12:25 pm Dec. 17, 2010
The exhibit “Hide/Seek: Desire and Difference in American Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. was anticipated around here. Not hotly anticipated: The New York Public Library thought enough of it to invite the public to "a lively discussion of the exhibition, the power of sexual difference in American art, and the role of LGBT collections in the museum" Wednesday night. But not enough to reserve a space larger than the South Court Auditorium, which seats about 180 people. Staffers at the Library thought that filling that room would be a stretch.
Then, a few weeks ago, Bill Donohue's Catholic League, which probably rivals the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for the quantity of scolding press releases it issues concerning perceived slights to the constituency it purports to represent in minor media and cultural productions, issued a scathing indictment of the exhibit for its inclusion of a video by New York's poster child of the queer art movement, David Wojnarowicz.
The press release about the piece, which was headlined "SMITHSONIAN HOSTS ANTI-CHRISTIAN EXHIBIT," pointed out that "the creator of this 'masterpiece' video is dead of AIDS," and called on Congress to consider withholding funding from the Smithsonian, sped through a network of conservative blogs before reaching Republican congressman Eric Cantor, a member of the Republican leadership. The video in question, an edited version of Wojnarowicz's "Fire in My Belly," includes images of a crucifix being swarmed by ants; that's really the most explicit christian reference though the video generally expresses some of the contempt many AIDS activists of the 1980s felt for the Church's social teachings in light of the epidemic then.
The decision was eventually made by the Secretary of the Smithsonian to put out the fire by removing the video from the exhibition. Since then, lots of people on both sides have piled on. Other artists with work in the exhibition are asking to pull their work from the show; and more recently the national portrait gallery commissioner has resigned in protest. And suddenly, the appearance of the organizers of the show at the Library was a hot ticket. The house was packed, and the standby line was long.
It was an attempt at a relaunching—a “refocusing” or “recontextualization,” as the panelists put it—of the exhibition, with a presentation that culminated in a question-and-answer session that strongly opposed the exhibition’s opponents on the right but also, interestingly but not unsurprisingly, took issue with the vigor of some of its ostensible supporters on the left.
Somewhat oddly, given that most of crowd was clearly there to talk censorship, most of the discussion went on largely as though the Wojnarowicz affair hadn’t happened, with a slide tour of the exhibition: images of works by queer icons like Thomas Eakins, George Bellows, Grant Wood, and Paul Cadmus alongside the standard references to Whitman (“our guiding spirit”), Foucault, “crises of masculinity,” and the “rapacious heterosexual male gaze.”
With brightly blond, floppy hair and a Keith Haring button in his buttonhole, Jonathan Katz, one of the show’s curators and a professor at SUNY-Buffalo, was given to earnest emotional flights that tended to go on a bit and end with dramatic flourishes. (“You can’t stop him. I’ve tried,” said David Ward, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery and Katz’s softer-spoken, dryer counterpart. Indeed, the tour ended abruptly, with works from the 1960s, when it was well past the scheduled time to move to the Q&A.)
The show itself is important due to the prominence of its venue, not the revelatory nature of its curating. It isn’t looking for hidden, coded, or implicit queerness as much as presenting works—almost all figurative—with obviously homoerotic content. (This isn’t about “queering” Rothko’s spectral squares, for example, but about pointing at the naked men in an Eakins and saying, “That’s gay!”) It attempts, rather weakly, to account for the more mainstream strands of twentieth-century art; the website conveniently states that abstraction “had many sources, but high among them was the need to code, disguise, and sublimate identities that were regarded as taboo.” But then why did Ward refer during the discussion to the “He-Men of the Abstract Expressionist movement,” which in this telling were symbols of the hypermasculine establishment to which the more sensitive subsequent generation—Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and the like—rebelled.
The audience questions, of course, steered things quickly to the removal of the video. “I now hate the Internet,” Ward said ruefully, describing how the Catholic League’s press release about the piece shot around the Web. Which does not seem to suggest any solutions.
The decision to pull the piece was a “tactical, Washington decision,” Ward said, after the panel was over.
“I regret that the decision was made too hastily, without sufficient planning, without sufficient attention to our allies,” he said. He had wanted a resolution that, he said rather opaquely, would have given “our supporters a position from which to rally. Sadly that didn’t happen.”
There was a lot of double-talk going on. There were invocations of “divisions among the left,” but without any sense of what those divisions were. Katz decried “the red herring of religious offense,” saying that the real issue was sexuality, not anti-Christian iconography, and complained, “I’m wondering where the progressives, where the left is in all this.”
We were starting to wonder, too. Katz pointed to museums, particularly in New York, who talk a big game about liberal causes, and have criticized the Smithsonian, but whitewash sexuality out of their exhibits—he pointed to the Met’s 2002 Thomas Eakins retrospective, and alluded to many venues which had rejected the idea for the Smithsonian show over the years.
But he drew a strong distinction: “While we criticize the removal of the video, we also credit the institution that made the first move against the blacklist, the National Portrait Gallery.”
Which sounds very tactful, and very Washington. It’s a little strange to wonder where the left has been, though, when the protests against the video’s removal have been loud; Katz even spoke up for the Warhol Foundation, which has threatened to remove all its funding to Smithsonian museums unless the video is returned (and which also happens to be funding his current book project, Art, Eros and the 60s).
“I think the Warhol Foundation did a remarkable thing…and I totally endorse that message,” Katz said after the event. “It gets complicated, but I’m glad we’ve finally drawn a line in the sand that we’re not going to take this shit anymore,” an odd statement when many progressives have said that the removal of the video itself was an example of, well, continuing to take the same shit.
Ward took a darker perspective on the foundation’s move. “The Warhol Foundation statement probably doesn’t help,” he said. “The element of ultimatum makes it difficult to negotiate.” (There are apparently talks underway to display the video somewhere in the museum, if not in the exhibition itself.)
“Our hope is that we’ll get a chance to talk about that,” said Martin Sullivan, the museum’s director, about the Warhol’s ultimatum.
There was something anxiety-producing throughout the evening about the ease with which everyone can—even, obscurely, wants to—shift back into the old culture war postures, recite the same lines. But with just a little more caution.
The woman who stood up and reminded everyone of a protest in front of the Met on Sunday; the man who began to chant “Put it back” during the Q&A; the man talking to his friend about the shortcomings of the Clinton presidency; the heated crosstalk; the spontaneous rounds of applause: it all felt depressingly familiar, but the actors seemed strangely elated. “We’re being offered as raw meat to their minions,” Katz said, “and I am tired of that,” his emphasis on “tired” so expertly, dramatically hushed that the crowd began to clap. Even Sullivan and Ward played parts, of the sympathetic, patronizing establishment figures who are confident that the adults can handle it on their own if only the rabble would stop complaining so loudly.
“We need positive energy,” said Sullivan, in answer to a hostile question from the audience.
“It would really be helpful if people would tone it down a little,” said Ward to a reporter later on. “Agitators like the gentleman who was shouting. We’re not back in 1968 with this kind of agitprop stuff, or the rhetoric of 1989. We need sort of quiet diplomacy now, and a little bit of calm. We’re working on it.”
More by this author:
- Marilyn Horne, who ruled American opera in the 1970s, trains a new generation for a very different art
- Model citizen: Composer Eric Whitacre, dashing star of high-school choruses worldwide, makes the big bucks