Inside D.C. entertainment

The year in censorship

December 31, 2010 - 10:00 AM
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Little ants provoked a big outcry from conservatives this year, and when the Smithsonian reacted to their complaints, the culture wars began anew. "The year in censorship" is a bit of a misnomer, seeing as most of the events occurred over the course of a single month. Here's a timeline of how it all went down.

Oct 30: Hide/Seek opens at the National Portrait Gallery. TBD went to a preview the day before, and spotlighted works from Keith Haring, Robert Rauschenberg, George Bellows and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Nov. 29: Conservative site CNS writes about the exhibit, calling it a "Christmas-season exhibit." "The federally funded National Portrait Gallery, one of the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, is currently showing an exhibition that features images of an ant-covered Jesus, male genitals, naked brothers kissing, men in chains, Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, and a painting the Smithsonian itself describes in the show's catalog as 'homoerotic,'" wrote Penny Starr. The story was widely reposted among conservative forums, and was featured on the Drudge Report. The ant-covered Jesus, in a film called "A Fire in My Belly" by David Wojnarowicz, becomes their primary objection.

fire in my belly
Still from "A Fire in My Belly."
Nov. 30: The National Portrait Gallery begins to receive an overwhelming number of complaint calls and emails, most of which have come from readers of the CNS story who have never seen the show.
2:30 p.m.: TBD posts a story about the controversy.
3:27 p.m.: The Hill posts a story that quotes House Speaker-designate John Boehner and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor as saying that the exhibit should come down.
3:30 p.m.: The National Portrait Gallery issues a statement that they will be removing the work due to the outcry. "I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious," said director Martin Sullivan in a statement. "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."
Later that afternoon: TBD solicits statements from Portrait Gallery publicist Bethany Bentley, the Mapplethorpe Foundation and PPOW Gallery, who manages David Wojnarowicz's estate. Comparisons are made to previous controversies about art and public funding, such as Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ." TBD posts an edited version of the film.

Dec. 1: World AIDS Day. Our morning roundup contains some outraged reactions on both sides. Blake Gopnik writes a great column decrying censorship. Transformer Gallery announces that they will show the film in their storefront window. Director Victoria Reis also tells TBD that she is planning a protest action for the next day. Artist Adam Griffith begins a solo protest outside of the Portrait Gallery, where TBD's Jay Westcott takes his photo. He is later joined by artist Adrian Parsons, who stands in front of the gallery throughout the night. TBD details previous clashes between the public and institutions about art that offends. A memo leaked to Modern Art Notes reveals that the call to remove the art came from the very top: Smithsonian secretary Wayne Clough. Reis defends the film against the Catholic League on RTTV's Alonya Show.

david wojnarowicz
David Wojnarowicz

Dec. 2: Artists Grant Duncan, Geoffrey Aldridge and Ed Rock design Wojnarowicz protest masks. The List visits the show and reveals what we already know: Most visitors don't find the show to be offensive. TBD's interview with PPOW Gallery's Wendy Olsoff offered up some background on what Wojnarowicz was like. Transformer sends a letter to the Smithsonian demanding that the work be reinstated. I discussed the controversy on TBD TV. A protest march began at 5:30 at Transformer, and proceeded silently to the Portrait Gallery. Parsons recreated the 1989 Mapplethorpe protest at the Corcoran by projecting the film on the side of the building. The protesters also stood silently in front of the Capitol.

Dec. 3: TBD rounded up some of the Catholic League's most ridiculous spats. Transformer received the full video from Wojnarowicz's archives, and began to show it – but inside the gallery, because it is more explicit. Police visit the gallery briefly, but they are supportive of Transformer's work. PPOW gallery makes the video available for any institution to exhibit.

Dec. 4: Transformer shows the video for the last time, because it has gone viral and can be seen on the internet. Protesters Mike Blasenstein and Michael Dax Iacovone show the video inside the Portrait Gallery, on an iPad hung around Blasenstein's neck. They are removed from the gallery by police, and are banned from Smithsonian property. The New Museum begins to show "A Fire in My Belly" in their lobby.

Mike Blasenstein
Video still from Blasenstein's protest.

Dec. 6: The Smithsonian publishes a statement in support of Hide/Seek, confirming that the exhibition will remain open. TBD obtains police documents for Blasenstein's and Iacovone's ban, even though it's logistically impossible to be banned from the Smithsonian anyway. We also provided Blasenstein, Iacovone and any other would-be banned protesters a guide to D.C. museums that avoided all Smithsonian property. Ever wanted to check out the Reston Zoo? Also, it was determined that Blasenstein and Iacovone were the first to use an iPad in a protest in America, but not in the world. A Lithuanian man beat them to that distinction.

Dec. 8: Blasenstein and Iacovone announce plans to build a temporary gallery outside of the Portrait Gallery for "A Fire in My Belly." Those plans are still in the works.

Dec. 9: National Portrait Gallery commissioner James T. Bartlett resigns in protest of the Smithsonian’s removal of the film.

Dec. 10: Another cross with an insect on it appears as a prop in the Shakespeare Theatre's Candide, across the street from the Portrait Gallery. No one is offended. The same conservative organization that published the initial reaction to Hide/Seek organizes a letter campaign against the Washington Post, to protest what they consider to be a liberal bias in their coverage of the issue.

Dec. 11: Patti Smith discusses her book, Just Kids, which recalls her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith says of the controversy: "I imagine Jesus coming back and embracing the ants and being appalled by the crucifix."

Dec. 13: The Warhol Foundation issues a statement saying that unless the work is reinstated, they will no longer contribute funds to Smithsonian programming. Bentley confirms that the Portrait Gallery's decision to remove the work is final.

The film in Transformer's window.

Dec. 15: The New York Public Library hosts a panel discussion with the curators of Hide/Seek. Katz refers to the Catholic League and conservatives as the "American Taliban."

Dec. 16: Artist AA Bronson demands the removal of his work "Felix, June 5, 1994," from Hide/Seek. The Mapplethorpe Foundation, in a move of solidarity with the Warhol Foundation, announces that it, too, will deny funding to Smithsonian exhibits.

Dec. 19: Advocacy group Art+ organizes a protest in New York in front of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the only a Smithsonian in New York. The protesters use the Wojnarowicz masks from the D.C. march, and some signs of their own.

Dec. 20: TBD learns that the controversy has greatly increased sales of the Hide/Seek catalog. A second panel discussion occurs at the DCJCC with Ward, Reis, blogger Tyler Green, and artist Dafna Steinberg. Ward says: "We took a flesh wound, it's not a mortal wound... I don't like it, but it's not a mortal blow." Bronson continues to assert his rights to have the work removed from the show, and the Portrait Gallery holds steady.

Dec. 22: Curator Jonathan Katz tells TBD that he has been plagued by homophobic, anti-Semitic correspondence since the controversy broke. He discussed the difficulty in crafting a nuanced response to criticism, and his fears that the left's rebuke may be too harsh.

Dec. 24: Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott calls for Clough's resignation.

Dec. 29: Curator Linda Weintraub recalls the 1990 exhibit for which David Wojnarowicz called for the removal of his own work to protest another artist's homophobia. Weintraub resisted Wojnarowicz's request, and supports the Smithsonian in keeping Bronson's work.

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