Hide/Seek

At Smithsonian Forum, Hide/Seek Curators Fiercely Defend Controversial Exhibit

On Tuesday night, I sat in on the first session of the Smithsonian’s two-day forum on what it called “Flashpoints and Faultlines: Museum Curation and Controversy.” The forum, despite its somewhat vague title, centered on the particular controversy of curation that it was organized to respond to: the decision by Smithsonian top brass to remove a work of art from a National Portrait Gallery exhibit after the exhibit came under fire from right-wing culture warriors.

Tuesday night’s panels didn’t do much to reconcile those who opposed the Smithsonian’s decision to cut David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly from the Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek exhibit and those who thought it was a necessary step to tamp down a damaging controversy. But it did provide an outlet those who had been caught up in the controversy to air their grievances – albeit too late to change any decisions.

The most passionate and interesting remarks came from the two co-curators of the Hide/Seek show, whose close-up view of the mechanics of a right-wing smear was fascinating, and led them to be unapologetically clear about what had happened to lead to the Smithsonian’s censorship of its own groundbreaking exhibit.

David Ward and Jeff Katz started working on the Hide/Seek exhibit in 2006, when Ward, as part of an exhibit on Walt Whitman, posted a photo of Whitman and his lover of eight years, labeling it as such. Katz approached ward and told him that his was the first major museum exhibit to mention Whitman’s long-term relationship with a man. Ward said he was “gobsmacked” by this revelation, and the two curators started working on an exhibition that would bring together the themes of sexual difference that had been “hiding in plain sight” in American art.

Both emphasized how remarkable it that their exhibit had been accepted by the Smithsonian at. “The rich museums with extraordinarily powerful boards were scared to take this exhibit,” Katz said, “That it was a national museum with the most to lose that took the exhibit should not be forgotten.”

In fact, Katz added, the very existence of the Hide/Seek exhibit broke a decades-long pattern of prominent museums refusing to take on exhibits dealing with gay and lesbian themes. The Robert Mapplethorpe scandals of the 1980’s and 90’s, Katz said, “set a pattern of blacklisting gay and lesbian themes in art exhibitions, which with the exception of Hide/Seek continues in the museum world today.” The Smithsonian’s censorship was remarkable in part because the museum had an exhibition to censor in the first place, Katz said, while “The passive acts of censorship have been the norm in the museum world for 24 years.”

While the curators praised the Smithsonian’s decision to take the Hide/Seek exhibit, they were unswerving in their criticism of Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough’s decision to remove the work that had become a lightning rod for right-wing critics. Katz said, “This scandal was ostensibly about religion. It was not. It was about politics.”

The Smithsonian, Katz said, had by giving in to the Catholic League-manufactured controversy about Hide/Seek had confirmed the legitimacy of anti-gay critics. Removing the Wojnarowicz work from the exhibit, he said, “didn’t extricate the museum from [the culture war attacks], it implicated it.” Katz spoke of the hate mail he received after the Catholic League had distributed his personal contact information. He said he at first tried to respond personally to each of thousands of emails, but was invariably met with more hate. “I realized this is not a discussion, this is not a conversation,” he said.

Secretary Clough had opened the forum with a speech on explaining his decision to censor one work from Hide/Seek because, he said, “Above all, I wanted to keep the exhibition open.” I asked Katz and his co-panelists – a museum director and a Smithsonian curator– if it was ever appropriate or effective to remove one work of art from a show in order to save an exhibit or a museum or an entire institution. All answered “no.”

Thom Collins, a museum director who spoke of the numerous funding threats he had received in his work at publicly funded museums, said “As in any situation when you want to negotiate effectively, you have to be willing to walk away from the table.”

Katz added that removing a work from an exhibit in response to criticism “inherently aligns you with the censorious voices, and that’s a position a museum should never be in.” He added that in reacting so quickly to congressional Republicans’ threats of withdrawing hundreds of millions of dollars of Smithsonian funding, the Smithsonian was “selling itself short” – that if our national museums were stripped of their funding “the American people would not stand for it.”

Earlier this month, PFAW held a panel discussion in New York to discuss censorship of the Smithsonian's Hide/Seek exhibit, featuring President Michael Keegan, artist AA Bronson, PFAW founder Norman Lear, critic Blake Gopnik, journalist Katrina Vanden Heuvel, and art museum director Dennis Barrie.

Michael Keegan's suggestions of ten questions for the Smithsonian panelists can be viewed here.

PFAW

Lear, Vanden Heuvel, Gopnik, Bronson, Barrie and Keegan Discuss the Smithonian Censorship and the “New Culture Wars”

Earlier this month, PFAW held a panel discussion in New York to discuss the censorship of the Smithsonian’s Hide/Seek exhibit. PFAW founder Norman Lear, art critic Blake Gopnik, artist AA Bronson, PFAW president Michael Keegan, art museum director Dennis Barrie and journalist Katrina vanden Heuvel discussed the Smithsonian scandal and the return of the Right’s “culture wars.” You can watch videos of the discussion here:











PFAW

"Hide/Seek" and the Future of Fighting Censorship

Watching "A Fire in My Belly"

The National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” exhibit closed last month, but the debate surrounding it is far from over.

On Feb. 17, People For’s president, Michael Keegan joined People For board member Ron Feldman and NYU law professor Amy Adler at Feldman’s gallery to discuss “Hide/Seek” and the right-wing outcry that led to a work of art being removed from the exhibit.

The discussion began with a viewing of a four-minute version of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly,” which was removed from the exhibit after Religious Right leaders and Republicans in Congress deemed it, in the words of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”

Adler recalled the last time the Religious Right took aim at Wojnarowicz: in the early 1990’s, the American Family Association included edited images of the artist’s work in mailings meant to provoke anger against National Endowment for the Arts spending. Wojnarowicz sued the AFA for copyright violations, and became a symbol of fighting back against right-wing censorship efforts.

Don Wildmon, the head of the AFA at the time, “chose [Wojnarowicz] as a symbol because there is something very powerful about his work,” said Adler. “Ironically, his continuing vulnerability to censorship becomes a testament to the greatness of his art…his art seems to continually provoke and that says something of his greatness.”

Keegan spoke of the National Portrait Gallery’s decision to host the potentially controversial exhibit in the first place. “What the Smithsonian did was wonderful, and we and other groups were very happy that they decided to host the exhibit and celebrate gays and lesbians as part of the American experience,” he said.

When Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough decided to remove the Wojnarowicz work from the exhibit in response to an outcry from far-right leaders like the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue, People For called on the museum to correct its mistake and put the work back, and then called on Secretary Clough to resign his post. Neither effort succeeded, but the outcry among arts groups and proponents of free speech was strong.

“It wasn’t a victory in terms of putting the piece back and getting Clough out,” said Keegan, “but it was a victory in terms of drawing attention to censorship and starting the discussion.”

Feldman, who has been a leader in the battles over arts funding and freedom of expression for decades, said, “I think it’s the best we’ve ever done in one of these cases.” Although the Religious Right succeeded in getting a work it didn’t like removed from the exhibit, he said, “they had no traction.” Instead, he argued, the controversy spurred discussion of censorship, the AIDS crisis, and Wojnarowicz’s life and work: “We won in the sense that people were talking about David.”

Feldman argued that the art world was successful in fighting back against the Religious Right’s attacks by defining the works in question. “They attack the subject without actually having to deal with the meaning of the artwork,” he said, “The art world fought back with definitions."

Adler, Feldman, and Keegan

PFAW

PFAW Calls On Smithsonian Secretary to Step Down

People For the American Way has called on Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough to resign following his handling of a censorship controversy that resulted in a work of art being removed from one of the Smithsonian’s museums. In the Huffington Post today, People For’s president, Michael Keegan, writes:

The controversy around "Hide/Seek" will not be an isolated incident. Instead, with the rise of the Tea Party and the GOP takeover of the House, the far right has found new and stronger voices in its effort to rewrite American history, redefine American values and narrow the range of the American experience. House Speaker John Boehner has already promised "tough scrutiny" of the Smithsonian's budget--and, presumably, its collections and research. Like with the right-wing campaigns against climate science and American Muslims, the campaign against the Smithsonian is likely to be loud and sensationalized. The institution, one of our greatest national resources, deserves a leader who will stand up for its integrity and fight for its future, not one who will so easily cave to the political pressures of the moment.

The Smithsonian’s board will be meeting in Washington on Monday. We’ll be joining ART+ there in a demonstration calling for Clough’s ouster. If you’re interested in joining the demonstration, details are here.

People For has also joined with a dozen other anti-censorship organizations to recommend [pdf] that the Smithsonian’s board adopt a set of policies to protect free expression when similar issues arise:

We urge you to adopt explicit policies that uphold First Amendment principles, as well as a procedure for responding to complaints, whether coming from the general public or from elected politicians. The latter entails creating an open process of careful review and discussion, which should take into account the facts that

  1. members of the American public hold diverse beliefs and values,

  2. that some of the most vital issues facing us are subject to controversy,

  3. and that controversy in a museum setting, when handled well, can productively illuminate such issues and advance public dialogue.

 

PFAW

Artist Requests that his Work be Pulled from Censored Smithsonian Exhibit

The Stranger reports that AA Bronson, an artist whose work is featured in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” exhibition has asked that his work be removed from the exhibit after the censoring of a video that the Religious Right was unhappy with. Here’s his letter to Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan:

Dear Martin Sullivan,

I have sent an email to the National Gallery of Canada requesting that they remove my work “Felix, June 5, 1994″ from the “Hide/Seek” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I had resisted taking this step, hoping that some reconciliation could be reached regarding the censorship of the David Wojnarowicz video, but it is clear that this is not coming any time soon. As an artist who saw first hand the tremendous agony and pain that so many of my generation lived through, and died with, I cannot take the decision of the Smithsonian lightly. To edit queer history in this way is hurtful and disrespectful.

yours truly,
AA Bronson
Artistic Director

Bronson is the latest arts luminary to renounce the Smithsonian’s censorship. Earlier this week, the Warhol Foundation, a prominent arts funder, announced that it would refuse to fund any future Smithsonian exhibits if the National Portrait Gallery didn’t restore Wojnarowicz’s work to the exhibit. The Mapplethorpe Foundation joined them in suspending funding for the Smithsonian.

Last week, People For’s Michael Keegan traced the path of Wojnarowicz’s work from an expression of suffering during the AIDS crisis to political lightning rod for the Religious Right. Read it here.
 

You can also sign People For's petition telling the incoming GOP House leadership not to censor free expressing.

PFAW

Right Wing Escalates Drive to Censor and Investigate the Smithsonian

Even after successfully demanding that the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery censor part of its “Hide/Seek” exhibit, congressional Republicans and conservative commentators have continued their attacks on the Smithsonian. House Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor joined right wing extremists like Bill Donohue and Glenn Beck to pressure the Smithsonian to remove a video by the late artist David Wojnarowicz in an exhibit on the ways art portrays homosexuality and AIDS.

Georgia Republican Jack Kingston, who is in the running to become chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, called for a Congressional investigation into the art at the Smithsonian with hopes to strip the museum of its funding, despite the fact that the exhibit was entirely funded by private donors. Speaking to Fox News, Kingston said that parts of the “pro-gay exhibit” are “really perverted” with “lots of really kinky and questionable kind of art.” Kingston went on to say that the Smithsonian “should be under the magnifying glass right now” and is “a waste of tax dollars, and during these hard budget times we can’t afford it.”

With the prospect of congressional investigations of art and the de-fuding of museums, critics of censorship are speaking out.

PFAW President Michael Keegan writes in his new Huffington Post Op-Ed that “the path from David Wojnarowicz's struggle with AIDS to the director of a Smithsonian museum announcing, ironically on World AIDS Day, that Wojnarowicz's artwork might spoil someone's Christmas, says a lot about American politics at the start of a new era of right-wing power.”

Blake Gopnik, the arts critic for the Washington Post, spoke out against the Right’s blatant attempts at censorship in a must-read Op-Ed for the Post. In his November 5th review of “Hide/Seek,” written well-before the Right cultivated the controversy, Gopnik in his description of a painting by Andrew Wyeth said that “it’s that censor-baiting force that clearly made it worth painting for Wyeth -- and worth looking at for all the rest of us.” Now, Gopnik is pushing back on the conservatives’ demands for censorship:

If every piece of art that offended some person or some group was removed from a museum, our museums might start looking empty - or would contain nothing more than pabulum. Goya's great nudes? Gone. The Inquisition called them porn.

Norman Rockwell would get the boot, too, if I believed in pulling everything that I'm offended by: I can't stand the view of America that he presents, which I feel insults a huge number of us non-mainstream folks. But I didn't call for the Smithsonian American Art Museum to pull the Rockwell show that runs through Jan. 2, just down the hall from "Hide/Seek." Rockwell and his admirers got to have their say, and his detractors, including me, got to rant about how much they hated his art. Censorship would have prevented that discussion, and that's why we don't allow it.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has said that taxpayer-funded museums should uphold "common standards of decency." But such "standards" don't exist, and shouldn't, in a pluralist society. My decency is your disgust, and one point of museums, and of contemporary art in general, is to test where lines get drawn and how we might want to rethink them. A great museum is a laboratory where ideas get tested, not a mausoleum full of dead thoughts and bromides.

In America no one group - and certainly no single religion - gets to declare what the rest of us should see and hear and think about. Aren't those kinds of declarations just what extremist imams get up to, in countries with less freedom?

Of course, it's pretty clear that this has almost nothing to do with religion. Eleven seconds of an ant-covered crucifix? Come on.



The attack is on gayness, and images of it, more than on sacrilege - even though, last I checked, many states are sanctioning gay love in marriage, and none continue to ban homosexuality.

And the Portrait Gallery has given into this attack.



Artists have the right to express themselves. Curators have the right to choose the expression they think matters most. And the rest of us have the right to see that expression, and judge those choices for ourselves.

If anyone's offended by any work in any museum, they have the easiest redress: They can vote with their feet, and avoid the art they don't like.
PFAW

GOP Leaders Get Back to Basics: Art Censorship!

In case you were thinking it’s been too long since we’ve had some good, old fashioned censorship from Republican leaders, worry no longer.

House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Tuesday called for the dismantling of an exhibit in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery after they learned that it contains video of a Jesus statue with ants crawling on it, as well as works of art with strongly sexual themes.

Titled "Hide/Seek," the exhibit is slated to run from Oct. 30 to Feb. 13. The conservative website CNS News.com first alerted the two Republican leaders to its content.

Yes, instead of getting the economy back on track or trying to make sure families have access to quality health care, GOP leaders have decided to go after an 11 second clip in a 30 minute video in an exhibit not paid for with tax dollars.

But hey, maybe it was disruptive, designed purely to shock and offend. Maybe there were riots in the street of appalled arts patrons who were disgusted by what they saw.

Sullivan says the museum has heard from people all over the country, but no visitors who have seen the piece inside the exhibit have complained.

Or maybe the GOP isn’t just trying to inflame passions to score political points. Maybe they’re so convinced that taxpayer money shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near expressive content, because someone could be offended by the content. If that’s that case, they’ll probably be lining up to oppose this project.

Operators of the popular Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky are seeking state tax incentives to build a creationism theme park at a nearby site — a project that Gov. Steve Beshear officially will announce Wednesday.

Mike Zovath, senior vice president of the non-profit group Answers in Genesis, one of the partners in developing the park, said Kentucky officials have told him the proposal for state tourism-development incentives “looks good.”

Anyone? Anyone? Anyone?

So I guess it’s just a ploy to score political points by inflaming division and ignorance. Great. Glad we cleared that up.

PFAW