David C. Ward is co-curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture exhibition, which has become a lightning rod for right-wing attacks on the federally funded Smithsonian institution. The show is the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture. There are many LGBT images on display but the work is not limited to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender artists and encompasses work by many names that are mainstays in art history, including Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Romaine Brooks, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Martin, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, AA Bronson, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
But what has really catapulted the show into the limelight is the fact that last week Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough ordered David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” video pulled from the National Portrait Gallery show.
Over the course of the past week, new aspects of the censorship have come to light, including most recently that the controversy was partly manufactured by a conservative activist for CNS News (formerly Conservative News Service) named Penny Starr, who is well-known for whipping up anti-gay opinion, like in September when she criticized the Richmond Visitors Bureau for a campaign to “attract homosexuals to Virginia’s capital.” Washington City Paper, in an investigation into Starr’s role, says that she solicited comments from congressmen who had never seen the exhibition. The corporate media then parroted the same false sense that the outrage was organic rather than prodded by Starr and her anti-gay crusades.
I asked Ward why he thought the Wojnarowicz video was singled out in the exhibition. “If you go back to the original CNS attack remember that there was an initial and wholesale attack on the show in the guise of it being perverse, obscene, and anti-Christian,” he reminded me.
Ward is right, as Starr’s original post was a more wide ranging condemnation with the following lede:
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.”
Ward thinks that the reason the video was singled out was that the medium is more immediate and confuses critics because it is abstract, symbolic, and uses the familiar language of mass media. It is a video of Jesus and the language is closely aligned to television, which is familiar to everyone, and evokes a sense of something being “real.”
The question as to why this recent outrage even occurred is complex, Ward says. “There is an oversensitivity by some Christians, which is self-pitying, but I think it’s tied to the increased secularization of society and the war on terror,” he says. The curators have received hundreds of emails absurdly suggesting that they wouldn’t have included the video if was a depiction of Muhammad, which appears to be a commonly heard battle cry of contemporary Christian censors. Last October, when fundamentalist Christians protested Enrique Chagoya’s work at the Loveland Museum Gallery in Colorado that depicted religious figures, including Jesus, in unconventional scenarios, one of the protest signs outside the museum read “Would U Depict Mohommed [sic] In This Manner?” and letters to the Denver Post asked the same thing, even though the controversial work by Chagoya did in fact depict Mohammad. Right-wing Christian outrage seems to thrive on second-hand knowledge.
During our conversation, Ward pointed out that the recent crisis in society, as represented most clearly by the Tea Party, evokes historic periods in America (the late 1890s and the 1950s, for instance) when society seemed to be in crisis and turned to extreme measures to recalibrate its identity. The recent cultural anxiety, Ward thinks, revolves around the slippage of middle class society and the realization that America is no longer that exceptional place that leads the world with the same power it once did.
“I was surprised by the controversy,” Ward admits. He points out that there is an irony at work, since what the censors are not seeing is that the Wojnarowicz video is a “surrealistic attempt to use his own Catholicism as a secular and religious plea,” he says.
Even if the video is now gone, Ward thinks the exhibition is still powerful. “I don’t think [the removal] has seriously impacted the effectiveness of the exhibition. This is not a direct relation to the Mapplethorpe controversy. We lost only 1/125th 1/105th of the show in this case,” he says.
The Robert Mapplethorpe controversy, Ward cites, occurred in 1989 when 107 American congressman, lead by Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX), sent a letter to the NEA that called attention to a retrospective entitled Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment that was scheduled to open at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art. The letter labeled the works “morally reprehensible trash,” and the controversy lead to the Corcoran’s cancellation of the exhibition.
Ward’s choice to include the video was partly out of an interest in diversity. “We wanted to represent all media, starting from oil painting to video. There’s a perceptual problem, you can display the homosexual body but only if you show it in context but if you show it in a medium that evokes television then somehow it is more immediate.”
He says the Smithsonian official made a choice based on Washington tactics but, he reminds me, the show is still up. “The exhibition has not disappeared, it is continuing what the Mapplethorpe controversy temporarily ended. The Mapplethorpe controversy shut down this whole debate [about LGBT issues in art], and nothing has happened for 20 years in the museum world at this scale,” he says.
Ward recognizes how far we’ve come in regards to these issues since the Robert Mapplethorpe but he doesn’t want the debate to get stuck in the old ideas and language. “I don’t want people to recite the lines of 20 years ago, I don’t want to go back to 1989,” he says. Hide/Seek is exploring a new strand in American modernism, which is an interest of Ward’s, who doesn’t have the same background in gay and lesbian studies that his co-curator Jonathan Katz does. Ward approached the topic with an interest in biography, modernism, and Walt Whitman.
“We’ve broken the ice with the show. We’ve now drawn attention to Wojnarowicz video and drawn attention to censorship. And I want to mention, and many people aren’t aware of this, but there are still two other Wojnarowicz works in the show ["Untitled (Face in Dirt)" (1990) and the Rimbaud in New York 1978-1979 series)].”
The curators were certainly aware that they needed to choose the art works carefully because they would attract scrutiny. “I thought people wouldn’t like to see Frank O’Hara nude with boots because of the male nudity but no one has mentioned that. I should mention that the two male nudes in the show are by straight artists, Larry Rivers and Thomas Eakins. We wanted to avoid more sexualized work. We have even been criticized that we’ve been too conservative but we wanted to me more conservative and portray the mainstream of American art. We wanted to use the canon. The last section on postmodernism is more provisional, we didn’t want to end with AIDS, but with the idea that post-AIDS we may be able to return to the Whitmanesque multitudes.”
If the controversy has sparked a greater interest in their show then they could have ever imagined, Ward has another hope. “I wish art critics would just engage with what we actually did. [Before the controversy] there has been a knee-jerk anti-modernism, anti-intellectualism, anti-aesthetic response from some people. I find that the people who have engaged with the show personally have enjoyed it. This show brought together work that the museum has never exhibited before.” And, I would add, has rekindled a topic that has been dormant for far too long.
Hide/Seek is on view at the National Portrait Gallery (F St NW & 8th St NW, Washington, DC) until February 13, 2010.
You may also be interested to read Tyler Green’s interview with the curators here.