Friday, April 8, 2011

Scaife paper cracks the master's whip at the Carnegie Museum

I'm a bit late responding to this, but I don't have the time to blog daily. I'm part of the amateur left, not the professional left.

Last week the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review published an editorial excoriating an exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art. An unsigned editorial means it is the opinion of the paper, and the opinion of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is likely the opinion of its owner, Richard Mellon Scaife.

Scaife was the Koch Brothers of the Clinton years, funding the notorious Arkansas Project targeting President Clinton and many other far-right initiatives. Many are convinced that the suicide of journalist Steve Kangas was a Scaife ordered murder. (I doubt this conspiracy theory - if you are going to kill someone, why leave him in your own bathroom?) When quizzed about funding right-wing causes by journalist Karen Rothmyer, Scaife notoriously replied "You fucking Communist cunt, get out of here." (That particular incident seems to have disappeared down the Wikipedia memory hole.)

The editorial is a complaint about Diver, a retrospective of the work of underappreciated artist Paul Thek. This New York Times review of the show at the Whitney Museum will give you a good overview of his work.

The editorial itself is largely an unremarkable piece of right-wing agitation with large helpings of snide commentary. An artwork is taken out of context and described disgustingly, another (pictured above) is taken as liberal and socialist propaganda, and there's couple of shots at the liberal elite mentioning biscotti and cappuccino. One banal editorial is nothing at all compared to the uproar surrounding the Smithsonian's Hide/Seek exhibition and the pulling of David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly. And judging by its Twitter feed, the Carnegie Museum isn't taking this attack lying down. Two days ago it even held a panel discussion and screening of A Fire in My Belly.

What's going on here isn't an attempt to destroy the exhibit or the museum. Scaife has enough money and enough media to probably make a good attempt at that, but what's happening here isn't so much an attack as a warning shot. The real message of the editorial is this:

Pittsburgh's supposedly pre-eminent gallery for all things art has forgotten who butters its bread.

It's money we're talking about here, or the prestige that money buys, and in Pittsburgh the money is really old. The show is in the Heinz Gallery of the Carnegie Museum and Scaife himself is heir to the Mellon fortune. Those three names are about half the money in Pennsylvania right there. And being old money, it demands respect and fealty. It doesn't care about dirty pictures, but it won't countenance an attack on its ideology, not even in the form of one painting by one artist in one show. If it doesn't get what it wants, it will take its money elsewhere.

This is a message, and the message is "respect your betters, or else". It's a call for self-censorship, and there's plenty of evidence that people in the art world are getting the message. Self-censorship is the most insidious type of censorship and many institutions are reluctant to put on shows that challenge anyone: their audience, their patrons, or the right-wing noise machine. It was a (figurative) crime to remove the Wojnarowicz video from Hide/Seek, but the hidden crime was the fact that many institutions shrank from the idea of hosting the challenging show. Hide/Seek curator Jonathan Katz points out:

It’s hard to say two thing at once, but I’m going to. I’m going to say that I could not disagree more with the stupidity of the removal of the video. At the same time, I’m also absolutely convinced that the Smithsonian has been heroic in breaking this blacklist. In fact, what I’m finding very troubling about some of the reaction to what happened is that it tends to demonize the Smithsonian to the delectation of the very right-wing fringe that inaugurated this conflict in the first place.

What I think we need to remember is that the Smithsonian is courageous and that other museums were not. I’m increasingly getting concerned that the activist response targeting the Smithsonian loses the bigger picture, which is that it’s been 21 years since Mapplethorpe and no one has done a damn thing in that time, that museums have been sitting on their hands and that this incident confirms the wisdom of so doing.

We need to be outraged about incidents of censorship like the one committed by the Smithsonian. But we also need to be outraged by incidents of censorship and demand the institutions charged with preserving and representing our cultural heritage do so fully and completely and don't leave out gays or progressives or unions or whatever displeases the Sciafes of the world. We should demand that they challenge us and fight these battles instead of heeding the crack of the master's whip and abandoning these fights before they even begin.

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