Service of Inconsistency

September 17th, 2012

Categories: Advice, Art, Inconsistency, Mentoring


There’s vivid inconsistency between politically correct approaches/the law as it affects business and the expectations and entitlements of those involved with art. A dinner conversation the night before I read a Wall Street Journal article made this especially clear.

bosswithsubordinateAt dinner a friend described how her conversation with subordinates at her company is restricted by law in countless ways. While I won’t abuse her confidence by sharing the instance she described, I can see how communication and counsel between boss and staff or between colleagues can be affected by fear of lawsuit or of being fired. Take an example where a well-meaning boss wants to advise someone in his/her department not to constantly complain to everyone about countless little ailments as some might pass over a person too sick to handle bigger responsibility. Said to the wrong person the boss might be accused of discriminating against the disabled.

Some fear being charged with sex discrimination for paying a compliment to a colleague who looks particularly great one day. If you’ve gone to the trouble to look super for a meeting or because you are going to an event after work, you feel let down if nobody notices. It’s not important in the long run, but a bit of civility and uplift is lost.

It’s a whole different thing in the art world. An instance that illustrates this is buried in the middle of Kelly Crow’s article “Shaking up the Smithsonian.” Most of the article described the success of its secretary, Wayne Clough. The tidbit that caught my eye was what Crow described as Clough’s only fumble. He was rebuked by some in art circles because “he removed an artwork from a National Portrait Gallery exhibit called ‘Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.’ The work, a 1987 video called ‘Fire in My Belly’ by David Wojnarowicz, showed ants crawling on a crucifix and drew complaints from Christian religious leaders. Several congressmen joined in, demanding that the show be shut down.”

Clough didn’t close the exhibit, he removed the Wojnarowicz video.

Before I continue with the Smithsonian story, I’d like to know what ants crawling on a crucifix has to do with the subject of the exhibit–American portraiture.

taking-back-moneyBack to what happened. As a result of complaints of censorship by The College Art Association and The Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts-the latter said it would never again fund a Smithsonian show if the video wasn’t put back in the exhibit-an outside panel “drawn up by the Smithsonian’s regents recommended that art not be taken out of future exhibits that have already opened,” wrote Crow. During the kerfuffle Clough didn’t say much but  according to Crow he now notes that in future, he’ll seek advice from his museum directors before taking action.

The takeaway: In the art world if you are visually outspoken or you insult anyone’s symbols or lifestyle it’s OK. Try to control artistic expression and you’ll be accused of censorship. In business, watch your mouth. Am I alone in seeing this inconsistency?


6 Responses to “Service of Inconsistency”

  1. Lucrezia Said:

    If anyone reading this and sees any truth to the above statements thinks that free speech isn’t dead – or at least bordering on the past revival stage, should think again. I’m no psychic, but can safely predict that if there isn’t a mass rebellion against this nonsense, and that people refuse to apologize every time someone or some group is “offended” the best protection against persecution will be to become mute.

    Independence and freedom of expression has consequences because of irresponsible behavior as demonstrated in a recently released anti- Muslim film which caused damaging protests in the Middle East and tragic deaths. There will always be those who abuse, and how to bring them to heel remains a problem. No matter what we do, there will be a cost. So which will it be? Freedom of expression, or ongoing restraints? Much depends upon whether or not we are a nation of sheep.

  2. PWW Said:

    Hmm. I’m not sure that the art that disparages really gets away with it.

    Remember when Saachi’s collection of the time came to Brooklyn and people were TRULY upset by defiled images of the virgin? And plays and films which take on difficult/inflammatory subjects are most certainly the subject of criticism.

    Artists have freedom of expression — they can give their art whatever life they choose — but if that piece of art comes to the attention of more than a handful of people, it is likely to divide opinion, to insult some and reassure others of their convictions.

    A play by Jack Gelber opened on Broadway in the early ’70’s and was picketed to death because it was PERCEIVED to be pro-Castro. So, I’m not so sure art is exempt from censure — at least that’s not my experience from what I’ve seen.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:


    You ask the key questions and the answers have evaded us all these years, yet I remain hopeful that moderate minds prevail and that we’ll find solutions. Trouble is selfish, rogue people who feel entitled to express violent, hateful views that, as you note, move others to kill, will continue to do as they wish and are actually encouraged to speak their minds no matter what or how.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Being in the public relations business, I’ve never agreed with the slogans “there is no such thing as bad publicity,” or “any publicity is better than no publicity,” but this doesn’t seem true in the art world.

    Many get attention by acting bratty and it works. Others will say that X or Y’s work generates a reaction, and that, afterall, is the point of art. What a cheap and easy device to use, in my opinion. I also question the critics who fall at the feet of such “artists.”

  5. Simon Carr Said:

    More often than not, things happen for a reason. Thanks to demographic and cultural changes which had occurred over the previous generation or two, a new elite from dissimilar cultures and with different backgrounds than the existing one, came to power after the social revolution of the 1960s. (On reflection, perhaps it was more an abdication than a revolution.) Despite its multiple excesses, the new ideas of President Johnson’s “Great Society,” which he and they thrust upon us during that revolution remain even now the determinant factor in how we now live with one another in this country.

    Why did this happen? Part of it was the consequence of the genuine desire of good people to right past wrongs, but most of it was because that the new elite, and those who dominate it, had found radically different ways, mostly through careful use of the federal bureaucracy and the courts to manage societal issues and manipulate popular will.

    I spent a chunk of my life working before such determined egalitarian doctrine took possession of much private thinking and became overwhelming public policy in this country. The old world was radically different and perhaps in some ways more civilized than the present one. Although it may have been no fairer, it was one in which there were vestiges of idealism left over from Tom Brokow’s “The Greatest Generation.” I spoke candidly and openly with my bosses, and when I eventually acquired subordinates, with them as well. While we did not speak freely to everyone about everything, this was not because we were afraid of law suits, rather because we did not wish to offend.

    Now, we use caution when speaking because of our ever prevalent fear in business relationships of that new breed of predatory, parasitic, legal vermin lurking in every “equal opportunity” civil rights bush eager to leap out and carve out yet another pound of flesh out of its corporate and human victims. It used to be that our parents had taught us in childhood that brutish or crude or rude behavior was unacceptable, and if we forgot this, our peers brought us back into line. The shysters now seem self-appointed to do that job for us, and hypocrisy and cynicism are the glue, which binds corporate cooperation together. In the early days I viewed my colleagues with genuine affection; sadly, by the 1990s, something vastly different and far more debilitating had become the more dominant emotion in the workplace.

    Consistent with your point, I, likewise, ever since I knew what it was, have opposed censorship as a matter of principle. However, societies as well as individuals have rights. I believe that your right to self-expression does not entitle you to abuse me by inflicting upon me images or speech, which I find to be abusive or offensive. I also believe that the old fashioned way of determining what is or is not sufficiently offensive to warrant being censored, that is, having the courts use current community standards to make the determination, is not a bad way of going about deciding what is acceptable for display or publication.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I’d first like to comment on this point that you wrote: “While we did not speak freely to everyone about everything, this was not because we were afraid of law suits, rather because we did not wish to offend.” I think sensitivity training has run amok in some areas of life and in others, such as some of the art world, it’s gone.

    I know plenty who immediatly say “SUE!” at the slightest thing. It’s no surprise that a person in a shrinking industry might be downsized/fired/let go yet how many of these people rush to a lawyer declaring some kind of discrimination? Others make a living looking for opportunities to squeeze money out of doctors, suppliers–anybody who trips up.

    And why bring courts to this table encouraging more legal action? I can’t believe that educated people, such as museum directors, don’t have antennae that blare “danger” when seeing paintings, drawings, videos, photographs or whatever they are selecting for an exhibit that clearly is there to shock and while doing so, hurt a group of people. Nobody says the art that the directors or other pundits consider worthy shouldn’t be seen–that’s what commercial galleries are for.

Leave a Reply

Clicky Web Analytics