When I saw that the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery chose to remove David Wojnarowicz’ “A Fire in My Belly” from its Hide/Seek exhibition following Republican political pressure, I was embarrassed and a little confused for the museum. Isn’t it the job of the art world to stand up to those who essentialize art as “offensive” or “degenerate,” and represent the minority who find little voice in the mainstream outside of art?
By choosing to self-censor rather than bear out a media storm that has now turned against the museum, the Smithsonian sets a precedent by which art exhibitions can be compromised piece by piece simply because their imagery may be disagreeable to some. The museum’s actions, directed by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, form a capitulation and betrayal of art to politics, something no art museum, even a government-directed one, should be involved in. Art is not untouchable nor entirely sacrosanct, but to allow such close-minded criticisms to justify removing art from a curated exhibition is to give up on art’s validity as social critique and curating as a public intellectual practice.
What strikes me as particularly messed up in this case is that Wojnarowicz’ artwork is just a symbol for a greater misunderstanding. In itself, Wojnarowicz’ imagery is pretty far down on the provocative scale. There are indeed ants crawling over a crucifixion figure, but as Washington Post critic Blake Gopnik points out, there’s a long art legacy of grisly images of Jesus, from Early Christianity on. Why waste breath getting angry about that piece when works by the Chapman Brothers, including sculptures of sexualized children melded together in unorthodox ways, are so much better targets? Wojnarowicz doesn’t even mean to provoke; the video memorializes a lover who passed away. The image is one of pain and despair rather than one of profanity.
So what’s the greater misunderstanding behind this conflict? The real issue is the fundamental disagreement over public funding of freely expressive art. When scandals occur over “offensive” art, Republican factions have repeatedly been quick to jump to arguments for de-funding public support for the arts. Remember Giuliani’s outrage over Chris Ofili’s elephant dung Mary? The NEA’s de-funding of Robert Mapplethorpe’s classical, homoerotic photographs? Supporters of art must keep this history of “outrage” in mind today and understand that to bow to it is to re-enact the mistakes of the past. Provocative art is important and must be protected and supported, not betrayed. If we still believe that art should be supported by the society that begets it, which I do, we must take care to ensure that all art is supported, not just the work that we find suitable, desirable or inoffensive.
If a museum can’t defend art and artist’s freedoms of speech, then it doesn’t deserve to be called a museum, nor entrusted with art. The National Portrait Gallery failed to stand behind its curators, the artists it shows and the art world as a whole. I can’t think of anything much more offensive than that.