Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Censorship at the Smithsonian [53]

On December 1st, 2010, World's AIDS Day, the Smithsonian withdrew a video by the artist David Wojnarowicz from the exhibition entitled Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (publicized as being "America's first major exhibition of gay art") under pressure from the Catholic League and threats of "reviewing" of federal funding for the Smithsonian itself. Note that apparently none of the politicians or religious figures who complained so vehemently actually bothered to visit the exhibition or view the video which was withdrawn.

[JW: If this is not a living example of the Prostitution of Art, I'm not sure what is.]

Below are links to the original exhibit, the actual video and various articles on the fallout of a video being pulled from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (part of the Smithsonian) in Washington, DC.

The video which was pulled from the exhibition:

Fire in My Belly by David Wojnarowicz, Diamanda Galas

Exhibition Description @National Portrait Gallery Website:

Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture
October 30 through February 13, 2011

November 30, 2010
GOP Reps Blast Smithsonian Exhibit Featuring Ant-Covered Jesus on Cross by Todd Starnes

an excerpt from that article which probably explains at least in part why the video was removed from the exhibition:

"Incoming House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he condemned the use of taxpayer money for the exhibit but would not call for the removal of the exhibit.

"American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy," Boehner said. "While the amount of money involved may be small, it’s symbolic of the arrogance Washington routinely applies to thousands of spending decisions involving Americans’ hard-earned money at a time when one in every 10 Americans is out of work and our children’s future is being threatened by debt.

"Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves to end the job-killing spending spree in Washington.”"

[JW: Note that the exhibition itself also received major funding from private institutions including the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation]

December 2, 2010
TBD Arts: National Portrait Gallery censorship controversy: Who was David Wojnarowicz?

December 5, 2010
guardian.co.uk: Hide/Seek: Too shocking for America

December 7th, 2010
Dis Magazine Why David Wojnarowicz Matters by Dan Cameron

Smithsonian Q&A Regarding the "Hide/Seek" Exhibition
(pdf file downloaded via the National Portrait Gallery Website):

1. Does the Smithsonian stand behind the "Hide/Seek" exhibition or are you going to close the show?
The "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery is a serious examination of the role sexual identity has played in the creation of modern American portraiture. The Smithsonian Institution stands behind the exhibition, and the show will remain open through the scheduled date of Feb. 13.

2. Why did the Smithsonian make the decision to remove the “Fire in the Belly” video by David Wojnarowicz from the exhibition?
Many people who contacted the Smithsonian and some members of Congress were upset about segments of the four-minute video (optionally accessed by visitors on a small touch screen in the exhibition) because it depicted a crucifix on the ground with ants walking on it. They interpreted the video imagery as anti-Christian. This imagery was part of a surrealistic video collage filmed in Mexico expressing the suffering, marginalization and physical decay of those who were afflicted with AIDS. In the video, Wojnarowicz used religious imagery placing his work firmly in the tradition of art that uses such imagery to universalize human suffering. Smithsonian officials and museum leaders are sensitive to public perceptions of the Institution’s exhibitions. In this case, they believed that the attention to this particular video imagery and the way in which it was being interpreted by many overshadowed the importance and understanding of the entire exhibition. Thus the decision was made to remove the video from the exhibition.

3. Who made the decision?
The Secretary of the Smithsonian, after hearing the opinions and views of the relevant parties, including the Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture, the National Portrait Gallery Director and the exhibition co-Curator.

4. How do you respond to critics, including the Association of Art Museum Directors, who say that you caved into conservative critics who think it's okay to censor art exhibits in museum?
We respect the AAMD position, and respectfully disagree with their conclusion. As a publicly supported museum, the Smithsonian has an important research and educational mission and needs to be responsive to a large and diverse audience. The change that was made was intended to clear up a misunderstanding, and help focus attention on the central theme of the exhibition, which is portraiture and the representation of gay and lesbian identities in American art.

5. What are you doing to warn visitors who may find the exhibition disturbing?
Acknowledging that some visitors may prefer not to encounter some of the subject matter in the exhibition, signs at both entrances read: “This exhibition contains mature themes.”

6. Why did you remove two protestors who showed the video inside the museum at the entrance to the exhibit? Were these two protestors banned for life by the Smithsonian?
The two people were asked to leave the museum because they were violating Smithsonian policy: They were videotaping in a no-photography area; distributing leaflets; and displaying a placard (iPad) – all of which are prohibited in Smithsonian museums. When the protestors refused to leave, Smithsonian security contacted the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. The police did not arrest them. The Metropolitan police issued the protestors a citation (barring notice), which states they are barred from the building for 12 months. The protestors were not banned from the museum for life.

December 14, 2010
email from Nathan who went to see the exhibition:
i went to see the exhibit with G. this past weekend....it was very inspiring. more importantly, a body of work that was highlighted gave a voice to my community which continues to be stifled. the censored pieces remind my community and others of who is in charge and that my community was permitted/granted permission to share their voice. it does not indicate a step in any direction and pushed me to remember that i am not a part of the majority.

also, the cultural attitudes that were propogated in this body of work onto the community by the community was offputting. all gay men (illustrated, photographed, painted) were athletic, muscular and presented an ideal. i did not see fat old ugly men as gay. instead, those were women dressed as those types.


  1. Thanks for showing the video, I think this idea of art censorship is really interesting. Because of course, there shouldn't be any censorship, that is entirely contradictory and only inhibits progression and debate. I live in a public art collection and occasionally we have some controversial work. People wanted Sigalit Landau's 'Barbed Hula' removed and they had fairly violent reactions to this; http://wandering-the-dream-space.blogspot.com/2010/11/body-in-womens-art-now-part-2-flux.html. The other thing I have been engaged in a debate about is whether we should consider the moral character of the artist when we consider their work; http://wandering-the-dream-space.blogspot.com/2010/12/eric-gill-questioning-canon.html. This video is particularly interesting because of course religious practice itself encourages all of this visceral and horrific associations.

  2. Thank you so much for posting your comment Frangipan. I also posted a link to the first blog entry you listed on facebook via the Mobius, Inc. page
    Peace, JW