At 7 p.m. yesterday, artist Adrian Parsons stood alone in front of the National Portrait Gallery with no gloves in 38-degree weather. A McDonalds coffee keeps one hand warm, and a box being used as a sign keeps the other covered up. On one side of that box, Parsons has written "National Censor Gallery." The other side says, "Support
Censor the Arts." He's been in front of the gallery since 2 p.m., which is less than 24 hours after director Martin Sullivan bowed to conservative pressure and removed a work of art by David Wojnarowicz that politicians had deemed offensive.
"It was the perfect storm of the new Congress, this exhibit, and Christmas. And it's in an art institution that's not in New York," says Parsons. "Politicians consider this to be in their house."
But if the angered politicians consider the Portrait Gallery to be a part of their territory, Parsons can't even set foot in their yard. Security guards warned him that he was permitted to stay in front of the gallery as long as he remained on the street. If he steps onto the sidewalk, he could be arrested. Parsons was angry about the Portrait Gallery's actions, but subdued.
"Mapplethorpe took a long time to gain steam. This has all happened in 48 hours," says Parsons, referring to a similar controversy at the Corcoran Gallery in 1989. But even though the word got out quickly, Parsons was still the only one who decided to picket throughout the night, after his fellow protester, Adam Griffith, left around 6:45. Parsons says he'll be there until the Portrait Gallery reinstates the video.
"I know there's a lot of outrage, but much of it is based in a virtual community," says Parsons. He thinks a physical presence of protest is important. "The symbolic walking from Transformer to here [planned for tonight], that's a start."
One of the reasons that Parsons is protesting alone is that many of the leaders of the local art community are in Miami for Art Basel. Parsons was supposed to be there too, but his plans were unexpectedly cancelled when he got arrested outside of Richmond, Va. last Thursday. He had planned to bike down to Miami, but learned the hard way that it is illegal to bike on an interstate highway. He went to the Pamunkey Jail in Hanover, Va. "It sounds like a fake name," he says.
A friend on a bike greeted Parsons, and they discussed the Catholic League's reaction to the exhibit.
"Fuck 'em," says the bicyclist. "All those kids they were fucking."
"Yeah, the Catholic League went to bat for the child-rubbers," says Parsons, referring to incidents of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and Catholic League president Bill Donohue's response to the incidents.
He has mostly encountered people who were supportive or neutral to his point of view. However, Roby Chavez, a Fox 5 reporter who interviewed Parsons on camera, seemed to offer the most resistance, asking Parsons if he felt that it would be offensive to Catholics that the "Art of the cross" was defaced.
"He said, 'Don't you think it's similar to defiling the Mona Lisa?'" says Parsons. "I explained that I don't think that's relative. The cross is iconography. It was used as an instrument of execution.... Fox thinks the cross is art."
Parsons said he talked to people coming out of the museum who had come from the much more sterile Norman Rockwell and Elvis exhibits. "If they gave me a blank face, I would tell them about how Elvis' records were burned in the 50s," he says, which they could relate to.
When a police car drives down the block, sirens blaring, Parsons pauses mid-sentence. When it doesn't stop in front of him, he is visibly relieved.
A well-dressed young man stops on the sidewalk to ask Parsons what he is protesting, and he explains the controversy and the art in a simple, objective manner. His teaching abilities in this moment, as he's being peppered with questions, are indisputable. The man would only allow himself to be identified by his initials, S.P., because he works for the government and is not authorized to speak to press.
"What is the point of this video?" asks S.P., and Parsons explains that it relates to the artist's experience of being marginalized and dying of AIDS.
"So the video has Christ in it. What does that have to do with AIDS?" says S.P.
"Aha," says Parsons, glad the question has been asked. "It could be that he feels persecuted."
S.P. and Parsons have a rational, polite discussion about freedom of expression, and they shake hands before S.P. departs. Parsons, careful to play by the rules, stays on the street the whole time. He tells me he will probably be there all night, even as the temperatures dip. At least it's not raining. Around 10:30 p.m., he texts me to let me know that he's finally procured some gloves.