The aftershocks of the controversy surrounding the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery’s decision to drop David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video “A Fire in My Belly” from their exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture continue to be felt. I first wrote about this kerfuffle back in December, when it seemed like part of the “War on Christmas” conservatives claim is declared annually in America. The left fired back by putting Wojnarowicz’s video into museums and exhibitions across the country as a sign of solidarity against censorship. Now, the culture war continues, with the Smithsonian opening the door to a new kind of censorship—“crowdsourcing” as a means of curating. Instead of risking offending groups with exhibitions, the Smithsonian allows groups to “preview” the show and “suggest” changes. But can such social media mob rule be good for the arts?
Robin Cembalest writes in a recent issue of ARTnews that a report from the Smithsonian panel organized to study the Hide/Seek controversy “suggested that the Smithsonian provide an opportunity for the public to weigh in at ‘pre‐decisional exhibit planning phases.’" Cembalest, executive editor at ARTnews, acknowledges that the particulars of this “pre-decisional” opportunity for the public haven’t been worked out. However, as Cembalest points out, it is significant that this suggestion “directly contradicts the panel’s assertion that ‘curatorial freedom of expression, expertise, and authority’ are vital.” Cembalest rightly fears that this crowdsourcing could “turn the Smithsonian into a sitting duck for all manner of groups that want to implement an agenda. Opening exhibition preparation to crowdsourcing is not a way to anticipate controversy—it's a way to assure it.” In trying to reseal one can of worms, the Smithsonian seems to have opened another one.
Crowdsourcing does have its uses. Using Facebook, a team of scientists form the Smithsonian virtually harnessed the brainpower of fellow ichthyologists to identify over 5,000 specimens of fish from in less than 24 hours, which allowed them to get the results of a field study out to scholars and ready for exhibition to the public far faster than the old fashioned way. Social media makes such miracles possible. In a way, the recent revolutions in the Middle East can be seen as a form of crowdsourcing where the collective talents for organization and agitation joined in the virtual realm of social media before taking to the physical streets. Test audiences for movies and television programs could be called crowdsourcing, too. What’s the harm in showing an audience two different endings and using the one that they like better? As Charlie Sheen would say—“winning.”
Unfortunately, art exhibitions aren’t movies with multiple endings. Such films probably aren’t cinematic classics to begin with if the director needs such decisions to be made for him. Curators, the “directors” of exhibitions, have the training and knowledge necessary to make the tough choices that average museum-goers can’t. If you want to ride down the slippery slope, you can envision a day when crowds pick only the safe blockbuster-type shows of Impressionists and Old Masters. Art museums would then become the visual equivalent of many orchestras across the country relentlessly playing the standard repertoire of Beethoven and Mozart to dwindling audiences literally graying and dying before their eyes. Such crowdsourcing would essentially bore the art world to death.
Cembalest, however, hints at a more sinister story then sheer boredom by the lowest common denominator of taste. Imagine a museum world where works such as Wojnarowicz’s video never see the light of day. What would have happened if Chris Ofili’s The Virgin Mary (detail shown above) drew the ire of Rudy Giuliani in 1999 before the public ever had a chance to see it? If the Brooklyn Museum of Art “crowdsourced” Giuliani first, the electricity generated by the friction between opponents and supporters of the dung-covered icon would never have happened. What keeps museums alive is that rub. Robbing museums of controversy preemptively short circuits any hope of penetrating the consciousness of society.
“But where’s the democracy?,” you may object. If people want to see Impressionism and nothing else, shouldn’t they be allowed. Not to sound elitist, but I think that the “cost” of that kind of democracy would be the forfeiture of the educational role of art. That brand of democracy would be like listening to a continue loop of the same song. I, for one, want to keep hearing new tunes, even if I don’t like them.
That’s what it comes down to, of course. Like versus dislike. Acceptable versus unacceptable. Crowdsourcing is only as good as the crowd itself. One person’s democracy can be another person’s mob rule. When that mob holds an extreme agenda it turns into an ugly mob. If extreme views hold disproportionate sway, nobody wins. Crowdsourcing is a powerful tool used properly. Taking that power to possibly banish challenging or controversial art is a misuse that doesn’t make museums safer. It makes them useless.