By TYGER LATHAM
I knew it was only a matter of time before social conservatives started voicing their objections to the Hide/Seek exhibit recently opened at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Earlier this week, CNSNews (formerly the Conservative News Service) published a particularly bombastic and inflammatory review of the exhibit.
In her review, Penny Starr consciously chose to highlight some of the more provocative and salacious images from the exhibit, suggesting (not so subtly) that this exhibit has no business being shown in our “federally funded National Portrait Gallery” during the Christmas season. To Starr I say, “bah humbug.” Starr is clearly no art critic, as evidenced by the fact that she fails to provide any historical or cultural context whatsoever when reviewing these works and their particular place within contemporary art. The best comparison I can come up with is that of an art reviewer critiquing Picasso’s Guernica and deciding not to mention Francisco Franco or the Spanish Civil War. It’s just bad journalism and serves no other purpose but to shock one into believing that this “federally funded exhibit” as she so cynically refers to it, is nothing more than crass, gay porn. Fortunately, if you are anything like me, looking at “ants crawling over the image of Jesus on a crucifix” or “… a man’s genitals, a bowl of blood, and mummified humans” sounds pretty intriguing and not an entirely bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
It’s hard to read Starr’s review and not experience a certain sense of deja vu. It was a little over two decades ago that similar fear tactics were cast by social conservatives at the late Robert Mapplethorpe. In 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art shamefully retracted an invitation to show Mapplethorpe’s work in an attempt to placate those social conservatives who screamed bloody murder at the “homoerotic” and “sexually lewd” themes explored in Mapplethorpe’s art. As it turned out, the exhibit went on to be shown at the Washington Project for the Arts and enjoyed international recognition due to the controversy. My hope would be that the current controversy surrounding this exhibit will lead to a similar discussion about the place of art within public discourse.
Those familiar with art history will know that great art often elicits strong feelings, not always positive, in the viewer. There have been numerous times in history when attempts to ridicule, demonize, and even censor writers and artists served only to draw more attention to their work. In 1937, for example, the Nazis mounted an exhibit of “Degenerate Art,” designed to inflame public opinion against modernism. Ironically, the exhibit, which included some of the greatest artists of the 20th century (including Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Wassily Kandinksy, Ernst Kirchner, and Piet Mondrian), was widely successful in Germany, but not for the reasons the Nazis had intended. The public, partly inspired by the controversy, were enticed and later moved by these “degenerate artists.” While I recognize this exhibit is not entirely analogous to that of the Degenerate Art exhibit of 1937 (and conservatives are far from being Nazis), social conservatives might want to be cautious. If history has taught us anything it is that often times great art is controversial.
(Tyger Latham, Psy.D. is an amateur art historian and clinical psychologist in private practice in Dupont Circle.)