The only diversity of opinion among the panelists and crowd that filled the JCC theater last night to discuss the National Portrait Gallery controversy were varying degrees of blame to assign the Smithsonian. Everyone still talking about this (since the conservatives, once the film was removed, basically dropped the issue) can agree that the institution did a very bad thing by removing David Wojnarowicz's film "A Fire in My Belly." It was now only a matter of hashing out how badly the Smithsonian has acted in the wake of the controversy, especially in their treatment of AA Bronson, the artist who has tried to pull his work from Hide/Seek to protest the decision.
So co-curator David Ward was on the defensive last night, but not really: He didn't defend the decision to remove the Wojnarowicz work, which was the choice of Smithsonian secretary Wayne Clough, but he did defend his decision to keep Bronson's work. At this point, Ward is just trying to salvage what's left of the show he and Katz have worked on for years. While no audience members were angry, some were confrontational in their questioning of Ward (especially about the museum's decision to drop the Wojnarowicz and fight for the Bronson), which he deflated by merely agreeing with them.
Ward was joined on the panel by ARTINFO's Tyler Green, Transformer's Victoria Reis, and Dafna Steinberg and Josh Ford of the JCC, but all eyes were on him, for better or worse. This won't be the only conversation about the controversy – the Portrait Gallery is planning an event for January, and the JCC will be doing another panel about arts funding. Speaking of which, that's one piece of good news to come out of the panel: Ward announced that a grant enabled the Portrait Gallery to expand the Hide/Seek website to make it a permanent presence.
Here's Ward's take on the variable facets of the controversy:
On the internet: "I hate the internet," said Ward. He was only half-joking.
On his fan mail: "I have received a great deal of correspondence from the American public," said Ward. But it's not as bad as what Katz has gotten, which Ward described as "vile" and "anti-semitic."
On the days following the decision: At 2 a.m., "I'd check my email and see who was calling me a snothead tonight."
On taking the Wojnarowicz down: "We had to burn the village to save it," said moderator Josh Ford. "Interesting analogy," replied Ward.
On the fact that Catherine Dawson, who organized the panel, also works to fund some of Ward's programs: "At first I thought, I can't have one of my backers do a program for me. But since I've had a really crappy few weeks, it's OK to stack the deck."
On how decisions are made at the Smithsonian: "The Smithsonian is like a multi-national corporation."
On why he accepted the Smithsonian's decision: "I was not going to resign ... That would solve a problem for the right." Ward did not want a protest resignation to be interpreted as a retreat.
On keeping the Bronson: "I'm pragmatic," said Ward, who pointed out that they've only lost 1/105th of the show, and not even all of the Wojnarowicz works. "If we lose more, it's going to hurt."
On the silver lining of attacking a film: "The video can be shown anywhere, but you can't do that with Eakins. The video is a lucky hit because it can go viral, but there's only one "47, Berlin."
On his and Katz's selections: "We were very careful about nudity … It's no accident that the major nudes in the show were by straights." The two works he's referring to are portraits by Larry Rivers (of Frank O'Hara) and Andrew Wyeth.
On initial criticisms from the art world: "I've been criticized for being too conservative. [People would say] 'Why aren't you showing this artist who does work with semen?' I'll tell you why not. I'm not a fool."
On the true threat to the arts: "The right wing doesn't care if the pictures are off the wall. More chillingly, they want the people represented in those pictures to disappear."
On the Annie Liebovitz photo of Ellen DeGeneres being described as "obscene": "She was wearing a bikini top with cups the size of basketballs … She could be wearing a burqa and it would still be obscene."
On the show, which opened in October, being an attack on Christmas: "If we had done it in the spring, it would have been an attack on Easter. We weren't going to win that one."
On the other museums criticizing the Smithsonian's decision: "It's easy to criticize this exhibition now that it is up, but you didn't want to do it," said Ward, referring to the museums who rejected the show before the controversy, but are now showing the Wojnarowicz video.
On further panels about censorship: The Portrait Gallery will be hosting a "full-on, bring your switchblade discussion of the controversy," said Ward.
On what the show has lost: "We took a flesh wound, it's not a mortal wound... I don't like it, but it's not a mortal blow."
On how the film wasn't that risque anyway: The four-minute version shown in the gallery didn't have nearly as much masturbation and sexuality as the extended version. "None of the good stuff."
On the National Portrait Gallery's responsibility: "We speak for the American people. The Portrait Gallery has tried... to expand our representation of democratic America … It is Washington, it is a national museum, and I want to represent all Americans to all Americans."