It's been a combative week at the intersection of art and politics. Last week, the Smithsonian removed a video work by artist David Wojnarowicz from a gay-themed portraiture show at the National Portrait Gallery after a right wing pile-on was stirred up by the Catholic League (a lay organization that does not receive funds from the Church) and anti-gay talking heads such as Brent Bozell, a figure, who has described homosexuality as "morally wrong."
The Beef: 11 seconds out of Wojnarowicz's 13-minute image mash-up, titled "A Fire in My Belly," show ants crawling on a crucifix—as well as other racy imagery. The piece was intended as a meditation on the AIDS pandemic. (Wojnarowicz succumbed to complications from the disease in 1992.) Bozell has described it—and the rest of the show, for that matter—as "anti-Christian bigotry." As a result, he, and others (including incoming House Speaker John Boehner), have questioned the goings-on at the taxpayer-funded Smithsonian, even though no public moneys were used to put on the show. (It was privately funded.)
The Blowback: In response to the criticism, the Smithsonian pulled the video, stating that "it was not the museum's intention to offend." The arts community—across the nation—was immediately critical of the move. The Association of Art Museum Directors quickly issued a statement, criticizing the decision as "regrettable" and scolding the "unwarranted and uninformed censorship from politicians and other public figures, many of whom, by their own admission, have seen neither the exhibition as a whole or this specific work." PPOW, the gallery that manages Wojnarowicz's estate also issued a statement disagreeing with the decision, and offering another interpretation of the work. The New York Times published an op-ed editorial condemning the move as an "appalling act of political cowardice." And countless bloggers and writers (including myself) have taken the museum to task for pulling a work of art rather than encouraging a dialogue about it. The Smithsonian responded to all of this by issuing a statement saying it didn't want Wojnarowicz's work to distract from the greater exhibit. In a week that was all about statements, this one said next to nothing.
The Blowback to the Blowback: On Sunday, a protestor entered the museum and played the video on an iPad. He promptly got arrested. Around the country, arts organizations have rallied to show solidarity with Wojnarowicz, holding screenings of "A Fire in My Belly" or creating displays around it. In New York, PPOW put an original version online. The New Museum, downtown, has put the video on display in its lobby gallery—which visitors can access without having to pay the museum admission fee.
My Take: It is a shame to see the Smithsonian buckle to such nakedly political pressure. At no point did any visitor to the gallery complain about the video—and the undercurrent framing this debate is distastefully anti-gay, as art critic Christopher Knight points out in a thoughtful article in The L.A. Times. Art isn't always about comfort. Sometimes it takes us to places we don't necessarily want to see or recognize. Wojnarowicz's work was created in 1987, at a time when the AIDS pandemic was ravaging the gay population, with little sympathy to be had from a significant portion of the American populace. His video is not meant to be pretty. It was a cry against complacency—a complacency that could now have a few, highly vocal political partisans curating our art exhibits.
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