It was two days before Christmas, and some Washingtonians were still complaining that images mocking Jesus had been removed from the National Portrait Gallery. On the top of the front of the Style section on Thursday, Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott called for the head of Smithsonian secretary Wayne Clough: "the best option for undoing the damage remains the resignation of the man who made the decision." Somehow, the 11-second video was so inconsequential it should not have been removed -- but once removed, it suddenly became an enormous disaster:
Clough's defense of a decision that will almost certainly mark the nadir of his tenure has been limited to internal memos. By withdrawing from the public debate about what has been tactically, strategically and historically a disaster for the institution, he has called into question whether he shares the fundamental values of openness and engagement that should define the Smithsonian.
Once again, the Post talks in misleading code. "Openness" does not mean debate. It means that the capital must be open for the Gay Agenda to sprawl across the museum and for no one to dare to question it, even as it assaults ancient religions. "Engagement" does not mean a discussion, but a conquest. The People should engage with Art and come away transformed to the progressive ideology.
Kennicott wants the art poobahs below Clough to submit to the request of outraged gay artist A.A. Bronson that his morbid photo of his expired lover should be removed, so to expose the conservatives for their opposition to (get this) a “democratic agenda.” As if they would let the unsophisticated common man have a vote on Art:
Returning the Smithsonian to its proper values can now be accomplished only by someone underneath the secretary, and the options are few. Although it would harm the integrity of the show, allowing Bronson to remove his work would create a large symbolic hole in the exhibition, a blank space on the wall, which could be explained as a marker of the Smithsonian's mistake and the aggression of outside forces that resist the powerful, democratic agenda of the modern museum at its best.
That agenda, 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.
Again, this is speaking in code: "new kinds of debate" means the religious right in the near future will be intimidated into silence, as the "old forms" are "harnessed" to serve the revolutionaries of the "new." In the very next paragraph, Kennicott explains that in the proper New World Order, the old patrons -- whether they are private funders or public bureaucrats -- should "acquiesce" and refrain from questioning the transformative reign of "scholarship and science." That's a very funny name for bratty, hateful left-wing radicalism.
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.
Kennicott believes that museums must perform a "complicated dance" -- in essence, to trick the people into thinking they have a voice in the art world, as they are pressed to submit to the power of the Uncomfortable Truths of revolutionary forces: "It is a complicated dance that museums must perform, welcoming people in yet speaking at them in an authoritative voice; empowering the visitor while telling uncomfortable truths."
Clough's decision to remove the offense to Christians was unacceptable because it "ran counter to this history of reform and showed an astonishing lack of perception about the humanities as well as the dynamics of museum culture. It was tactically, strategically and historically stupid. It was tactically stupid because the culture wars were effectively over, at least in the museum world. Clough has re-empowered forces that will soon be back for more symbolic acts of contrition and subservience."
Kennicott tried to argue that those eleven seconds of Jesus video is far more important because of its tiny, transient nature:
The smaller the thing removed, the shorter the material that actually gives offense, the greater the symbolism of its removal. The removal of the video was a tiny gesture of exclusion meant to thwart the powerful march of democratic openness that museums in general, and this exhibition in particular, exemplify....Thus: Gays are allowed to be seen in the museum, but not entirely; scholars control the agenda, unless bureaucrats countermand them; new forms of the sacred can be represented, unless old defenders of the sacred take offense.
But then Kennicott truly travels around the bend. He begins to discuss new meanings of sacredness, ones very far from any notion of Christianity's God. The sacred becomes associated with the Museum Ideologues and their vaunted adoration of their own "openness, fearlessness, truthfulness."
It is that last conflict, between ideas of the sacred, that may linger after the exhibition ends in February. The museum has become a quasi-sacred space, with rules as complicated and inviolate as any church liturgy. People who don't find the meaning of their existence in churches are often passionate about museums, where a set of fundamental values - openness, fearlessness, truthfulness - are celebrated with all the historical trappings.
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. Clough's rapid and craven decision to remove the video, and then his absence at any public discussion of the consequences, was doubly sacrilegious: It demonstrates fear of controversy and aversion to dialogue.
If Kennicott is so in favor of "dialogue," then the House Republicans should really call on him to testify, so to expose for the public the idea that they should have no say in mucking up the "sacred doxologies of the museum." They must hand over their hard-earned cash and shut up while their faith is mocked and mauled. The Post's obsessive coverage of this allegedly small controversy clearly illustrates that "Merry Christmas" was hardly a worn-out phrase in the hallways of the Post.