brilliantly observed long ago, this liberation levels and empties the person and acts supposedly set free to fulfill themselves:

      Sexual intercourse began
      In nineteen sixty-three
      (which was rather late for me) –
      Between the end of the Chatterley ban
      And the Beatles’ first LP.

      Up to then there’d only been
      A sort of bargaining,
      A wrangle for the ring,
      A shame that started at sixteen
      And spread to everything.

      Then all at once the quarrel sank:
      Everyone felt the same,
      And every life became
      A brilliant breaking of the bank,
      A quite unlosable game.

      So life was never better than
      In nineteen sixty-three
      (Though just too late for me) –
      Between the end of the Chatterley ban
      And the Beatles’ first LP.

      In case it is not obvious (and it may not be to those unfamiliar with Larkin’s work), the third stanza is intended ironically.

      • Did you actually read any associated articles or look up the work in question? If ants crawling on a crucifix qualifies as “obscenity,” I suspect the reasons for its placement in the film do as well:

        “In interviews, Wojnarowicz remembered cruel treatment in a Catholic school he briefly attended, and in one of his works, which often mixed images and text, he recalled “the religious types outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral shouting to men and women in the gay parade: ‘You won’t be here next year – you’ll get AIDS and die ha ha . . . ‘ ”

        I agree that institutions like the Smithsonian should choose content based on beauty and meaning, but not that they should worry so much about offending people who believe homosexuality is wrong. To turn the tables, I personally find any passages in a given book that recommend killing homosexuals, or that propose “marriage” as a workable solution to rape, obscene and offensive; and yet I can still appreciate the vast cultural and artistic tradition that stem from the Jewish and Christian points of view. As to taste, if you don’t like the food, eat somewhere else.

        And please, enough with the flagrant generalizing. Cults founded on fear of bodily desires are as useless as cults founded on total submission to them.

        • You’re quite right that “obscene” is not the right word; I let a few hours pass between reading this essay and then responding to your comment. Blasphemous would be the proper term.

          The “cruel treatment” of Catholic schools smacks more of a convenient stereotype fitted to help explain the man’s own ill-starred existence than to something we should take seriously. But, I suppose, “challenging” the standard view of things must be very socially important, even when said challenge involves playing to stereotypes after the fashion of most bigots.

          I don’t understand your penultimate sentence, but as to your last one, I whole-heartedly agree: hence one beauty of Catholic teaching: a well ordered sexuality is one of the great goods of temporal life and a gift of the Creator.

        • Aha. Sorry, didn’t know you were one of the directly insulted. I’d probably feel similarly were I catholic.

          Tell me if I’m wrong here, but I think the offense you’re feeling — that deep, fiber-of-the-soul level response — is because Wojnarowicz is attacking your very identity as a Catholic. But please keep in mind that the attack stems from that exact same kind of offense.

          Wojnarowicz, if he is believed (and I see no reason to disbelieve him on this point), has been repeatedly attacked by Christians due to his homosexuality. Since he went to a Catholic school, he probably associates “Christianity” in general with Catholicism, the same way I tend to do with American evangelicalism. We can deduce from the subject matter of his work that his homosexuality is as integral a part of his identity as your religion is of yours; isn’t it understandable, then, where his attacks come from?

          You’re right that those kinds of attacks tend to be crude, insulting, and in bad taste. But to avoid hypocrisy, you have to take those standards all the way, and condemn religious folks who heatedly attack homosexuality on the same grounds (I’d keep the discussion strictly related to art, but I’m not actually aware of any Christian art, or attempts thereof, that are devoted to attacking or responding to homosexuality).

          So that’s my two cents on the personal level. On the social level, yes, I’d say challenging the standard view of things is important. That doesn’t mean it will always be done well, or will always be “right,” but it should be allowed. Martin Luther King is an obvious example here. I know your religion would say that MLK was right and gay rights folks aren’t, but there are plenty of people–plenty of “common” people, if that’s your democratic bent–who disagree with you. Yes, such challenges will often be bigoted. Yes, they’ll often be misguided. Disallow the challenges, though, and you end up, law by law, with a police state.

          I’m not sure we disagree on that. Am I making sense? I’m worried I might be getting off topic here.

  4. Tim,
    I agree that “obscene” was incorrect for the specific piece in question – please allow the word to stand in for several others, including “profane” and “blasphemous.” My main point stands – a good deal of modern art is an effort to engage in one or another form of offense. I sought to make an argument against that presupposition.

    And, to reiterate – I was not suggesting that artists ought not and cannot challenge their societies. However, too often today there is the assumption (stated in a comment here) that the sensibilities of the “commons” is always and everywhere in need of correction, and that they should be damn glad for the correction and pay for it too. I don’t believe Kennicott is an outlier in his assumptions.

    Let me admit to some peculiar counter-cultural resonances that I have with certain words. I tend to associate the word “common” with positive connotations. “Common” is something that is shared, often due to longstanding practice and cultural continuity. I hear resonances of the “sensus communis” of Vico – that mythic and cultural “sense of the commons” that he invoked against the often intrusive and culturally destructive interventions of the “expert.”

    And I tend to hear very negative connotations with the word “progress.” This is unusual in America, I’m aware, but – long before Glenn Beck came along – thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre, Christopher Lasch and Wendell Berry were pointing out the deeply problematic assumptions that underlie the American (and more broadly Western) idea of progress.

    Of course the two are not unrelated. Indeed, whether one tends to have positive or negative associations with these two words tends to be a good indicator of whether you are a conservative (pro-commons) or a liberal (a.k.a., progressive). What we think about art is yet another proxy in that eternal debate. How it comes to be that one has the particular associations that one does with those words is another question for another time…

    • Ah, I understand–a number of my friends feel similarly. I actually often agree with you about offensiveness in art, that many so-called “artists” are riding a wave of shock value and a sort of crude exhibitionism, peddling the sort of tripe where the explanation card takes more time to compose than the work itself.

      After reading about Mr. Wojnarowicz’ work, though, that wasn’t the feeling I got. His work was apparently about the struggle of living life as a gay man, and with the knowledge that he’d contracted HIV; and, if I read rightly, the main reason he was censored was because of a single scene that one vocal catholic found offensive.

      As to the broader notion of tradition vs. progression, I find neither to be quite suitable. I live at present in Montana, and I like our local traditional values — self-sufficiency, focus on the work of the hands, toughness, even wilderness survival. On the other hand, there are also traditional values here, such as veins of anti-intellectualism, fatalism, and sexism, that I think could use a change.

      Part of it too is that I don’t trust my own cultural judgment. A couple years back I was lucky enough to visit Syria, and I found something similar to what I see here; wonderful traditions on one hand and harmful ones on the other. Incredibly open hospitality existed hand-in-hand with sexism, homophobia, and religious oppression the likes of which we haven’t seen much of in the west for some time (this wasn’t universal or governmentally endorsed, by the way, just a significant ultraconservative Muslim sector of the population). I also observed that many of the men (I didn’t talk to any of the women, for obvious reasons) who believed that believed it without question, as if it were the most natural thing in the world–and questioned, sometimes rather harshly, American “conservative” policies like support of Israel, etc.

      So I thought: if these people can believe that their way of life is so right, and “our” way of life is so wrong, am I believing anything just as blindly? I didn’t necessarily change my mind in many ways, except perhaps to gain an increased value for hospitality, but that questioning was exceedingly valuable. So my (too drawn-out) point is this: even if we don’t feel the need to change our traditional ways, shouldn’t we at least question them, and test them, and try to understand their meanings and their origins? I know separating the wheat from the tares is supposed to be God’s job, but in the case of human action, tradition, and values, I think we might do well to take some responsibility in that area as well.

  5. This is a great article, and I agree with most of what Prof. Deneen has written, but I wonder if we do not give up too much in the argument if we concede that what Wojnarowicz and his ilk are doing is making art. Let us grant that art may occasionally be “offensive” (though, in fact, I think that an extremely small amount of really great art would be appropriately described by that word); what reason do we have to think that ant-covered cruxifixes and fermented marine biology and salacious photos are art in the first place? Ortega y Gasset claimed that “there is no civilization where aesthetic controversy does not recognize the need to justify the work of art.” So let Wojnarowicz start justifying his work. Let his apologist Phillip Kennicott do the same. Let them start explaining why we should consider their productions as art, and not as the meaningless shenanigans which they appear like to all the world. Based on the clichéd pabulum quoted from Kennicott, I seriously doubt they could do so. We grant to the artist the “right to offend” because we believe that his practice is so valuable and serves such an important end of civilized life, that we grant him this freedom to be exercised (like all freedom) judiciously. But in the case of contemporary art, we do not receive any of the beauty or enlightenment, for the sake of which we grant that freedom in the first place; all we get is the offense. So might we not reply to Wojnarowicz,, “Yes, we are willing to allow the artist the privilege to offend the prevailing beliefs of the community on occasion, and when you produce anything that would convince us you are a real artist, we will grant you the same privilege. But not until then.”

  6. If a museum is publicly funded they shouldn’t display art that offends any sensibilities at all, however I don’t see a problem with the above artist renting space or creating his own gallery to show his offensive pieces. Most of these “shock” artists need government money or advocate more government help because most people don’t want to see their work and the only way it can be paid to be displayed is from the public coffers.

  7. When “Progress” can be defined by a prevailing battle between the Offenders and the Offended, everyone needs a stiff shot and a stint on the damned rock pile until civilization re-dawns upon them. Maybe I’ve been hanging out with the wrong artists, they like people and produce things of beauty, well, they mostly produce things of beauty, in my beholding. To be clear, they aint floatin sharks in Formaldehyde or setting diamonds in skulls neither.

  8. I don’t want to live in a “polity,” but a “nation,” traditionally understood (a tribe linked by blood).

    And I no longer care about the Catholic Church since it supports the Third World invasion of the West. Here in the U.S. the Catholic Church very decidedly has sided with mestizos against European Americans.

    • If you mean “polity” in the sense that Aristotle did – a small ethnically homogenous city-state – then I concur. Aristotle also warned that when a group from a different “stock” (ethnicity/race) moves into a city state, civil striFe usually results.

  9. A fascinating, if predictable, essay and comments. “Art” itself, as it has been for some time, is ignored in favor of using “Art” to make various socio-political brownie points. I used to know whenever a similar controversy over the public display of “Art” deemed offensive (or blasphemous or pornographic) reared its head that Jesse Helms was attempting to add to his campaign contributions; who the beneficiaries are today I won’t speculate.

    The first point, which seems at best foolish, is the underlying presumption that any publicly funded arts institution should, or even could, manage to function without occasionally offending someone. Who is offended, by what, and what portion of a given exhibition might elicit a negative response is often difficult, if not impossible, to predict. What group might be offended by each work being considered for inclusion and what political clout do they have? One might, for example, decide to display the cartoons that blasphemed through their depiction of the prophet Mohammed and generate a strong negative reaction from certain Islamic viewers. Would such a decision to exhibit the cartoons be called courageous and those who protest chided for failure to understand the importance of free speech? Or would there be a call to halt the public funding of the institution so blind to the offense they are giving to part of the community by displaying these items?

    The second point is the idea that there is any clear, definable, “community” in the U.S. that the Smithsonian should serve. Does the “community” being served by the Smithsonian include homosexuals? If so, should art that offended them be removed from future Smithsonian exhibitions? What about Muslims, Pagans, and Jews? Those whose ancestors were from Asia, Africa, or South America? Is the only true and proper American “community” those descended from forebears who came from the British Isles, preferably those whose ancestors came over prior to the influx of Irish Catholics?

    As one who has been working “in the arts” (but not an artist) for four decades let me close by saying that while art that “shocks” or is primarily a means of expressing some socio-political POV may get the most and widest press coverage, including in the big art magazines, it remains a small fraction of the art produced and displayed, both in public institutions like the Smithsonian and in private galleries. To pretend otherwise is simply wrong and evidences a lack of familiarity with what is actually taking place.

  10. These discussions always remind me of a book I encountered in freshman comp, The Best American Essays, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. In her intro, she says:

    “My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.”

    I think of the art my mom has purchased over the years for her living room. It’s mostly flowers and other pretty things. Does that mean it doesn’t “count”? Even a print of a Monet? I guess some definitions would say she’s engaged in “decoration” instead of “art.” But I wonder why anyone would define it in such a way that art can describe conflict, pain, fear, hatred, etc. but preclude nice stuff? Does she really have to plaster the house with Guernica to for people to consider it art? Why?

  11. The whole self-proclaimed “art world” “doesn’t like the demos very much at all.”

    Required reading on the role and place of art today: Larry Shiner, The Invention of Art (Univ of Chicago, 2001).

    Museums are a relatively recent invention. And the idea that they’re any well-spring of art has no support in history. I don’t agree with Mr Medaille in his comment here that they’re tombs, but they certainly are places for separating art from life. Museums originally didn’t house art made for them, because the place of art was where people lived their lives. They were for preserving the best of what people made that we might learn from our past and sustain what had value. The idea of making art FOR a museum is silly. Art made for museums is inherently elitist; it’s art-for-art’s-sake, art NOT made for everyday, common life. It’s a top-down conception of art, so doesn’t express the longings and beliefs of the whole people–the “commons,” as you put it. WR Lethaby said, “Art is the humanity put into workmanship. The rest is slavery,” and that “Art is the well-doing of what needs doing.” We’re de-skilling: we have less and less real work, so we have less and less real art. When daily labor is an opportunity to express our humanity while satisfying our needs, then we’ll have art that someday people will want to preserve in museums. But that won’t happen until we learn to make things again. And until we’ve done that long enough to make things WELL, things worth preserving, we won’t need to worry about making things worthy of museums.

  12. Indeed, I thought of the same wise passage from Berry when this made the news. I am an artist, I think art always serves something, I want my art to serving community especially eco-community, like Berry (I like to think).

    My view of comtempory art devoted to offence & shock is that it serves the powerful, in a very specific way. Dominance hierarchies in humans and other primates are determined largely by stressing contests (Biosociology of Dominance & Deference. Allan Mazar). Those comfortable with stressing and intimidating others and obivious to being stressed move up, those who handle stress poorly &/or are uninterested in stressing move down.

    Shocking art is like a snoty offensive waiter, it sifts out the sensitive and leaves the domineering risk-takers and thrill-seekers the “winners” who run society, or ruin it, depending on your perspective.

    The culture of some perhaps all ecologically stable & sensitive societies have mechanisms to weed out the infliction of stress (the one I’ve mainly read about is the Semai (The Semai. A Non-violent Peole of Malaya (& other works by R K Dentan).

    A more civilised use of art would be constent with this.

  13. Kennicott writes, “The museum has become a quasi-sacred space, with rules as complicated and inviolate as any church liturgy.”

    Fascinating that Kennicott thrusts museums into the role of church. William Morris made the same connection, but in making points in stark contrast to Kennicott’s, in his attack on a society that calls on art critics to teach people about what they are looking at in museums: “[T]he public does its art…as it does its religion – by deputy: pays a certain numbers of what I should call art-parsons to perform certain mysteries of civilization which it is pleased to call the fine arts, and stands on one side while they go through their mumbo-jumbo with grievous results to their morals in most cases, and with still more grievous results to the fine arts; which depend on all life being carried on with art; that is the very sustenance and well-spring of them, the beauty and manliness of daily life.” (“At a Picture Show,” 1884)

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