New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman was granted the front page of Wednesday’s Arts section for a snobbish chiding of uncouth American conservatives who helped squelch a video some found sacrilegious, by a featured artist in a Smithsonian gay art exhibit: “In Britain, Separation of Art and State.” ("Separation" except for when it comes to actually subsidizing the art, which Britain does.)
The Times even ran a large photo of a clip from the controversial video by artist David Wojnarowicz, "A Fire in my Belly," showing ants crawling over a crucifix. This is the same newspaper that proudly refused to reprint newspaper cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad after radical Muslims instigated an uproar back in February 2006.
Kimmelman wrote from London:
For all the talk about one big, globalized art world, the trans-Atlantic gulf reasserted itself the other evening via a small but telling event. An overflow crowd of several hundred people, young and old, men and women, gay and straight, packed Starr Auditorium at the Tate Modern here to pay tribute to David Wojnarowicz, the artist and AIDS activist who died, at 37, from AIDS, in 1992.
Last week, on a visit to Los Angeles, the secretary of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, was still struggling to account for why he caved two months ago to Republican lawmakers and the leader of the Catholic League, a group that calls itself a defender of free speech. Mr. Clough told The Los Angeles Times that, among other things, fear of retaliatory budget cuts caused him to remove a video by Wojnarowicz from “Hide/Seek,” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, a show about same-sex themes in American portraiture.
After featuring Clough’s mea culpas, Kimmelman went on melodramatic war-footing with his word choice.
Better late than never, I suppose, as with Mr. Clough’s conscience. To be fair, it is his particular burden, one not shared by the heads of those other museums, to answer directly to the likes of John A. Boehner and Eric Cantor, the newly empowered Republican Congressional leaders. They capitalized on Mr. Donohue’s protest in what seems, in retrospect, like an awfully well-choreographed pas de deux to rekindle the culture wars. Mr. Clough’s capitulation was a diplomatic Hail Mary pass. But the truth is that appeasement never works.
Kimmelman was convinced that conservative outrage against the art was politically “orchestrated.”
“There was also ‘Sensation,’ ” Mr. Serota added, an exhibition that caused a ruckus here in 1997, although for reasons different from those creating a stir at the Brooklyn Museum two years later. In the United States Mr. Donohue and Rudolph W. Giuliani, New York’s mayor at the time, in the role that Representative Cantor plays now, went through much the same paroxysm of orchestrated grief over a work combining an image of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung.
Kimmelman skipped over the fatal outrage stirred up by radical Muslims over cartoon images of Muhammad that appeared in a Danish newspaper, perhaps because he led off a February 8, 2006 article by refusing to defend them, calling them “callous and feeble cartoons.” Apparently Kimmelman finds some anti-religious art more appealing than other kinds.
Art critic Kimmelman moved on to his other of expertise, health care.
In the United States, where no hubbub over art interests the tabloids or cable news unless it does become a federal case (or involve newly obscene auction prices), there is nonetheless the presumption that ordinary taxpayers have a right to intervene via their political representatives in curatorial affairs because museums get tax breaks. It has something to do with the ideal of the American Everyman. As with the military or medicine, so with museums, we are by national inclination meddlers.
Europeans are not, which is why they have reacted to the Smithsonian flap with the same mildly appalled bafflement that they express toward American opposition to the health care bill. It all seems inexplicable to them. Cultural free expression and the independence of public arts institutions, like the right to medical treatment, are taken for granted across modern Europe. Since at least the war these have been considered basic rights.
How is nationalizing health care (as done in the U.K.) not “meddling” in health care?