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This item is taken from PN Review 197, Volume 37 Number 3, January - February 2011.

‘Moving Targets’, David C. Ward’s PNR 195 essay about representation and self-representation in gay and lesbian art and writing in the United States during the 1950s, forms part of Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (Smithsonian Books, 2010). This book accompanies the eponymous exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. It opened on 29 October and remains on view until 13 February 2011. The exhibition was widely acclaimed as one of those rare events that maps and clarifies an important area previously concealed, ignored or simply unacknowledged. ‘Against all odds,’ wrote a Washington Post critic, ‘the stodgy old National Portrait Gallery has recently become one of the most interesting, daring institutions in Washington.’ Another writer said, ‘The show “on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture” is the first in a major U.S. museum to explore GLBTQ perspectives on the production and reception of canonical works by well-known artists from John Singer Sargent to Andy Warhol.’

After a month of praise the backlash began. On 30 November in response to a firestorm of public and political criticism from right-wing christianists, the Secretary of the Smithsonian ordered the director of the National Portrait Gallery to pull a video. The director issued the following statement.

Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture is an exhibition of 105 works of art that span more than a century of American art and culture. One work, a four-minute video portrait by artist David Wojnarowicz (1987) shows images that may be offensive to some. The exhibition also includes works by highly regarded artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins and Annie Leibowitz.

I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious. In fact, the artist’s intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. It was not the museum’s intention to offend. We are removing the video today.

Once the exhibition had been targeted, the campaign was brisk and concerted. While it proved impossible to resist, it would have been wiser for the Smithsonian to have taken more time and counsel before ceding so much ground, so quickly. But having made this concession, the Smithsonian is adamant that the exhibition will not be further altered or shut down, as conservatives are demanding. While we deplore the censorship of the Wojanarowicz film, we support the Smithsonian’s resolve.

Wojnarowicz’s ‘A Fire in my Belly’ used a Christ image overrun with ants not in a spirit of sacrilege but of devotion, the timeless agony of Christ expressed in a popular icon is made to contain and express the agony of AIDS victims (1987, the date of the piece, is part of its context). Medieval altarpieces dealt in analogous ways with the plague. The critics have no problem accepting the image of a man scarred with whiplashes, wearing a crown of thorns, nailed graphically to a cross, blood pouring from a gash in his side. That they happily take for granted, but the addition that makes the image animate, expressive and timely offends. Wojnarowicz’s intention is congruent with the image he has chosen, as serious religious art must be, but it is easier, for those who do not want to read it, to assume it to be anti-religious simply because it is not anodyne. For them it is ‘designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians’, according to the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue. One thing art can do is assault sensibilities: this is not a cartoon of the Prophet or Pope. The offence Donohue has taken is deliberately ignorant and ideological.

The campaign against Wojnarowicz’s video and, by extension, against the exhibition itself, is being conducted by the League, which forcefully defends some indefensible practices of the Roman Catholic Church, and by those elements represented by, for example, CNS News with its tag line, ‘The Right News. Right Now’. The mid-term elections seemed to re-enfranchise homophobia and philistinism. The incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner and the new House Majority Leader Eric Cantor want Hide/Seek closed. A speaker for the Speaker menaced: ‘Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January.’ On Fox News, Congressman Jack Kingston said the Smithsonian should forfeit its funding.

Yet a Washington Post poll on the issue shows 58% of respondents were against the removal of Wojnarowicz’s video. ‘This fuss,’ said the Post critic, ‘is about the larger topic of the show: Gay love, and images of it.’ It is twenty-one years since the Corcoran Gallery in Washington was very nearly destroyed for exhibiting Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, and removing the exhibition under similar pressure. ‘So here’s a gauntlet thrown down to test the courage of Washington’s art institutions…’ It is not only American arts institutions that are challenged.

Back to Wojnarowicz’s video. One critic evokes the artist’s presence in the show in these terms: ‘His self-portrait – his gaunt, dying face half buried in dust – brings back the cold, deathly panic of the time. And his thirty-minute video, “A Fire In My Belly”, is a stream of visual consciousness about his dying, his grief at his friends’ dying, his fear and his anger. It is disturbing, discordant, sexual and morbidly focused on death and stigmatization, so watch it at your own risk…’ This critic is a Roman Catholic.

Incidentally, though the National Portrait Gallery is federally funded, its exhibitions are not. Each is financed by donations, large and small, in this case from dozens of individuals and institutions including the Calamus Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The John Burton Harter Charitable Foundation, and The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Hide/Seek’s most generous individual backer is Donald Capoccia, a New York city realtor and builder, who is a gay – Republican.

This item is taken from PN Review 197, Volume 37 Number 3, January - February 2011.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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