Thursday, December 30, 2010

Who is Politicizing Identity?.

Recently, Edward Rothstein of the New York Times looked at the challenges museums have exploring "other" histories. His critique of an exhibition of the role of Muslims in science history, which opened at the New York Hall of Science in Queens and the unveiling of the President's House in Philadelphia points to identity politics as the cause of a growing practice of distorting historical facts in order to provide testament to a particular group's story. I agree, these identity exhibitions appear to rest on historical slants. Rothstein also makes an excellent point about how such simple and slanted presentations do not allow for the nuances each group can claim as dynamic moments in their histories. But to focus on these two examples seems to implicate the cultural groups' eagerness to present "their stories." Weak scholarship, or more likely, ignoring scholarship results in poor exhibitions and museums no matter the topic. The politics played here is not those of cultural identity, but of museum identity.

As someone who devoted her own academic scholarship to cultural identity theory in art history, I can tell you historians are not prone to omit historical nuance. In fact, we excitedly look for it. It's these dynamics or twists in which we rest our stories. This is after all, the variety of varying perspectives of history. Identity politics doesn't generally happen at the scholarship level. True, like all scholars, we begin with a premise or a question that may seem slanted, but the goal is in the search for problems, twists, complicated dynamics in history particular to cultural identity theory.

Today, presenting historical nuances rests with the museums and their boards of directors. As cultural institutions continue to be managed by business professionals, such as development officers and public relations firms, nuance (i.e. historical facts, scholarship) risks being abandoned for the ease of the sell. (I refuse to believe an uncomplicated history line will secure large audiences, but I'm not in the business of sales). It is this brand of identity politics that that dictates the parameters of exhibitions. Rothstein does in fact mention the National Museum of American Jewish History as an example of how museums successfully present nuance. I will add El Museum del Barrio as another. These two institutions established themselves about 40 years ago, a time when "curator" meant scholar, not aggregator of information.

While Rothstein's critique seems to lay the blame on these cultural groups' desire to claim their history, the weakness of these exhibitions and others like them point instead to the fact that these stories are are not "their own stories." Instead, they are examples of branding for the business of museum identity. Forty years after cultural groups were offered the mic to tell their stories, have we returned to a place when our identity is someone else's merchandise?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Find Your Center: A Link to Your Arts Community and Others

Since inviting you to consider directly supporting the arts in Greater Cincinnati, my friend Shannan Boyer from the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center pointed me to Find Your Center Now. This is a directory of the neighborhood arts centers throughout the area.

I've included most of these to my links banner above, but expect this directory link may be a better resource that will be updated more timely than my own list. Because this directory does not include the major museums, it shines a better spotlight on the individual communities of which we may not have known.

Please check out these places and again consider supporting them by purchasing a membership or enrolling in any of the classes or attending an event.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Support Local Artists and Arts Organizations for a Happy New Year

My regular readers know I am an advocate for direct support of our artists and art organizations. As you rush to finish your holiday shopping, remember museum stores, concert tickets, and memberships to specific art organizations or neighborhood art centers are great gifts.

If you are a parent like me, once the holidays are over, you'll soon be wondering how to best plan your children's summer. Summer in Cincinnati is filled with art classes and camps. A membership now will put you in line for a spot in any of these classes that will fill up quickly. Purchasing a membership for a family on your list will also secure discounts on events for the family (adults and children) throughout the year.

Not only are these gifts tax-deductible, but since you are reading this, you simply have to scroll to the top of this page and click on any of the links above to begin shopping.

Make it a wonderful new year for your friends and family as well as the local artists and art organizations by filling their stockings with a year of art.

Happiest Holidays from the Cincinnati Art Snob.

Monday, December 20, 2010

But 20 Years Ago, Cincinnati Invested in Art's Dialog

The past couple of weeks have proven to be a challenge as I try to engage the local art community in some of the biggest news in the arts this season. I've spent this time trying to understand why despite "our vibrant art community," no one in Greater Cincinnati wants to participate in this discussion. As stressed in my previous post, the CAC has enjoyed a history of supporting the arts and artists through bold exhibitions and conversations. Yet today they fail to join other museums in standing up against censorship.

I know Cincinnati is conservative. Though I also know of many local artists and art patrons who are not. So why is it that everyone in Cincinnati seems to be shying away from this debate? A recent blog post on ArtsWave seems to shed light on the silence. "Everyone Wants to Live in a Special Place" is about finding and adopting the best message that will attract support for the arts. ArtsWave in fact criticizes discussions that include challenging topics like censorship in the arts saying:

"Reporters and bloggers love to shine a spotlight on fights like the one that erupted in recent days over a privately-funded exhibit at the publicly-funded Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. And opponents of broad support for the arts know they can undermine that support by tagging art as elitist for the few. We’ve seen it happen time and again.

Debates like this make even our friends and supporters leery of publicly backing the arts -- whether with money or advocacy."

Let me get this straight, ArtsWave is accusing art writers of undermining support for the arts?

Boldness in the arts including debates like this one have proven that support increases for the arts. In fact, despite the notion that uncomfortable debates damage support for the arts, the CAC continues to tap the Mapplethorpe controversy 20 years later.

To those of you who read my blog, you know this last point is what frustrates me most about the silence. So I finally looked to see what the atmosphere was really like here 20 years ago? In 1990, Cincinnati Magazine wrote an excellent review on the legal and artistic ramifications of the Mapplethorpe debate called Mapplethorpe: The Aftershock.

The cover story presents an incredibly dynamic discussion between community leaders both for and against censorship of the exhibition, and how this event was shaped by and shapes Greater Cincinnati. The details and perspectives included in the story are very interesting and I encourage you to read it. Reading it will give you an idea of the kind of comprehensive discussions you could find in the local mainstream (even conservative) media 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, the conversation is one we in Cincinnati seem to be afraid to have today. Even in this time of social networking when conversations should be occurring frequently and debates permitting insight provided by various voices, Cincinnati's art communities are silent to the crimes of censorship for which they once fought so hard.

Has ArtsWave's work to find the strongest message to support the local arts effectively held any arts discussion in 2010 hostage?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Where is the CAC?

Since the pulling of the David Wojnarowicz video, A Fire in My Belly, from the Smithsonian last week, art critics are not the only ones angry about their cowering to the demands of the Catholic League and John Boehner. Museums and galleries are now joining the protests. You can find the best coverage of this story on Tyler Green's blog at Artinfo.

First to lead in the move to support the artist's work was the Transformer Gallery in DC, which responded by installing the video. New York's New Museum has announce it too would install A Fire in My Belly.

Nearby museums are also stepping up their support for Wojnarowicz. The Indianapolis Museum of Art will show his Untitled (One day in this kid....) and Ohio's own Wexner Center just announced they will join other museums by hosting a screening of A Fire in My Belly tomorrow at 4:30.

So where is the CAC?

Since this video was pulled, a few people have recalled the Mapplethorpe controversy about 20 years ago. Some comments have compared the CAC's willingness to stand up for artists as opposed to the NPG's response. I've contacted the CAC for a statement of support for David Wojnarowicz. This is what Molly O'Toole, Director of Communication and Community Engagement sent to me:

"First of all, it needs to be said that we strongly stand behind the statement made through the AAMD. It is in direct alignment with our unique institutional (obviously) perspective on issues of censorship and political pressure on the arts. Specifically, I’d like to underscore the section that reads:
'freedom of expression is essential to the health and welfare of our communities and our nation. In this case, that takes the form of the rights and opportunities of art museums to present works of art that express different points of view. Discouraging the exchange of ideas undermines the principles of freedom of expression, plurality and tolerance on which our nation was founded. This includes the forcible withdrawal of a work of art from within an exhibition—and the threatening of an institution’s funding sources.'
It is alarming to be confronted with another example of the arts’ vulnerability to this kind of attack. Just as we saw 20 years ago, this public debate can shed light on that. And if there is something that history has shown, it’s that public support can change the dynamic. It’s possible, we’ve seen it happen.
The arts play an invaluable role in creating community and public dialogue and—in the end—the more we can show that, the more successful we will be at neutralizing this kind of attack in the long run."

This is not really the support for the artist I had hoped to get from an institution that stood firm with Mapplethorpe and in the 20 years since recalls their historic stand with the opening of nearly every exhibition since. This failure to openly and aggressively stand up against attacks and support artists is exactly what led to the decision to pull the video from Hide/Seek.

The CAC statement does shed light on an inherent problem with the arts in Cincinnati. The language of public support ($$) and arts creating a public dialogue to "neutralize this kind of attack" illustrates how much of Cincinnati sees the arts.

As I mentioned to Ms. O'Toole, our city suffers from a conversation in the arts that is upside down. As local arts organizations continue to work by first asking the public what they define as art, institutions like the CAC fail to take the lead in art's discourse. Yes, the arts may create a community and a public dialogue, but the public looks to the CAC, the CAM and the Taft as well as the number of private galleries to take the lead in the discussion. Especially with the current story, of any of Cincinnati's art organizations, the public should be able to comfortably defer to the CAC.

The CAC is preparing to open Keith Haring soon. I expect their press release will again mention Mapplethorpe, AIDS, street art, homosexuality and other seemingly controversial topics in art. But until they are willing to openly engage in discussion and actively support artists including David Wojnarowicz, the CAC will continue to permit the following lesson to be re-learned: silence leads to self-censorship.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Vote for National History Day in Ohio

National History Day in Ohio was accepted to compete for a $50,000 Pepsi Refresh Project Grant.

To win, we need to have as many people as possible vote for this project during the month of December. The grant will go for scholarships to low-income students, program materials, field trips to historic sites and teacher training to help increase National History Day participation in urban and rural schools.

Vote Daily
Please go to Pepsi Refresh at and vote for National History Day in Ohio. Once you register, you can vote once-a-day, every day in December. It’s simple and easy to do.

In addition to voting, you can ask your friends and family to vote for National History Day in Ohio, too! Just forward this e-mail to your mailing list. The more people to vote for us, the better our chances to win $50,000.

About National History Day
National History Day in Ohio is a year-long educational program where students in grades 4-12 do explore topics that interest them related to a specific theme. In the 2010-2011, it’s Debate and Diplomacy in History: Successes, Consequences, Failures. Students do research and present their work through exhibits, performances, documentaries, research papers or websites at regional and state and national competitions. Learn how National History Day in Ohio helps students excel by watching the Pepsi Refresh Video.

About Pepsi Refresh Project
In 2010, the Pepsi Refresh Project will give away more than $20 million to refresh the world, one idea at a time. Each month, Pepsi will award up to $1.3 million in grants to the ideas with the most votes. Pepsi accepts up to 1,000 new ideas every month and the public decides who wins.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What Does the NPG Really Learn from the CAC?

A little over 20 years after Dennis Barrie and the Contemporary Arts Center was acquitted of the charge of pandering obscenity with the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit, our own John Boehner with Eric Cantor has successfully threatened the National Portrait Gallery into removing a work by David Wojnarowicz from its Hide/Seek exhibition. But this is not all. Boehner is seeking to remove the whole show, which the Smithsonian describes as "the first major exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture."

With its acquittal in 1990, the CAC has rightfully taken pride in its place in American art history. With Barrie as director it refused to bow to the pressure of Jesse Helms and Citizens for Community Values. So why, 20 years later, are we witnessing such weakness at the Smithsonian? And if the CAC did effectively draw a line in the sand against art censorship, how does Greater Cincinnati's golden boy Boehner come out on top? Should the CAC step up to defend or condemn the NPG?

Citizens for Community Values, founded in 1983, believes they did not lose the Mapplethorpe battle. Citizens quite accurately noted the case proved "that not everything is protected by the first amendment." While the CAC was acquitted, the message was clear, Citizens for Community Values continues to watch them. This message was made much louder when the Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts, now ArtsWave, temporarily cut their funding in the midst of the uproar. Now the ArtsWave and CAC walk hand in hand as they develop programming for the CAC and fundraising opportunities for ArtsWave, while tagging themselves with Mapplethorpe's name at every marketing turn of their respective campaigns.

For at least the last couple of years, controversy and entertainment have been the adopted exhibition strategy at the CAC. At the cost of art history, constructive dialogue, and education, the CAC and ArtsWave see Mapplethorpe as a marketing tool. (The upcoming Keith Haring 1978-1982 looks to be a perfect storm.) It should be no surprise then John Boehner, backed by Citizens for Community Values, feels he is on the right side of this debate. Like the Mapplethorpe show in 1990, Hide/Seek has become a noisemaker for politicians.

Unfortunately recent news indicates that along with the the CAC, the NPG has not learned in the last 20 years how to stand up for artists. Rather than holding in trust American art, these institutions have shamefully allowed others to interpret art for their own political or monetary gains.

Removing Artist David Wojnarowicz on World AIDS Day 2010

The National Portrait Gallery recently opened Hide/Seek to rave reviews. But after pressure from the Catholic League and conservatives, the NPG has pulled the work of David Wojnarowicz.

See the story and the artist's video clip , Ant-covered Jesus, that was removed from the exhibit here.

Has nothing changed since Mapplethorpe?
Coming up: Cincinnati's role to answer this question.