When the Smithsonian removed David Wojnarowicz’s film “A Fire in My Belly” after it was attacked by conservatives, co-curator Jonathan Katz’s position was clear: He summarily denounced the decision. On that, he holds strong. But as the art community has begun to take a harder stance, Katz’s feelings on the controversy have gotten murkier.
Take, for example, his opinion of the Warhol and Mapplethorpe Foundations’ decision to discontinue Smithsonian funding.
“I’m entirely sympathetic with the desire to punish institutions that censor,” says Katz. At the same time, “It’s counterproductive, because these are the institutions who stuck their neck out in the first place. I wish instead they had considered a challenge grant.”
And then there’s the issue of AA Bronson, the artist who asked that his work be removed from the Portrait Gallery because he could not support their decision.
“I feel incredibly conflicted. I’m sympathetic with Bronson’s political perspective. At the same time, I objected to the removal of the piece the first time, and I object again,” says Katz, who wasn’t sure what he would choose to do, were he in Bronson’s shoes. “Dialogue is proper response. I hate to see expurgation replace explanation.”
So now Katz is tasked with spreading a more nuanced message: Condemn the Smithsonian’s decision to censor, but support the Smithsonian’s decision to host the show. Protest censorship, but don’t let your protest actions harm the rest of the show – and any future exhibitions. It is not a message that works on a sign or a petition, and it’s a complicated rallying cry. The best solutions seem to be: Encourage your congressmen to support arts funding, even though it's a less appealing option than civil disobedience. And most of all, don’t let this issue die.
Bronson, in particular, has put the National Portrait Gallery in an awkward spot with his request. At a panel discussion on Monday at the JCC, one audience member asked co-curator David Ward to answer for the fact that the Smithsonian quickly surrendered one artist’s work at the request of a dissident minority, most of which hadn’t even seen the show, while digging in their heels at an artist’s own request for the removal of his work as a thoughtful protest action. Ward deflated the commenter’s anger by merely agreeing that yes, it was a seemingly-hypocritical stance.
“They’re right in noticing the irony of all of that and finding that offensive,” says Katz. “What also needs to be said is that I’m assuming that the Smithsonian’s refusal to pull Bronson was an acknowlegement that censorship, the first time, was not the road to take. They are trying very hard to keep the exhibition that we designed up, and that if, in protest, other works are pulled, its survival really is in danger. That would be a damn shame.”
There would be an even more painful irony in the removal of Bronson’s work, says Katz.
“That piece, which is billboard size, was intended to make it impossible to avert your eyes from the plague that was everywhere in one community and unnoticed in another,” says Katz. “Its power is unquestioned. I’ve seen people burst into tears [before it]. It seems ironic to take a piece that was intended to avert your eyes out of the exhibition.”
Another difficult irony for Katz to swallow is the reaction of other museums and institutions around the country. In the days that followed the removal of “A Fire in My Belly,” museums including the San Francisco MOMA, the New Museum, and the Walker (and many others – more than reporters have been able to track) have shown the film, issuing statements to condemn the Smithsonian’s decision. But years before the controversy erupted, when Katz and Ward were shopping the show around, some of these institutions were the same ones that rejected the show for their own spaces, due to its controversial nature.
“I think there’s a natural tendency to attack the Smithsonian because they did something immediately and unquestionably ill-advised,” says Katz. “I know for a fact that the institutions clucking their tongues, I approached them about the show and they said ‘This will never happen at my museum.’” He’s not naming names.
That’s why he thinks the Smithsonian is deserving of praise, despite their actions. Katz is an art historian and an expert in queer studies, heading up a doctoral program at the University of Buffalo. Despite 30 years of scholarship from him and other experts, Katz says that most major institutions gloss over gay and lesbian sexuality in their collections – which is why Hide/Seek is such an important show.
“Punishing the one institution that broke the blacklist will enable all the other institutions to sit on their hands,” says Katz. “My goal in doing the show was not simply to do the show, but also to make it safe for other institutions to do the show. We have been falsifying art history for decades.”
So here’s what Katz wants, in the wake of the controversy (which some writers have alleged is not a controversy, since it was perpetuated by a fringe group. Not true. You don’t need majority disagreement to make a controversy). He wants to see more scholarship in queer art. He wants to see more museums brave enough to host shows like Hide/Seek (Like the next show he’s curating: “Art, AIDS, America.”) He wants a national conversation about why arts funding is important, and he wants to be invited to testify on the Hill about how damaging budget cuts to the arts can be. He wants Democratic leadership, which has said nothing about the incident, to speak out. And he wants the jerks who are sending him anti-Semitic hate mail to find a better use of their time.
“I’m accustomed to homophobia, sadly enough, but this is the first time in my life that I’ve experienced anti-Semitism,” says Katz.
Katz would also like Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough, the man who made the call to pull the film, to answer his questions. Clough has not yet taken any questions from reporters, or held a press conference explaining his actions. Katz says he’s spoken with people in Clough’s office, and he’s had numerous conversations with Martin Sullivan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, but has had no direct correspondence with the secretary.
But the last thing Katz wants to see is for the left to accomplish what the right sought. It’s what Ward referred to as the “circular firing squad” in Monday’s discussion: The criticism and funding cuts, from groups like Warhol and Mapplethorpe, and from individuals like Bronson, that will scare off donors for future GLBT exhibits, and resign queer art to another decade outside our country’s major institutions. He’s saddened that 11 seconds of film could overshadow more than 100 years of history.
Without a proper, nuanced response, “We’re not just going to see this exhibition obscured by controversy, but there will be a chilling effect five, 10, 15 years hence,” says Katz. “This is bigger than Hide/Seek. Whether we want it or not, this exhibition is a bellwether.”