Commentary: "When will the decent majority of Americans stand against a fringe that sees censorship as a replacement for debate?"

From The Guardian, December 5, 2010

An exhibition at The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, entitled Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture is, amazingly, America's first major museum exhibition to look at art history from a homosexual perspective. Last week, after a sustained attack by opponents, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner and the Catholic League, the Smithsonian withdrew a video by the artist David Wojnarowicz, Fire in My Belly, which includes a crucifix covered in ants, symbolising the suffering of people with AIDS.  Georgia congressman Jack Kingston, railing against the gallery's depictions of "male nudity" and "Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts", is calling for a congressional review of the Smithsonian's funding.  Co-curator Jonathan Katz, who was not consulted before the artwork was pulled, is livid: "When the Smithsonian starts bowing to its censors, it abrogates its charge as our national museum."  All this heat is quite out of proportion with the actual show, which takes a queer-themed but uncontroversial look (at least by UK standards) at 100 years of art and social history. "When," Katz asks, "will the decent majority of Americans stand against a fringe that sees censorship as a replacement for debate?"  Hide/Seek sought to conquer what Katz calls "the last acceptable prejudice in American political life" - but the conservative right, rampant after last month's midterm elections, won't relinquish their prejudices without a fight. And so, "an exhibition explicitly intended to break a 21-year blacklist against the representation of same-sex desire," says a dispirited Katz, "now finds itself in the same boat."


Protestors of censorship at National Portrait Gallery are banned for life

From Washington D.C.'s City Paper, December 5, 2010

Two activists were detained by police on Saturday at the National Portrait Gallery after showing David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly on an iPad inside the museum. Both activists were ejected and subsequently banned for life from any Smithsonian Institution facility.   D.C. residents Mike Blasenstein, 37, and Mike Iacovone, 35, displayed the Wojnarowicz video at the entrance of "Hide/Seek," the exhibit from which Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Wayne Clough had the piece removed last week. Guards at the National Portrait Gallery approached Blasenstein and Iacovone  about 10 minutes after the two kicked off their guerrilla tablet exhibition.  "My whole goal was to get that art back out," said Blasenstein. Facing the prospect of arrest, he said that he and Iacovone ultimately opted to cooperate with police. "I could get arrested, but they've already taken the art away from the people a second time. I just want to get back to work on this."  Blasenstein and Iacovone's demonstration is the latest in a series of actions and screenings aimed at protesting the Smithsonian's decision to censor a video in a GLBT exhibit following complaints broadcast by conservative media.

>> You can watch a 3 minute video of their protest here.


Commentary: As Culture Wars return, major institutions surrender their integrity

Raymond J. Learsy, writing for The Huffington Post, December 5, 2010

As a Presidential Appointee in the 1980's to the National Council of the National Endowment for the Arts, it pains me enormously to see a replay of the Culture Wars that were played out so destructively in those years.  National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan's action in removing the work from the exhibition, thereby trampling on the artist's creative expression and the independence of the curatorial process that selected the work for this exhibition, is shameful.  Perhaps, given the miasma of pessimism and concern permeating the land, institutional appeasement seems to be spreading its wings. Just last week Steve Martin -- whose latest novel A Object of Beauty was recently published -- was invited by New York's prestigious 92nd Street Y to a public conversation with the gifted Deborah Solomon of the New York Times.  The result was to be aptly classified by the Times as worthy of being "archived under disaster.  Or comedy."  The Times reported the interview seemingly centered on Steve Martin's experience in the art world, which was, after all, the theme of the book -- and not on Mr. Martin's experience as an actor.  Receiving complaints from some listeners that "the evening was not going the way they wished, meaning we were discussing art," the Y balefully surrendered its reputation and its institutional integrity. They shamefully apologized to the audience and offered to refund the price to all who had purchased tickets. Not the kind of institutions you want in a foxhole with you.


Commentary: The new threat of censorship in UK theater

From Miller-McCune, December 4, 2010

An excerpt from an interview with John Kampfner, the head of the London-based Index on Censorship, discusses the threats to free expression in the world.

Question: What would you identify as the newest threats to free expression?

Kampfner: A fascinating threat which is relatively new is the issue of artistic censorship and free expression, especially around issues of racial and religious offense. I was doing a seminar... with theater directors, theater managers...and they were telling me amazing stories of how they...would not commission a particular play, and in the case of a couple of plays in the U.K., they were actually taken off the stage in a few days because of public protests. In one case, the police actually ordered a play to be abandoned, citing public order issues. With local authorities here, and with police and public prosecutors around, [we're] trying to get some sort of modus operandi around how do you deal with these issues. If a local group complains it is being offended by a particular play, what tends to happen is that the local authority and the local police just act of their own volition. We want to set some sort of national standards to get some sense of accountability and transparency and consistency, again with a presumption toward free speech.


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After worldwide success of "Ask A Curator," comes "Ask A Conductor" on Twitter

Marc van Bree, writing on Beth Kanter's blog, December 6, 2010

A month or two ago, museums and galleries around the world participated in a Twitter event called Ask a Curator. 340 museums [participated].  Ask a Curator attracted a large number of questions on a whole range of subjects, the event hashtag became the number 1 trending topic on Twitter and was featured in press around the world.  [Its success has] sparked other [arts] sectors to follow suit.  Together with Lacey Huszcza at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, I am putting together an event called #askaconductor.  On December 8, conductors from around the world will come together to engage with fans, first-timers and complete strangers.  It is an opportunity for classical music organizations and the conductors that lead them to connect to their community and share their stories, love and passion, one tweet at a time, and really engage meaningfully with the public and to go beyond the cut-and-paste news release headlines streaming from many accounts. And it is an opportunity to have some fun on Twitter and debunk some of those stubborn classical music myths. The accompanying Web site suggests that we have room to expand the event to other musicians throughout the year. Maybe we can have a #askacomposer or #askacellist in the Spring?

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