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Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery removes artwork in response to conservative anger over GLBT exhibition (Video, poll)

November 30, 2010 - 02:36 PM
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Still from 'Fire in My Belly' by David Wojnarowicz

Updated 2:08 p.m., Dec. 2: A memo leaked to Modern Art Notes reveals that Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough made the decision to remove the work.

Updated 2:13 p.m., Dec. 1, with comments from Lisa Gold of the WPA.

Updated 7:21 p.m. Nov. 29, with additional information about the video.

The Smithsonian Institution has removed a work of art from a GLBT-themed exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery after it attracted conservative and religious ire for its images of homosexuality and Christianity. Director Martin Sullivan announced the removal of A Fire in My Belly by artist David Wojnarowicz — a decision made by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough — after conservative news service CNS wrote yesterday that the "Christmas-season exhibit," which opened in October, used taxpayer money to indirectly fund an exhibition that includes imagery of genitalia, homoerotic situations, and Christ covered in ants.

Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture is the first major museum exhibition to address gay and lesbian identity in the arts. Featured on the Drudge Report today, the CNS article has garnered more than 1,000 comments. A call to its author, Penny Starr, has not yet been returned.

Publicist Bethany Bentley says that until the article was published, the museum had not heard a single objection to the exhibition. "On Friday we had over 10,000 visitors to the gallery, and we had no complaints," she says.

Martin Sullivan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, released the following statement at 3:30 today:

“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.

The museum’s statement at the exhibition’s entrance, “This exhibition contains mature themes,” will remain in place.

"I appreciate that people have different standards of decency, but we don't elect representatives to act as curators or arbiters of what is considered culture and art," says Lisa Gold, director of the Washington Project for the Arts.

Vanessa Lopez, the registrar of PPOW Gallery in New York, which manages the estate of Wojnarowicz, said that the gallery had no comment at this time.

While the Smithsonian receives federal funding for their facilities, funds for exhibitions are raised privately, Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas told CNS. Donors for the exhibit included The Calamus Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The John Burton Harter Charitable Foundation, and The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Donors to the exhibit have decried the decision.

"It amounts to censorship," says Michael Ward Stout, president of the Mapplethorpe Foundation. "It amounts to the Christian Right's idea that they should become curators, and it's not acceptable in this country. Leave it in the hands of the arts professional."

"Whenever there is this sort of knee-jerk reaction it tends to place more focus on the work than it ever would have received otherwise," says Jack Sullivan, adviser to the John Burton Harter Charitable Foundation, speaking for himself and not the foundation. Burton could not say whether or not the foundation was likely to donate to future Portrait Gallery exhibitions. "It is always kind of sad to me when people who don't have a full appreciation of what the artist is trying to do try to censor an artist's work. I don't know if the people so offended by this bothered to find out what the artist was trying to say."

Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, told CNS, "If the Smithsonian didn't have the taxpayer-funded building, they would have no space to present the exhibit, right? In my own view, if someone takes taxpayer money, then I think the taxpayers have every right to question the institutions where the money's going."

Fox News reports that congressmen are vowing to review funding for the Portrait Gallery — a result of the Piss Christ controversy, as well. The Hill reports that House Speaker-designate John Boehner and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor have called for the closing of the exhibit.

“Absolutely, we should look at their funds,” Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, told Fox News. “If they’ve got money to squander like this – of a crucifix being eaten by ants, of Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, men in chains, naked brothers kissing – then I think we should look at their budget.”

Kingston said he was not sure what form a congressional investigation would take, but he said some options included “calling them up in front of the Appropriations Committee, asking for some resignations, auditing all their budget – all their books.”

Bentley says that the Portrait Gallery does not have a response to Kingston's statements at this time. However, history indicates that public opinion towards art deemed "offensive" has not led to institutions losing their funding, though it often leads institutions to remove the offending artwork out of fear. Hide/Seek is only the most recent example in a long history of political outrage towards controversial art. In 1989, Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artist's urine, was attacked for receiving a grant from the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts.  This led the Corcoran to pull out of the Mapplethorpe exhibition The Perfect Moment, a decision that later resulted in an apology from the museum and the resignation of its director. An exhibition of the Piss Christ at the National Gallery in Victoria, Australia was closed early because of fears of vandalism.

Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary, a painting of the Madonna with elephant dung smeared on the canvas, was also attacked by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani when it was exhibited at the city-funded Brooklyn Museum in 1999. Giuliani froze the museum's funding, but was ordered to restore it after a federal judge ruled that he violated the First Amendment. Judge Nina Gershon, wrote, "'There is no federal constitutional issue more grave than the effort by government officials to censor works of expression and to threaten the vitality of a major cultural institution as punishment for failing to abide by governmental demands for orthodoxy.''

"It's 1989 all over again," says Gold. "It's sad and it's frightening that we find ourselves dealing with the same issues. It's dangerous and it's a slippery slope."

Gold hopes that this round of the Culture Wars won't be as fierce as the last one.

"I'm hopeful that people will voice an opinion and people won't take this quietly. I think it's important to talk about ideas of censorship, of freedom of expression," says Gold. "It's funny that people find art so threatening. People say art doesn't mater, but it does, if they're so threatened by it. It's revealing."

"I think this is simply political opportunism and these issues are so easy to kick around by the growing number of conservative politicians," says Stout. "Important art will survive these periods in this country. You can look at the flack from Mapplethorpe 20 years ago. Has he not emerged as one of the greatest photographers in the 20th century, worldwide? He has."

Wojnarowicz was no stranger to political controversy during his lifetime, either. He lost funding from the National Endowment for the Arts for a catalogue of a 1989 exhibition about AIDS because he attacked public figures in an essay. The NEA reversed its decision, and later supported a 10-year retrospective of his work. Wojnarowicz died of AIDS in 1992, at the age of 37.

You can watch an excerpt from the original work removed by the Portrait Gallery below. The soundtrack is not the same one that accompanied the video during the exhibition. This is also not the same edit that appeared in the exhibition, says Bentley, because the gallery's video was edited by curators from the original 30-minute video, and is not posted anywhere online. Please note: Contains mature themes and imagery. NSFW.

Fire in My Belly de David Wojnarowicz, Diamanda Galas
Uploaded by altimsah. - Watch original web videos.


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