Among the Intellectualoids

Operation Mainstreaming

What's next on the Smithsonian's agenda?

By 1.17.11

Following the exhibition currently on display at the taxpayer-funded National Portrait Gallery ("Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture"), the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. is planning several additional exhibitions, including one in March on art and literature celebrating adultery, infidelity, and illegitimacy in America and one later in the year that will compare and contrast adult/pubescent male relationships in the United States and in ancient Greece. The exhibitions are part of a ten-month-long exploration of "Cultural Anomalies in Modern American Life" -- referred to by insiders as "Operation Mainstreaming."

Of course "Hide/Seek"–type exhibitions are hardly news. In 1989 an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs toured the country for several months before running into a buzz saw of opposition just before arriving at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Speaking for the Smithsonian Institution, Mr. Wall Plaque indicated that its museums must make way for controversial subjects. Plaque stated flatly that we must be "committed to showing how a major theme in American history has been the struggle for justice, so that people and groups can claim their full inheritance in America's promise of equality, inclusion, and social dignity."

"Hide/Seek," the first of these exhibitions to be mounted, opened last October 30. According to Blake Gopnik, art critic for the Washington Post, the "Hide/Seek" show "surveys how same-sex love has been portrayed in art, from Walt Whitman's hints to open declarations in the era of AIDS and Robert Mapplethorpe's bullwhips. Amazingly, this is the first major museum show to tackle the topic."

Less amazingly, it received much unwanted publicity just before Christmas. The first group to object was the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which objected to a video containing an eleven-second clip of ants crawling over a crucifix. "Why should the federal government underwrite an institution that uses money to bash [Christianity], when it is unconstitutional for the federal government to underwrite the promotion of it?" the League asked. The segment was removed, but Martin Sullivan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, got his licks in later in a National Public Radio interview by referring, if obliquely, to the League as among "the loudest and nastiest voices."

The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which provided $100,000 in funding for "Hide/Seek," threatened to withdraw all future funding from the National Portrait Gallery if the eleven-second clip were not restored, which, to date, it has not been.

After the Catholic League's protest, others objected to the exhibition on the grounds that its attempt to mainstream homosexuality was inappropriate for an institution supported by the taxpayers.

Following the publicity over "Hide/Seek" and the public's learning of the two exhibitions scheduled for later this year ("Sex without Rules" and "Men and Boys: From Here to Antiquity"), other groups started gearing up to take on the Smithsonian. A Smithsonian official defended the exhibitions, saying: "America is a land where minorities can make it into the mainstream. We believe in, and we believe in believing in, inclusiveness. Achieving social dignity is part of the promise of equality."

The numbers are interesting. While only a small percentage of Americans are homosexuals (many put the number at around 2 percent), about 22 percent of American married men and 15 percent of married women are thought to have committed adultery.

"It's not just a numbers game," the official said. "It's about intellectual freedom, and sharing its fruits with the wider public. 'Hide/Seek' is about same-sex desire. 'Sex without Rules' will be about a common form of illicit desire. 'Men and Boys,' about a less common form. If you can have the first show, why can't you have the others? They all tackle themes outside of the cultural mainstream." 

That cultural mainstream, especially regarding marriage (long considered vital to Western civilization) has been significantly diverted in the last few decades. Recent Census Bureau data show that in 2009, for the first time, the proportion of people between the ages of 25 and 34 who have never been married exceeded those who were married. And the long-term slide in marriage rates has pushed the proportion of married adults of all ages down to 52 percent, the lowest count since records have been kept. The change in marriage habits has been most pronounced among those who lack a college education. Also, the country's overall illegitimacy rate is now 38 percent; the black illegitimacy rate, 72 percent.

The question for Smithsonian officials is: Should they be a force driving those cultural changes?  Should they use their semi-governmental positions and expend their reputational capital (and taxpayer funds) to confer—or, more accurately, try to confer—"mainstream" status on behavior that most Americans think is aberrant and on notions of history that are decidedly on the fringes?

Ah, but when they hear the word culture they reach for their briefcases, and for them the discussion is over. 

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Note to reader: Only the Hide/Seek exhibition referred in this piece is genuine. The others are fictitious, as are some of the quotes from "Smithsonian officials" (Martin Sullivan's quote and the quote from the plaque on the wall of the "Hide/Seek" exhibition are genuine). When I showed the piece to several Washington friends, they were all fooled by my spoof. Even though "Sex without Rules" and "Men and Boys: From Here to Antiquity" are outrageous, my friends believed my account, and you may have too, because those exhibitions are -- or would be -- of a piece with the "Hide/Seek" exhibition actually on view. You are ready, and right, to believe anything about the Smithsonian because you have concluded, correctly in my view, that it has gone over to the other side in the culture war. That's the point of this piece.

 

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About the Author

Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.