Defending the Freedom to Display Lousy Art At Public Expense

I hadn’t intended to write about the controversy surrounding the National Portrait Gallery’s mounting of a show called “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” an exhibit of works that are mostly by homosexual artists. The controversy has mainly centered on a video by David Wojnarowicz, who died from AIDS some years ago. The video is repellent in several ways, but what many viewers found objectionable was its use of Christian imagery, in particular repeated shots of a crucifix with Jesus being overrun by ants.
William Donohue of the Catholic League condemned the video as anti-Christian, and, once attention focused on the exhibit and, in particular, on the Wojnarowicz video, criticism became widespread and several Congressmen (all Republicans, I believe) expressed concern. The Smithsonian, which runs the National Portrait Gallery, somewhat surprisingly responded by removing the video from the exhibit. This, of course, was universally denounced by the “arts community” as knuckling under to know-nothing censorship.
I didn’t plan to write about the episode because we have been down this path so many times before. But then a local angle emerged: the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported today that Olga Viso, director of the Walker Art Center, “condemns National Portrait Gallery over handling of controversial video.” Ms. Viso traveled to Washington, viewed the “Hide/Seek” exhibit, and found it “groundbreaking,” “thoughtful” and “well-researched.” On the Walker’s web site, she headlined that her institution “Stands With National Peers In Support of Artistic Freedom”:

In response to this crisis, various versions of the film Fire in my Belly will be screened daily at the Walker Art Center later this week, pending arrangements with the artist’s estate.

Crisis? If this is a crisis, the art world is more boring than I thought. It will be interesting to see how many people attend the Walker’s daily screenings of Wojnarowicz’s video. Personally, I’d just as soon get a root canal.

This film, in which the artist has edited a montage of video footage shot in Mexico, captures his anger and struggle with the death of a lover and his own H.I.V. diagnosis. Since its making, this film has become an iconic art work of the 1980s and has had a visible place in AIDS activism in New York and the U.S.

I would say that the video is stupid, poorly-made and suggests delusions of grandeur, and is the work of a man understandably distraught over the fact that he had foolishly contracted an incurable disease. You can judge for yourself in a moment. Back to the crisis:

In every regard, the NPG should be applauded for organizing, mounting, and presenting this groundbreaking, scholarly exhibition and supporting the curators’ well argued thesis that a powerful artistic and cultural legacy has been “hidden in plain sight for more than a century.” Yet the NPG’s and Smithsonian’s surprising decision to remove a key work from the exhibition a month after its opening undermines this thesis as well as the premise and curatorial integrity of the exhibition in alarming ways. Indeed this action serves to sublimate or “hide” the very thing the exhibition attempts to make visible.

Masturbation? Bowls full of blood? Ants?

During my tenure at the Smithsonian, I had the pleasure and privilege with my colleagues there to bring some of the most compelling and often challenging modern and contemporary art to the nation’s capital, including works by many of the artists presented in Hide/Seek. …
Three years after my departure, I am saddened to find a very different Washington, one informed by fear, intolerance, and silence, and a different Smithsonian, one that has perhaps lost touch with some of the core principles and spirit of its establishment.

Well, it’s the Obama administration after all, so fear and intolerance are to be expected. Here is the video, or one version of it, anyway; I take it that there is a longer version extant, but I will spare our readers the additional minutes. Be forewarned; along with the ant/Jesus footage, there is considerable blood, a man masturbating (but in very soft focus) and lots of generally bad taste:

What to make of the controversy? I, personally, don’t see the video as anti-Christian. Rather, my impression is that Wojnarowicz was trying to identify himself with Jesus. That may be delusional, but I don’t think the imagery is particularly sacrilegious. If you look at the comments on the Walker site linked above, you will see many readers challenging the Walker to play a video of ants crawling all over Mohammed. That won’t happen, of course, but this is not exactly a novel observation.
The question I would ask is, why do we have a National Portrait Gallery? Taxpayers support the NPG as part of the Smithsonian; I was surprised to learn that it didn’t come into being until 1968. One would think that the purpose of a National Portrait Gallery would be to allow citizens to view and to admire portraits of the nation’s leaders as a means of perpetuating those leaders’ high ideals. The Gallery’s most famous painting is the “Lansdowne Washington,” a wonderful portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart:
georgewashingtonlansdowneportrait.jpg
Providing an opportunity for Americans to ponder portraits of our greatest citizens, learn about leaders of the past with whom they may not be familiar, and contemplate the high ideals that have animated so much of our history, is a noble endeavor. Whether the NPG attempts any such mission is unclear to me, based on its web site. But if that isn’t the mission, why do we have an official National Portrait Gallery, supported by the public in the nation’s capital? When an institution like the Smithsonian puts on an exhibition, it constitutes a semi-official endorsement. Why should our government hold up as any kind of an ideal a video of a man masturbating, of blood dripping into a bowl, of ants crawling on a crucifix? In what way does this elevate our citizens or contribute to any national goal?
I am afraid that the contrast between the Lansdowne Washington and the Wojnarowicz video is a fair measure of how far our public culture has fallen over the past two centuries. That the supposed guardians of our culture do not recognize this largely explains their irrelevance.

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