One hundred years ago, abstract art raised a few eyebrows. About 75 years ago in Nazi Germany, some of the most groundbreaking art was labeled as degenerate and subject to suppression and destruction. More recently, the 1980s saw culture wars played out over issues of censorship, funding and conservative social values.
We’re still dealing with these issues.
“Hide/Seek: Difference in Desire in American Portraiture” is a major exhibition currently installed at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., part of the Smithsonian Museum (a full review of the exhibition by Debra Brehmer is forthcoming in the next issue of the Gazette). Many of the artists are marquee names in American art: Thomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg. The real theme of the exhibition is sexuality of subjects and artists and it is a landmark exhibition for gay identity in art. American art, and its history, is starting to come out of the closet.
But not fully. A controversy has erupted over a film by David Wojnarowijcz (pronounced voy-nah-ROE-vich) called “A Fire in My Belly.” This film, from 1986-1987, is a mediation on life and death, the flesh and its fragility. The piece is a reaction to the illness and death of Wojnarowijcz’s partner, artist Peter Hujar, from AIDS in 1987. Wojnarowijcz succumbed to the illness in 1992.
And the controversy?
It centers on a mere 11 seconds of the film showing ants crawling over a crucifix. As described by writer Blake Gopnik in the Washington Post, “It seems such an inconsequential part of the total video that neither I nor anyone I’ve spoken to who saw the work remembered it at all.”
This 11 seconds of footage was enough to rile the Catholic League, which decried it as “hate speech.”
Gallery director Martin Sullivan and the National Portrait Gallery caved to pressure. Adding insult to injury, the video was yanked from the exhibition Nov. 30, the eve of World AIDS Day.
Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League complained, “The Smithsonian would never have their little ants crawling over an image of Muhammad.”
What Donohue and others fail to note is the greater meaning of the work as a representation of suffering, death and loss. There is a complex history of using religious iconography to explore the experiences of life in all its messy detail, and this video is hardly a derisive commentary on religion.
From these few seconds of imagery, the flames of outrage were fanned to include attacks on the perceived funding of the exhibition.
U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., decried the exhibition as “an outrageous use of taxpayer money,” and Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, made veiled threats about the fate of arts funding with the Republican shift in Congress imminent in January.
Donohue implied that this was an issue of class conflict when he commented, “Why should the working class pay for the leisure of the elite? When in fact one of the things the working class likes to do for leisure is go to professional wrestling. And if I suggested that we should have federal funds for professional wrestling to lower the cost of a ticket, people would thing I’m insane. I don’t go to museums any more than most Americans do.”
Because of the Smithsonian’s status as a federal institution, these detractors made gross assumptions about the source of the exhibition’s funding. In fact, the cost of about $750,000 was covered by private donors.
The caving of the National Portrait Gallery to conservative pressures brings back shades of the culture wars of the late 1980s, particularly the cancellation of the 1988 Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery, ironically also in Washington, D.C. Conservative members of Congress opposed the exhibition of his work and prompted Sen. Jesse Helms on a crusade meant to eviscerate the National Endowment for the Arts and federal arts funding.
The National Portrait Gallery has issued a tepid statement explaining that the decision to remove Wojnarowijcz’s piece was because it was a “distraction.” But this has only galvanized the larger art community nationwide. Institutions such as the New Museum in New York are speaking out and showing “A Fire in my Belly,” raising the profile of gay art as well as issues of censorship and hypocrisy in the criticism leveled at this work.
In the Midwest, we may seem far removed from these heated issues. However, it’s only six months now since the Milwaukee Gay Arts Center received its settlement from the illegal 2005 Milwaukee vice squad shutdown of “Naked Boys Singing.” Freedom of speech and expression ultimately prevailed, but the insidious threat of censorship sadly still looms over the arts.