“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the first exhibition focused on gay relationships at a major American museum, came under fire from Republicans while on display at the National Portrait Gallery from Oct. 30, 2010, to Feb. 13.
The exhibit’s co-curator Jonathan D. Katz came to Milwaukee on May 26 to present a history of the event and to lead a panel discussion of the issues it raised. The event nearly filled the auditorium at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Katz’s appearance was funded by philanthropist Joe Pabst, and MAM’s chief curator Laurie Winters organized the panel, which included the Rev. Steven Peay, of Nashotah House Theological Seminary, Kali Murray, of Marquette Law School, and William Rudolph, MAM’s curator of American and decorative arts.
As Katz explained, the goal of “Hide/Seek” was to revise the historical record by reinstating the important issues of sexuality. He and co-curator David C. Ward went about this with extreme care, orchestrating a historical survey that lacked overt sexual content and included many straight artists dealing with same-sex desire. By building a fortress of academic research and fact, they hoped to avoid the obscenity/censorship issues that closed down the 1989 Mapplethorpe show.
But the religious right was not going to miss an opportunity to hack away at a perceived assault on moral issues. When they couldn’t nail the show on the basis of obscenity, they snuck in the back door: Calling it anti-Christian, the Catholic League objected to a few minutes of video by David Wojnarowicz that showed ants crawling on a crucifix. When threatened with a $100 million loss of funding, Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough promptly removed the video, leading to charges of censorship and protests by artists and institutions.
The National Portrait Gallery refused to post a sign in the exhibition stating that the video had been removed, turning an act of censorship into one of erasure.
Two artists, however, parked a rental truck in front of the NPG for the duration of the exhibition and showed the video daily.
Ironically, the controversy contributed to the great success of the show, which drew more visitors than any other in the history of the National Portrait Gallery, Katz said.
After presenting an overview of the exhibit’s history, Katz showed the Wojnarowicz video and the panel discussion was launched. Setting a refreshingly empowered tone,
panelist Murray said, “Transgression is part of a museum’s mission.”
Katz said museums have strayed far from that mission, however, most notably out of fear and the demand for crowd-pleasing shows. Museums have been frightened away from gay or “transgressive” content since the Mapplethorpe controversy.
Even after 25 years of gender revisionist scholarship, museums tend to avoid these issues. Increasingly controlled by a few powerful trustees and influenced by the need for corporate funding, museums often choose shows of wide appeal and narrow challenge – “bland pabulum” in Katz’s words.
“A museum’s role is in part a place for controversy, yes, even dangerous and sensitive ideas should be discussed,” Katz said.
Murray reiterated, “The museum’s role should
be about dialog and challenge.”
“Hide/Seek” could not find a corporate sponsor and relied on individual sources of funding. No other museum in the country was interested in hosting the show. Since the controversy, however, the exhibit will now travel to Brooklyn and Tacoma, Wash.
By representing the informed Christian point of view, Peay was a great addition to the panel. Acknowledging that he didn’t particularly like the video, he said nonetheless that it expressed pain through the traditional religious iconology of blood, money, suffering and sin.
“Is there sacrilege here?” he asked. “No.”
Instead, he explained, it was an artist using age-old imagery of suffering to explore his own pain in reaction to the loss of his partner, his own illness and the AIDS epidemic.
Rudolph took issue with the idea that museums were steadfastly “dumbing down,” but did acknowledge a directive toward “visitor needs.” He commented on how visually tame “Hide/Seek” was, with only one “wiener” exposed.
Katz noted that there were several, and we certainly should not forget Frank O’Hara’s penis, which was featured prominently in several works.
The audience laughed.
This kind of banter might sound trivial in translation, but it holds significance. It may even have been the most important part of an evening rich with ideas and intellectual analysis.