Wednesday, April 6, 2011

CMU, The place of you-shoulda-been-there-last-night episode 1: "Fire in My Belly"

Wednesday April 6 2011 4:30: Attending a CAS panel event regarding the controversy surrounding the Smithsonian's decision to withdraw "Fire in My Belly," a 1987 film piece by the artist David Wojnarowicz, after a complaint by Catholic League president William Donohue, from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery called "Hide/Seek."

Presenting about this controversy and the nature of censorship in society are: Richard Howells of King's College, London; Andrea Ritvoi, a cultural studies professor here at CMU; David Dumbrosky, the Executive Director of the Center for Arts Management and Technology; and Jonathan D. Katz, founder of the Harvey Milk Institute and the first professor of LGBT studies ever to recieve tenure in the United States.

Richard Howells [pictured here on British television] is a dear friend, who was the Senior Fellow of the Center for the Arts in Society at Carnegie Mellon in AY 2003-4, the same year that I was the Junior Fellow. He is a scholar of utopian thought, and author of The Myth of the Titanic which is one of my favorite books of scholarship. We became friends and then collaborators, and co-authored an article:  “Midget Cities: Utopia, Utopianism, and the Vor-schein of the ‘Freak’ Show,” which appeared in Disability Studies Quarterly, 25:3 (Summer 2005). I have presented the results of this research at the Coney Island Museum as part of the "Ask the Experts" Summer Lecture series in 2008 and at the Little People of America Association National Conference in Brooklyn in 2009.

The panelists are looking at the nature and process of censorship. They're going way beyond the convenient finger-wagging at the Smithsonian which is the happy passive response of us educated liberals to active censorship, "oh, shame on you, Smithsonian, you weak-kneed capitulators."

Howells looks into the convenient performance of outrage that accompany both the presentation of "offensive" material and the attempt to censory it. Ritvoi gives some perspective about what lies and misconceptions were promoted as part of this campaign against "Fire," and what it is like to grow up in Soviet Romania where overt censorship is a daily occurrence. Dumbrosky asks pragmatic questions - he notes that the real question is what are you willing to go to bat for, as a manager, as an artist, as a producer: are you willing to back your teammates, or not? Katz, who is someone I admire very much for his ability to transform his prodigious accomplishments as an art historian into prodigious achievements for Queer activism, notes that censorship happens all the time in the art and museum world as they simply turn down controversial exhibitions, particularly in the US in the past 30 years, those with Queer content. These observations dovetail interestingly in the recognition that censorship is so institutionalized in American culture that it has become, like so many other atrocious states of mind, utterly normal, and we only think to condemn it when it is so blatantly obvious that certain decisions are being made that have nothing to do with art and everything to do with politics.

I note that Donahue is a primary fundraiser for John Boehner.

In the audience here at Adamson Wing I recognize Dan Martin, Stephen Brockmann, John Carson, Jon Klancher, Tim Haggerty, Paul Eiss: the usual suspects for a CAS event. I don't recognize any of the students.

Brockmann notes that there is a stereotype that the arts world is gay-friendly, and Katz disabuses him. But it occurs to me that the theatre is one place that is actually gay-friendly, both in terms of internal culture and artistic product. But Terence McNally's Corpus Christi is as likely to be disavowed by the Manhattan Theatre Club (1998) due to a complaint by the Catholic League as My Name is Rachel Corrie is to be disavowed by the New York Theatre Workshop (2006) after a complaint from area Jewish groups.

A few years back, CMU president Jarad Cohen stood up in front of the Anti-Defamation League and defended the right of Carnegie Mellon to invite any speakers it damn well pleased, and if the Jewish members of the community and the Jewish patrons of the university thought that some of those folks were anti-semitic, well, we'll just have to take the consequences. The faculty senate, of which I was a part at the time, stood behind him to clarify the Controversial Speakers Policy - they rejected the characterizations "Controversial," because that presupposes a conclusion before all the facts are in; "Speakers" because the policy should apply to performance artists, parades, installations, or whatever; and "Policy," because since the university was refusing to censor anyone, there was really no policy. So, now we have a noncontroversial nonspeakers nonpolicy. As a Jewish faculty member, I was surprised and genuinely pleased by this long sequence of events.

But then, what do we really risk? We all play our parts in this. I confess that I was approached by a theatre company that wanted to do a show with our depagot a lot of production money from a foundation that has recently been implicated in gay-bashing and creationist politics. I didn't want to support the piece for that reason, not because of the quality of the art. Can we divorce art from politics? Should we? If we are in the business of giving people a voice - do we give it to everyone willy-nilly? Even if it means losing our funding? Our audience?

Afterwards, Jon Klancher (who is awesome) clarified things for me - we have a right, as artists and political beings, to choose what we will or will not support, and we should never have to apologize for that. But if we back someone, we have to back them all the way, and not retreat as soon as someone with a microphone makes some noise. We may not agree on what we dare to support, or what we are prepared to fight for. Resistance is not futile. On the contrary, it is absolutely critical to our lives as artists and citizens.

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