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Critic’s Notebook: Smithsonian air-clearing forum looks to be anything but

An upcoming Smithsonian Institution public forum is not about the issue of museums and controversy, as billed. It’s about sweeping recent events under the rug.

When Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough hastily ordered a video excerpt pulled from a critically admired National Portrait Gallery exhibition late last year, he set off a national firestorm. It quickly emerged that the censorship came not in response to general public complaints about the show, as first thought, but to an orchestrated protest campaign directed by a conservative advocacy group, the Media Research Center.

Clough, as part of an effort at damage control, promised a late-spring public forum on the controversy. Panel discussions, now scheduled for April 26-27, are expected to feature 11 Smithsonian officials and 15 invited guests, organized by Smithsonian undersecretary for history, art and culture Richard Kurin. The aim is to clear the air.

Consider this a smog warning. Judging from a working draft of the schedule for the event obtained by The Times, expect a two-day exercise in misdirection, generalized obfuscation and CYA posturing.

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Five panels will consider such topics as the distinctive nature of national museums, curators’ general responsibilities and diverse cultural constituencies. Not on the agenda: the organized protest, based on anti-gay animus from conservative Christians, that led to the censorship.

The exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” assembled nearly 100 works by Thomas Eakins, George Bellows, Marcel Duchamp, Grant Wood, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol and dozens more. The art tracked gay, lesbian and gender identity during the 20th century.

The forum’s fatuousness is blatant in plans for a panel titled “Media Perspectives on Exhibitions and Controversies,” moderated by the director of the National Museum of African Art. The panel features one liberal and two conservatives.

Blake Gopnik, a liberal-leaning art critic for the Washington Post (he has since left the paper) vigorously applauded “Hide/Seek” in his review. After the video excerpt was pulled, he condemned its removal as censorship.

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Jed Perl, a conservative art critic for the New Republic, did not review the show, but he twice wrote about the subsequent controversy. He said the curators had chosen to “politicize the act of creation”; so, in effect, they were asking for it.

Most interesting is the third panelist, Justin Paulette. Strangely, he is identified as “journalist, Washington Times.” According to his biography at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, a right-wing Ohio think tank where he blogs, Paulette is actually an attorney.

To my knowledge, his “Hide/Seek” op-ed is his only published art piece — one of two op-eds he’s penned for the conservative newspaper, owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. The story’s headline: “Defining Art Down: Left Hides Behind Free Expression While Seeking to Despoil Decency.” Paulette falsely described the show as “full of lewd, sado-masochistic porn displays.”

Really? Eakins, O’Keeffe, Wood, Bellows ... ? There have been suggestions that Paulette had not seen the show. Perhaps the panel moderator will inquire.

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Yet that is not what’s most interesting about Paulette’s inclusion. His Ashbrook bio also says he “is regularly featured in Family Research Council’s Social Conservative Review.” The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified the Family Research Council as a hate group, specifically “because of its dissemination of false and demonizing propaganda about gays and lesbians.” Why the Smithsonian is inviting a speaker associated with a hate group is hard to fathom.

The Washington Times also editorializes against gay rights. Writing in April about the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill to prohibit employment discrimination by civilian and non-religious employers on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation, the church-sponsored newspaper asserted that “discrimination is necessary.” Why? Because homosexuality is “a psychological disorder” — bigotry rejected by the American Psychiatric Assn. nearly 40 years ago.

In May, the paper also published an op-ed on the supposed “stealth” candidacy of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. It focused on her opposition to the anti-gay military policy “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The article’s author: Paulette.

Should be a fascinating panel — although probably not for illuminating “Media Perspectives” on museums and scholarship.

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Paulette’s invitation raises a crucial question. The attack on “Hide/Seek” largely came from conservative Christians whose doctrines oppose homosexuality. Why isn’t there a panel to discuss the relationship between religious faith and scholarly discourse?

When a scholarly project is made an ideological target — as has happened before — what should the Smithsonian do? Since this attack is widely understood as an instance of anti-gay bullying, why isn’t there a panel planned to discuss appropriate responses?

The general public had no problem with “Hide/Seek.” Why isn’t there a panel to address how to handle Washington’s political noise machine?

The central circumstance that brought this forum into being is simply being ignored. Ironically for a show titled “Hide/Seek,” that story is being hidden behind a blizzard of academic inquiries into sidecar topics like “media perspectives.”

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In the wake of the censorship uproar, the Smithsonian’s board of regents convened a special committee to look at what happened. The committee expressed broad support for Secretary Clough but chastised his ill-informed decision to yank the video excerpt. What response would have been better?

On that practical score, critical to the Smithsonian’s future, expect to learn nothing. For, if the draft holds true, the two people most worth hearing from won’t be appearing on any of its panels.

According to sources, the Smithsonian officials principally responsible for the bad advice Clough got — and took — are Kurin and Evelyn S. Lieberman, the institution’s director of communications and external affairs. Kurin is a cultural anthropologist who has published on the Hope diamond. Lieberman was deputy chief of staff in the Clinton administration, whose primary claim to fame was firing Monica S. Lewinsky before her affair with the president was known.

Lieberman does not appear on the draft program. Kurin does. At a forum that he is assembling, he’s scheduled to give the opening and closing remarks.

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As I said: smog alert.

christopher.knight@latimes.com


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