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Critics Wary of New Smithsonian Review Policy

posted by editor

By RICHARD YEAKLEY
c. 2011 Religion News Service
WASHINGTON (RNS) Critics who raised objections to a video at a Smithsonian exhibit that showed ants crawling on a crucifix are unsatisfied with new policies intended to prevent future controversies.
The Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents advisory panel on Monday (Jan. 31) issued a report calling for greater preparation on exhibits that could prove culturally sensitive.
Bill Donohue, the president of the New York-based Catholic League, who was among the most visible critics, believes the report is a “smoke screen” even though the video by the late artist David Wojnarowicz was removed.
“There has not been a single person associated with the Smithsonian who has indicated Christian sensibilities have been offended,” Donohue said.
The three-person advisory panel was tasked with reviewing the Smithsonian’s exhibition planning strategies as well as the museum’s role as a national cultural institution, according to the report.
“Culturally sensitive exhibitions should be previewed from a diverse set of perspectives,” the report reads. “Thus, we urge that there be a diversity of perspectives brought to bear in advance.”
It also emphasized that the review should occur during “pre-decisional exhibit planning.”
The panel presented its findings at the first meeting of the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents since controversy arose about the video, “A Fire in My Belly,” which was a part of a larger exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.”
The video in the display of gay portraits was pulled on Nov. 30, almost immediately after Donohue’s office and some Republicans on Capitol Hill raised concerns.
Supporters say the film, which has since been purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, conveys the suffering and pain felt by Wojnarowicz and others at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
Donohue is also concerned that the language of the report allows for future censorship of religious materials.
“They are giving themselves wiggle room,” Donohue said. “They are leaving the door open to censor that kind of art they find offensive.”
The report contains other recommendations for the Smithsonian, including not changing an exhibit after it is open without heavy consideration, and following current Smithsonian directives for exhibition planning more closely.
“Exhibiting units shall collect and analyze information about the experiences and expectations of visitors and others during the exhibition planning phases,” the directive states.



  • Heretic_for_Christ

    There are art forms — books, graphics, films, music, sculpture — that are undoubtedly offensive to this religion, that religion, or religion in general. Sometimes, such art has a valid point to make, and sometimes it is just the equivalent of a schoolchild gleefully yelling obscenties in the playground.
    Those who direct the venues where such art may be offered have the responsibility of determining whether the art has merit or is just offensive for the sake of being offensive. That is NOT censorship, any more than a movie theater or library is practicing “censorship” by declining to serve as a venue for hard-core pornography.
    What IS censorship is the attitude that demands automatic suppression of any art that offends a particular religion or religion in general.

  • Grumpy Old Person

    I’m a Christian and my sensibilities were not offended.
    Nor is similar controversy a new thing in the art world. Watched a great documentary about Church art from the 13thand 14th centuries, and even way back then, artisits were pillorying the pompous, pious, self-righteous hypocrisy rampant in the Christian Church. And frankly, the Church deserved it. Deserved it then and deserves it now.

  • cknuck

    Nice post H4C very sensitive in thought.
    Grump outside of your claims to be Christian (it takes a lot more than lip service) I see no evidence of Christianity in you or your assertions.

  • pagansister

    So now the Smithsonian has to check to make sure that what they display doesn’t “offend” the Catholic league, AKA Donohue? (or another religion for that matter). What a bunch of BS! I was disappointed that the “offensive” video was removed because of Donohue’s complaint. The Smithsonian or other venues that display art shouldn’t be the puppet of a particular religion—it’s just wrong on all levels.
    As mentioned above, art has always drawn both praise and criticism. I’m sure someone was upset that David was naked!!

  • nnmnns

    The Smithsonian is going to put on a bunch of boring displays, but maybe that’s to be expected of a government museum. There are still good things it can do.
    And if there’s a good movie that also contains pornography, then a theater which doesn’t run it is practicing censorship.
    cknuck I see a lot of evidence of Christianity in you and your assertions. That is no complement to you or to Christianity.

  • Grumpy Old Person

    I personally thank God every day that YOU don’t get to decide who is and who is not a Christian, ck.

  • pagansister

    Amen, Grumpy Old Person, & nnmns (your last paragraph).

  • cknuck

    if they ran something insulting any other religion including atheism all of you anti-Christian folk (including grump) would be up in arms, if their were any truth in any of you you would admit it. You simply delight in anything anti-Christ.

  • Mordred08

    cknuck: “if they ran something insulting any other religion including atheism all of you anti-Christian folk (including grump) would be up in arms, if their were any truth in any of you you would admit it.”
    It might offend me, but I wouldn’t pull a Donohue and say “I don’t want to see it, and nobody else should see it either.”
    “You simply delight in anything anti-Christ.”
    Alright. I do enjoy some things that are critical of Christianity. And if you don’t like that, that’s fine. You have the right to be offended, not the right not to be offended.

  • pagansister

    Actually cknuck, I wouldn’t care. An artist can paint, draw, sculpt etc. anything she/he wants to as far as I’m concerned, religious or otherwise. Why would I get “up in arms?” I just find it wrong for a gallery to remove something because some religious representative complained. (or someone who claims to be a representative). That person doesn’t have the right to tell me I can’t go see it if I choose. As I’ve said before, no one forces anyone to go and look at the “insulting” work. What is insulting or not, is in the eyes of the beholder.

  • cknuck

    pardon me pagan if I don’t believe you, I’ve seen your passion.

  • jestrfyl

    I have no critique of the art work in question because I have not actually seen it (actually seeing a work should be required for any critique of any art form to have credibility). Simply saying “no” without any knowledge beyond someone else’s opinion is little more than dandelion fluff in the breeze.
    I do think the Smithsonian has to re-examine its mission statements and purpose, and then honor it. It does not seem that this particular work would fit within their perview. Each of the many museums has a distinct mission and I don’t think something like this would necessarily meet any of the criteria. If it does, I would be curious to read the notes that would accompany it. There are pelnty of places more appropriate for a work like this, that may indeed have artistic merit as a commentary on historic or contemporary religion. But I am fairly sure the Smithsonian is not the best venue.

  • jestrfyl

    I have no critique of the art work in question because I have not actually seen it (actually seeing a work should be required for any critique of any art form to have credibility). Simply saying “no” without any knowledge beyond someone else’s opinion is little more than dandelion fluff in the breeze.
    I do think the Smithsonian has to re-examine its mission statements and purpose, and then honor it. It does not seem that this particular work would fit within their perview. Each of the many museums has a distinct mission and I don’t think something like this would necessarily meet any of the criteria. If it does, I would be curious to read the notes that would accompany it. There are pelnty of places more appropriate for a work like this, that may indeed have artistic merit as a commentary on historic or contemporary religion. But I am fairly sure the Smithsonian is not the best venue.

  • jestrfyl

    I have no critique of the art work in question because I have not actually seen it (actually seeing a work should be required for any critique of any art form to have credibility). Simply saying “no” without any knowledge beyond someone else’s opinion is little more than dandelion fluff in the breeze.
    I do think the Smithsonian has to re-examine its mission statements and purpose, and then honor it. It does not seem that this particular work would fit within their perview. Each of the many museums has a distinct mission and I don’t think something like this would necessarily meet any of the criteria. If it does, I would be curious to read the notes that would accompany it. There are pelnty of places more appropriate for a work like this, that may indeed have artistic merit as a commentary on historic or contemporary religion. But I am fairly sure the Smithsonian is not the best venue.
    If this posts three times it is because the “Got’cha” security device is making it difficult.

  • pagansister

    cknuck, not a problem that you don’t believe me.

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