The Culture Wars are getting old

But they’re not going away anytime soon, if this latest Smithsonian incident is illustrative of anything.  It seemed like we have finally confined the “Culture Wars” to the “War on Christmas” and vague complaints about immorality in Hollywood.  Maybe it was that our public institutions like the Smithsonian had simply self-censored until they thought that it was safe to bring provocative art back into the light.  Whatever the reason, it was nice to think that we were becoming adults about art in this country.

The National Portrait Gallery is currently hosting Hide/Seek, an acclaimed gay portraiture show.  It’s an exhibit that explores sexuality and gender, how it’s changing, and how our society’s marginalization of homosexuality has affected us.  I would love to see, as I imagine a lot of people would.  Hide/Seek does what art is supposed to do – challenge us and our assumptions and attitudes.  It ask questions and wants each of us to answer them and see things from a different perspective.  It seems like a wonderful show.  It’s an important show – take a few minutes to flip through the online gallery.

We know what happened next – The Bill Donahue, the blowhard from the Catholic League complained, Reps like Eric Cantor spoke up, and the Smithsonian removed a David Wojnarowicz’s video Fire in My Belly, in which there was an 11 second clip of ants crawling over a crucifix.  On World AIDS Day. Wojnariwicz died from AIDS related complications in 1992 and can’t defend his work.  The National Gallery and the Smithsonian should have.  the Smithsonian has even doubled down and is refusing to allow other artists to stand in solidarity with Wojnariwicz, by removing their work from the exhibit.  The institution is using paperwork to hold these other works hostage and prevent protests from the artists.

Art doesn’t have to be pretty or pleasing to the eye to be art.  Art can and should challenge us, even offend us. Art asks questions and we answer them.  If it offends our sensibilities we can challenge it right back – by asking questions, holding forums, talking to our friends, talking to the artist.  What we can’t do is censor it.  No one has the right to say, “I don’t like this, so you can’t see it”.  That’s not American.  We don’t have a right not to be offended.

Fire in my Belly may be offensive to some people.  Some people may even consider it sacrilegious.  Maybe it is, but that’s not my call.  It’s certainly not the governments call.  Regardless of what Representatives Cantor and Boehner believe, the United States Government does not get to decide what is or is not irreligious or sacrilegious.  Let’s leave that to Saudi Arabia or Iran.

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Recently Seattle dealt with a similar situation concerning reading lists at Seattle Public Schools.  Currently sophomores are required to read Brave New World, one of the most important books of the twentieth century.  It seems to become more and more relevant as our consumerism continues to grow.  President Bush’s request to keep shopping in the wake of September 11th, “I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy…” seems eerily similar to instructions the inhabitant of the dystopia in Brave New World received as children to buy new items instead of mending anything – “more stitches mean less riches”.

The Natives in Brave New World live apart from “civilized” society in reservations, practicing religion, monogamy, and other things abhorrent to “civilization” and progress.   “Civilized” society has gone off the rails.  There is no more family, people escape reality by taking soma, consumerism is a religion, and emotional ties to anyone are strongly discouraged.  Natives “savages”, a term still fairly common when the novel was written.  One of the “savages” is brought back to civilized society and put on display.  He is appalled by what he sees – that’s the point of the book.

A Native American student was offended by the term savages and their treatment in the text.  She brought her concerns to her mother.  The mother went to the administration and briefly got the book pulled.  The school board heard the case and found that there was no cause to remove the book and it’s back on the district list. Which is a good thing.

We can’t go banning things that we don’t like or don’t understand.  The beauty of art, literature, music, etc is that they are meant to be discussed.  With hyperbole, without – it doesn’t matter.  Each discussion we have, every time we say “that was interesting, let’s talk about it” we move our culture, our society forward.  That’s why we get so passionate about education; why we fund things like PBS, NPR, and the NEA.  They make us talk and think.  They make us angry and passionate.  They remind us that we have a right to speech, thought, expression, and a right to be wrong about it all.  But we can only exercise that right when we forego censorship.

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