Art Museums and Critics Unite in Protest to Smithsonian Censorship

Nothing strikes up censorship debates like a mishandled art show.

The latest story?  Smithsonian’s most recent show in the National Portrait Gallery, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” hit a double-whammy of criticism last week because 1) it had a video with an image of ants crawling across a crucifix, which House Republicans and Catholics didn’t like, and 2) the Smithsonian decided to appease them by taking the video out of the show all together.

But let’s unpack this whole context for a minute– “Hide/Seek,” privately funded and consisting of 150 artworks, looks at American art and how it represents homosexual desire.  According to the museum’s website, it is “the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture.”  

The video in question is “A Fire in My Belly” by David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992.  Shot in Mexico in the 1980s, the 13-minute long “A Fire in My Belly” looked at the reality of AIDS in Latin American culture as well as Wojnarowicz’s own personal struggle with a disease that eventually killed him.  

And the 11-second crucifix image, in the context of his entire video, is a metaphor for the AIDS crisis and lack of Christian empathy in fighting the disease during the early years of its discovery.  The exhibit opened on October 30.  Complaints didn’t come until November 29, when an article by Penny Starr went up on the right-wing Cyber News Service.

Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, saw the video differently, calling it a form of hate speech that “assaults religion” and advocated that federal funding for the Smithsonian be cut if the video weren’t removed from the exhibit.  

Republican Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia called the video “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season,” and Republican Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia labeled it “in-your-face perversion paid for by tax dollars.”    

A spokesman for incoming House speaker John Boehner warned that the Smithsonian should “be prepared to face tough scrutiny” under the House’s new Republican majority if it did not shut down the exhibit.  Soon enough, Fox News joined the bandwagon, and soon enough, 11 seconds of social commentary got warped into 11 seconds of anti-Christian bashing.

For the record, none of “Hide/Seek’s” criticizers except for Starr has thought to step foot into the exhibit itself.  

Unfortunately, “tax dollars” has become the new code word for censorship bait.  When the threat of federal funding cuts entered the picture, the Smithsonian immediately decided to pull the video, knowing full well that the move would open the floodgates of criticism and censorship.  

They couldn’t even come up with a plausible excuse– just that the video “was detracting from the entirety of the exhibition.”  

According to National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan, the Smithsonian sees itself as “one of the many, many players in this new discussion or debate that’s going on in Congress about federal spending, the proper federal role in culture and the arts and so forth.  We don’t think it’s in the interest, not only of the Smithsonian but of other federally supported cultural organizations, to pick fights.”  

I foresee a lifetime of Neo-Classical portraiture resulting from this argument, which the Met is already overstocked with.

“Hide/Seek’s” co-curator Jonathan Katz claims that the Smithsonian didn’t consult him at all.  “It was an incredibly stupid decision,” he said.  “I am flabbergasted that they rose to the bait so readily.”  The other curator, David C. Ward, was consulted, but he states that he didn’t agree with the decision.

Protestors who attempted to bring the video back into the gallery by playing it on an iPad were detained by security and banned from the building that houses the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The move provoked a slew of protests from artists, museums and art critics alike.  A New York Times editorial called it “an appalling act of political cowardice.”  LA Times art critic Christopher Knight calls the incident anti-gay bullying, asking,

Will it work this time?  The onslaught might damage art museums which would be lamentable.  And Smithsonian acquiescence is a self-inflicted wound.

The Association of Art Museum Directors issued a statement against the Smithsonian, calling the video’s removal “extremely regrettable”:

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.

New York art gallery PPOW, which also represents Wojnarowicz’s estate, posted “A Fire in My Belly” online and is offering to ship copies of it to anyone willing to screen it in protest.  New Museum, which gave Wojnarowicz his first retrospective in 1999, took up the offer and is currently screening the video in its lobby.  So are the CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles and the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

New Museum and CB1 are not alone.  According to Artinfo, “institutions around the world have requested copies for screenings, from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London… to the Art Institute of Chicago, to many smaller institutions and art schools.”  Indianapolis Museum of Art is planning on installing a Wojnarowicz poster in its welcome center.  

Washington, DC nonprofit Transformer screened the video for 48 hours in its front window.  Their organized protest brought out 100 demonstrators, most of whom are artists.  “This is a sign of solidarity and a call to our lawmakers that silence equals death,” said executive director Victoria Reis.

Photographer Dawoud Bey, who attended Transformer’s protest, remarked that the outcry against and pulling of Wojnarowicz’s video is “an attack on the American people.”

On Monday, the Andy Warhol Foundation, which gave the Smithsonian $100,000 to help cover costs for the exhibition, threatened to discontinue its financial support if the video isn’t put back into the show.  In the last three years, it has given the Smithsonian a total of $375,000 for various exhibitions.  The Warhol board decision to end funding over “A Fire in My Belly’s” removal was an unanimous one, which means it got yeses from Yale art school dean Robert Storr, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, Walker Art Center director Olga Viso, Yale University Art Gallery director Jock Reynolds, and artists Cindy Sherman and Shirin Neshat.

“I regret that you have put us in this position, but there is no other course we can take,” Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs wrote.  “For the arts to flourish the arts must be free, and the decision to censor this important work is in stark opposition to our mission to defend freedom of expression wherever and whenever it is under attack.”

“Unfortunately the exhibition itself has been lost in the mudslinging,” said Katz.  “The way forward is to refocus attention to the degree by which the show, by remaining up, continues to resist politics.”

This Wednesday, the show’s curators, Jonathan Katz and David Ward, will be holding a discussion about the entire controversy at the New York Public Library.  An emergency organizing meeting is scheduled for that same day at PPOW, and another protest is scheduled for December 19.  The show is scheduled to stay up, without Wojnarowicz’s video, until February 13.

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Photo courtesy of mp_eds via Flickr

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