What do Wikileaks and the art world’s response to the censorship of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly” by the Smithsonian have in common? More than may be apparent at first.
Both make public what elites want to keep secret. They illustrate how little, if anything, can be hidden anymore and demonstrate how the more something is concealed the more the demand for it to be revealed grows.
What the complex and seemingly unrelated stories of Wikileaks and the censorship of “A Fire in My Belly” at the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture highlights is how insiders, or those with insider access, can use their privilege to unsettle the status quo when it isn’t working anymore.
In the case of Wikileaks, while the media focus is on its founder Julian Assange, the 22-year-old US Army Private Bradley Manning, who is believed to have been responsible for providing the classified cables to Wikileaks, has been held in solitary confinement for five months and is largely absent in the media coverage. Manning allegedly (let’s remember that) downloaded the sensitive information from his workplace onto discs and then supplied them to Wikileaks. Since he has not been charged and has no access to the outside world — nor the world to him — his motivations are unknown. Regardless, he may have changed how diplomacy and information will be shared forever. In an open letter, filmmaker and liberal activist Michael Moore has even wondered if the war in Iraq, which was built on deliberate governmental lies, could have been avoided if Wikileaks had existed a decade ago.
Similar to Manning, AA Bronson is using his access to the heights of the contemporary art world to disrupt the comfort of a national museum that doesn’t appear to be accountable to the public for their actions. Two weeks ago, Bronson requested his work “Felix, June 5, 1994” (1994/99) be removed from Hide/Seek as an act of solidarity with Wojnarowicz. By making this request, Bronson implicated the National Gallery of Canada who loaned the work to the Smithsonian and has forced them — and Canadians — to question their role in the affair. Bronson has added a new dimension to the story by using his voice as an artist participating in the show and refusing to be complicit in censorship through silence and apathy.
Bronson is eroding the authority of the Smithsonian to censor and asserting his privilege of being a participant in the exhibition by asking to be withdrawn from the show. He is also challenging the idea of censorship — the idea that it ensures something will not be seen — by understanding that his request will mean more people, and a more diverse population, will see the work at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. It does not matter that the Smithsonian is not honoring his request.
Censoring “A Fire in My Belly” makes it possible that all work from the show — especially the more radical work that rattles the conservative cages of right-wingers — will be given a new life by those who may need it the most, queer angry kids on the internet. In the face of having both the National Gallery of Canada and the Smithsonian not honor his request, Bronson is working with his lawyer, sending daily emails to the Washington institution, and, in the process, evoking “his moral rights under American and Canadian copyright law.”
While art may be a commodity to some, Bronson is emphasizing the moral dimension to art and reminding us that art is not just a thing but also an expression of being. Bronson is turning censorship inside out by asking for something that is already exposed to be concealed. By highlighting censorship, and the ridiculousness of the Smithsonian’s actions, Bronson is challenging notions of authority in the arts institution and essentially saying, why do you only get to decide? Nothing can be hidden, not anymore.
In the end, the legacy of Hide/Seek may as yet be decided but it is already a groundbreaking show giving witness to the experience of LGBTQ people. Moreover, the exhibit has helped to twist the meaning of censorship in America. If censorship once only meant suppression, today censorship gives more attention through controversy.
Bronson and Manning have both helped to liberate information from institutional oppression. They have called attention to different ways of expressing dissent. Each age brings with it new types of fear and oppression. What leaked cables and a film that portrays ants on a crucifix remind us is that from cave drawings, to the printing press, to the singing of the haunting melody “Strange Fruit,” each age will always give rise to new ways of bearing witness. The challenge now is how do we support early adopters of the evolving language of resistance and use the methods ourselves. They are simply showing us tools that we’ve had all along.