The controversy over the removal of a four-minute video from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery has observers wondering whether the culture wars are back. If so, can anything be done to stop them?
It was painful to watch the Smithsonian Institution twist itself in knots in early December, as officials tried to explain why it censored a video “in order to clear up a misunderstanding.” The misunderstanding ostensibly concerned an eleven-second scene of ants crawling over a crucifix in A Fire in My Belly (1986–87), by the late David Wojnarowicz.
The artist’s surrealistic collage—four minutes edited from a longer unfinished work—was part of Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, a groundbreaking survey, at the National Portrait Gallery, of the ways gay and lesbian identities are depicted in American art. Part elegy, part rant about the pain and marginalization of AIDS patients, the video is “firmly in the tradition of art that uses such imagery to universalize human suffering,” a Smithsonian fact sheet explained. However, it added, some members of Congress and the public had interpreted it as anti-Christian. So, on November 30, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough ordered the piece removed from the show. According to the fact sheet, his goal was to “focus attention on the central theme of the exhibition.”
A few days later, one of the exhibition’s most vocal critics, Catholic League president Bill Donohue, was quoted on National Public Radio questioning why the Smithsonian receives federal funding in the first place. “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 to go to professional wrestling?” he asked. “And if I suggested we should have federal funds for professional wrestling to lower the cost of the ticket, people would think I’m insane. I don’t go to museums any more than any Americans do.”
Every year more than 30 million people do visit Smithsonian institutions, which include 19 museums and galleries along with the National Zoo. None (except New York’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum) charge admission. But that’s a misunderstanding Clough did not try to clear up.
At the time of this writing, Clough had still declined to speak publicly about the matter, leaving the Portrait Gallery’s director, Martin Sullivan, and the show’s curators, David Ward and Jonathan Katz, to field queries and complaints—and attempt, somewhat ineffectually, to return attention to the art. While the Smithsonian said it stood behind the rest of the show, scheduled to run through February 13, others in the art world weren’t sure they should do the same. As the artist AA Bronson tried, unsuccessfully, to remove a portrait of his late lover from “Hide/Seek,” the cultural community debated some difficult questions: Are there any times when freedom of expression should be sacrificed for other goals? If so, was this really one of them? How could people protest Clough’s decision without penalizing the Portrait Gallery for doing a gay-themed show? Are the culture wars upon us? Now what?
Off the record, many museum colleagues express sympathy for Clough, a former president of Georgia Tech, who arrived in Washington in the summer of 2008 on the heels of several scandals regarding Smithsonian executives’ misuse of federal funds. He’s juggling a deficit, a crumbling infrastructure, the impending construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and—if some advocates have their way—the addition of a National Museum of the American Latino. In other words, it’s not a convenient moment to be in the firing line of a new Republican Congress. Although some backlash was to be expected over the homosexual themes in “Hide/Seek”—the curators underwent media training to prepare for it—Clough himself was apparently not ready for the show to become a pawn in a larger political debate.
But others were. “Hide/Seek” had been up for a month without controversy when CNSnews.com, a conservative website founded by L. Brent Bozell III, decided to create one. The site published an article decrying the outrages in the exhibition, including “an ant-covered Jesus, male genitals, naked brothers kissing, men in chains, Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, and a painting the Smithsonian itself describes in the show’s catalogue as ‘homoerotic.'” As the TalkingPointsMemo reported, the story’s author, Penny Starr, sent a copy to House and Senate leaders, asking if they thought the show in the federally funded museum should be pulled.
Soon House Republican leader John Boehner and minority whip Eric Cantor were attacking “Hide/Seek”—and the Smithsonian’s budget. Donohue (whose group isn’t affiliated with the Catholic Church) joined the chorus, not only denouncing the show but publishing Katz’s personal e-mail address (resulting in a barrage of homophobic and anti-Semitic messages), and suggesting that no one would dare show A Fire in My Belly if Muhammad, not Christ, were in the picture. Glenn Beck chimed in, too.
The next day, the video was gone.
The script was eerily familiar for anyone who followed the culture wars in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In 1993, for example, I reported for this magazine on a letter that the Christian Action Network delivered to the 114 freshman members of Congress as well as to Republican congressional leaders. The letter cited the “grotesque, the exploitive, the blasphemous” nature of the Whitney Museum’s show “Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art” as a reason for defunding the National Endowment for the Arts. Like “Hide/Seek,” “Abject Art” had been privately financed, but the Whitney had received $200,000 from the NEA in the prior two years. That was enough for Representative Robert Dornan, who thundered in Congress about works like John Miller’s “three-foot mound of doodoo” and the “framed samples of baby fecal stains” in a study for Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973–79). “I do not understand why American taxpayers have to fund that garbage,” he said.
Too bad no one had given Clough a copy of Leaving Town Alive, the picaresque memoir by John Frohnmayer, an Oregon trial lawyer whom George H. W. Bush appointed to lead the NEA in 1989. In the book, Frohnmayer recounts how he presided over the government’s first encounter with Wojnarowicz when, in an effort to appease the administration, he revoked a $10,000 grant for an exhibition at New York’s Artists Space because of a provocative essay the artist wrote for the catalogue. “I hadn’t seen the show, my First Amendment principles were in the lost and found, and I was simply out to lunch in trying to make a distinction between pure art and art that deals with politics,” Frohnmayer explains. He ended up restoring the grant.
Clough’s move has been widely compared to the Corcoran Gallery’s cancellation, in 1989, of a traveling Robert Mapplethorpe show, in order to sidestep a debate over federal funding. In that case, the attempt to avoid controversy only generated more; the then director, Christina Orr-Cahall, later apologized, and the institution’s reputation, as many point out, continues to suffer. The Washington Project for the Arts, an alternative space in Washington, D.C., took on the show; its director at the time, Jock Reynolds, now runs the Yale University Art Gallery.
In 1990, when the show arrived at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, the museum and its director, Dennis Barrie, were indicted for obscenity. The seven photographs at issue in the case include one showing a man urinating in another man’s mouth and three showing penetration of a man’s anus with various objects. The board of the Association of Art Museum Directors sprang into action, convening a meeting in Cincinnati. “It could have been any of us,” Martin Friedman, then director of the Walker Art Center, told me. Friedman, along with the Getty Museum’s John Walsh and Evan Turner of the Cleveland Museum of Art, testified for the defense at the trial, using formal and biographical reasons to explain why the photographs in question were an integral part of the show. After two hours of deliberations, the jury voted to acquit. “We felt we had no choice,” juror Anthony Eckstein told me, “even though we may not have liked the pictures. We learned that art doesn’t have to be pretty.”
That A Fire in My Belly seems considerably less provocative than Mapplethorpe’s photographs makes Clough’s decision more or less reasonable, depending on whom you talk to. Some say the video was relatively unimportant to the show, so it was worth sacrificing in order to avoid antagonizing Congress. Others say that very fact underscores the institution’s lack of backbone. To be sure, the Wojnarowicz in question was an easy target, given that gender and Catholicism are involved. But abstract art can become just as politicized, as President and Mrs. Obama discovered last year when they included a work by Alma Thomas from the Hirshhorn on the list of works they planned to borrow from national collections to hang in mostly private areas of the White House. Right-wing bloggers labeled Thomas, who had appropriated a work by Matisse, as a plagiarist; they implied the First Couple had chosen the African American painter in some sort of artistic affirmative action. The work never made it to the White House, which declined to comment.
One positive aspect of the current controversy, arts advocates stress, is the outpouring of support from dozens of museums and arts organizations across the country that stepped forward to show the censored video, bringing Wojnarowicz’s work to a new and wider audience. The art world was not as united when it came to how to handle the Smithsonian, though. The Warhol Foundation threatened to abolish its grants to the institution if the artwork were not restored. The Mapplethorpe Foundation, though stopping short of a similar ban, announced its support for the Warhol Foundation. The Calder Foundation announced that it is withdrawing the loan of a sculpture of Josephine Baker from the Portrait Gallery’s next show, of Calder portraits, because the “nude wire portrait of the celebrated African American icon… could similarly be considered objectionable.” Others thought such punishments were counterproductive, and Ward and Katz begged Bronson to reconsider his demand that his work be removed from “Hide/Seek.” “If a number of artists pull their works, the show will effectively be gutted,” Katz says. “It’s scary that the left might achieve what the right had attempted.”
As of this writing, the fate of Bronson’s piece is at a legal impasse. Clough does not seem likely to restore A Fire in My Bellyto the show. Nor does he seem prepared to address the censorship issue. Minneapolis Institute of Arts director Kaywin Feldman, the current AAMD president, says she and the association’s executive director, Janet Landay, spoke to Clough after the video was down. “He was terribly gracious,” she says. “He was obviously disturbed by the whole event and the magnitude of the response that the whole issue received. But he certainly stood by his decision.” The AAMD continues to disagree with Clough about the removal of the work, Feldman says. But, she adds, “We talked about the way that we could work together in the future to protect the needs of art museums as regards protecting freedom of speech.”
But arts professionals need to be proactive now if they want to forestall a new culture war. Anti-censorship statements on websites are fine—the AAMD released one condemning “unwarranted and uninformed censorship from politicians and other public figures”—but does the general public read such statements? So far, the opponents of “Hide/Seek” are getting most of the media attention. While bloggers and newspaper cultural critics have kept the story alive online, why aren’t museum directors showing up on op-ed pages and talk-show stages? After all, Ellen DeGeneres herself is a protagonist in the controversy. If museum advocates want to change the public conversation, they have to become part of it.
Clough, especially, must emerge from behind the fact sheets and stand up for the institution he leads. It’s his job to challenge bullies who say they don’t go to museums by inviting them to visit—whether to the National Portrait Gallery, the National Air and Space Museum, or the National Museum of American History, which has on display the original Star Spangled Banner that inspired the national anthem during the Battle of Baltimore. What political figure could say no to that?
When Clough was hired, he spoke about the enormous responsibility he faced in protecting and serving the nation’s museums. “There is tremendous residual goodwill toward the Smithsonian,” he said. “We need to repair some bridges…. We need to communicate, we need to be transparent, we need to be open, we need a plan and we need to reinvigorate the excitement about the Smithsonian.”
If he is to have any chance of becoming a great advocate for his institution, he needs to start following his own advice immediately.
Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews.