Los Angeles — With a cardboard cross and draped coffin, a group of activists and artists assembled in front of downtown LA’s Millennium Biltmore Hotel to stage a “Funeral Procession of Free Artistic Expression,” where Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough was speaking as part of the Town Hall Los Angeles public issues series on “New Perspectives at the Smithsonian.”
The funeral procession was organized in large part by the art protest group LA Raw and the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG), in response to Clough’s ordered removal of David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video “A Fire in My Belly” from the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture exhibition in late November 2010. The decision was made after manufactured outrage by a right-wing activist prodded House Republican leaders, including Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and House Majority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), and the Catholic League to brand the exhibition as offensive and anti-Christian.
Activists, reporters, and art observers called the removal censorship, violation of first amendment rights, and an inhibition of dialogue, which they contend defeats art’s real purpose of sprouting discussion.
“Public institutions like the Smithsonian have absolutely no business censoring art,” said Carol Wells, director and founder of CSPG, in an interview with Hyperallergic, as she walked with activists around the parameter of the Biltmore. “We’re here to protect our first amendment rights, we’re here to advocate that the dialogue of AIDS funding and the people suffering with AIDS should not be whitewashed and should not be covered up.”
Wells, who would have liked to see a discussion about what the art meant instead of its removal says Wojnarowicz was a Catholic who often used ants in his art to symbolize the social order of the world. She interprets the piece to point out the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, who she says professes love but ignores the issue of AIDS.
Wojnarowicz, a prominent member of the New York City art scene, died of AIDS-related complications in 1992 at age 37.
The procession was led by a make-shift crucifix that featured the print out of a still of Jesus Christ from “A Fire in My Belly” and a coffin draped with a blanket depicting the dollar bill, a live interpretation of Italian street artist Blu’s commissioned anti-war mural, which was recently ordered to be painted over by Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art Director Jeffrey Deitch. The Biltmore protest followed a demonstration in Washington DC in early December attended by 150 people and another protest attended by hundreds in Manhattan in late December over the removal of the video.
At least five people from the demonstration attended Clough’s Town Hall Los Angeles meeting, who opened his presentation with commentary about the crowd outside, supporting their right to exercise free speech. He admitted that the controversy could have been handled better, according to a post on LA Raw, while a protester who was at the talk was removed after shouting, “Shame on you for censoring!” to Clough.
The hour-long protest featured signs that read “Museum Censorship: Protecting You From Reality” and attracted passersby on the street and in their car to snap photos with cameras and phones.
AIDS and Queer Activist Jeff Schuerholz who helped carry the coffin for at least one lap around the building attributed the censorship to homophobia and reflected on the controversy’s wider implications.
“He’s one of the most important American artists of the 20th century and when they censor someone like that, pretty soon they’re going to censor someone who doesn’t have a show,” he said.
An organizer from LA Raw, who goes by the name of “O” said the protest was a way to start a conversation with people who are interested in the arts and that awareness that is created can trickle down to a broader public.
“We’ve become very complacent,” she said, adding that she doesn’t think it’s the job of art to worry about offending people.
Though Clough’s visit to Los Angeles presented an opportunity for a demonstration targeting the Smithsonian, the informality of the protest gave the crowd, a hog pog of multiple age groups, to march on behalf of more than just Wojnarowicz’s work.
Mexican-American art activist Leo Limón who shouted “Stop the War,” during the walk came to the protest in response to MOCA’s removal of Blu’s commissioned mural. A Vietnam War veteran with a braided goatee and a ribbon with peace signs fastened to his orange shirt, Limon says the censorship of art and imagery that showcase the realities of war will continue.
Activist Kristen Schurr’s presence was also prompted by the mural removal. Representing anti-war women’s organization Codepink, she carried a large, pink sheet that read “You Can’t Whitewash the Cost of War” and hoped the protest would bring awareness that censorship of art is alive and well throughout the country.
Ultimately, Wells, who was also present at Clough’s presentation inside, says the Smithsonian’s decision could lead to more artists self-censoring themselves, but also give birth to those who are committed to art and free speech to take their work to the next level.
Overall, the demonstration started and ended peacefully, with minimal involvement from assigned law enforcement and a quick dispersing of activists, the coffin, and the cross. While initially directed at Clough, the group’s efforts peppered the expression of art with political and civil freedom and judging by the small swarm of media and street attention they received, perhaps they managed to create awareness as well as a starting point for discussion, however moderate it may have been.
All photos by the author