Stand Up, Don't Back Down - Cultural Wars Revisited (Janet's Blog)

(12-6-2010)  After the news coming out of the National Portrait Gallery this past week, a few quotes come to mind: “This is like deja vu all over again” (Yogi Berra) and “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (an oft misquoted quote from George Santayana.)

The Speaker of the House to be, Representative John Boehner (R-OH) and his colleague in leadership Representative Eric Cantor (R-Va) want the current exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institute, cancelled. The highly acclaimed exhibit entitled “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” is (according to the Gallery’s website) “…the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture.” The exhibit covers over a hundred years and includes works by 105 artists including Singer, Sargent, O’Keefe, Johns, Warhol, Haring and Wojnarowicz, among many others. Well, it did include a work by David Wojnarowicz until Gallery officials removed his video on November 30. They had received complaints that his short video “A Fire in my Belly” (1987) was anti-Catholic.

Any of this sound familiar? We have newly empowered politicians who want to unite a base (read: impress voters who will vote for them and give them money) in a government that operates more like battling sports teams than elected representatives “of the people, for the people.” Add to this, lobbying groups and associations who want to impress their members (read donors) like the religious and conservative right looking for inflammatory issues to which politicians must respond. Now you’ve got the perfect storm for attacks on artists and artwork that focus on issues that make Americans the most crazy: sex and religion.

I am not surprised by Boehner and Cantor’s threats on Smithsonian funding and demands to shut down the exhibit. That was all too predictable given the realities of politics today. What I am shocked about is the response from the National Portrait Gallery. This is where the Santayana quote is applicable. What we learned from the culture wars of the 80s and 90s is that we also have a base. That base includes organizational funders, individual funders, artists, arts organizations, their members, audiences and millions of Americans who believe this is a country where all voices should be heard and art is not just about beauty but also about truth, perception and personal stories. Sometimes that truth and those perceptions and stories are not easy to look at.

So it is with the artwork of David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. His story of the ravaging effect of AIDS is a personal witness to the death and despair faced by thousands of gay men, particularly in the 80s, who felt their church, their government and society in general had forsaken them. Wojnarowicz successfully sued Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association in the 1990s for distorting and using his artwork in violation of the New York Artists’ Authorship Rights Act. How ironic, that so close to World AIDS Day, his video should be removed from this prestigious exhibit because of complaints from the Catholic League and congressional leaders.

Remember the Corcoran! “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Obviously, Portrait Gallery curators felt Wojnarowicz’s work should be included in the exhibit. They also had to have some sense that this exhibit, by its very nature, could be controversial. They are in Washington DC so that controversy would probably have to do with government funding. Did they not have a communication plan about this? And did that plan include “just pull the controversial pieces if people complain?” This was the unfortunate action of the Corcoran Museum in the 80s with the Mapplethorpe exhibit. Before the exhibit opened, they closed it due to pressure from some congressmen. The decision shook up that institution for years from the board of trustees, to funders to staff. They forgot their mission and their patrons and chaos ensued.

By removing the video without having a public discourse about it, the Portrait Gallery has weakened its position, denied its mission, and forsaken its responsibility not only to artists but to the over fifty private funders of the exhibit as well as visitors who come to the museum trusting in the integrity of decisions made by the professional staff. Politically, by pulling the work, the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian have sent a message that they (and the rest of the arts world) are ripe for “political bullying.”

Backbone. I thought we had developed backbone over the past twenty years through those battles of the culture wars. And indeed, in some places we have. It was the Contemporary Art Center of Cincinnati that won the case that deemed the Mapplethorpe exhibit within “local standards” as defined by the Supreme Court. The Brooklyn Museum stood up to Mayor Giuliani’s attempt to defund them based on complaints from religious groups. And artists pushed back like David Wojnarowicz who refused to have his artwork distorted by those who would use it for their own self-gain and promotion.

We have a base of supporters that includes millions of Americans. Curators, artistic directors and organization leadership have a responsibility to those individuals and organizations first and foremost. To the artists, donors and patrons who have been with them through thick and thin. The National Portrait Gallery has acquiesced to pressure from entities that don’t care two hoots about art or the artists or the conversation the exhibit was attempting to have with its visitors. They care about power and politics and the Gallery’s action has proven that the arts are, once again, a great pawn in that game.