The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, a major funder of the “Hide/Seek” exhibit about the presence of same-sex desire in American art, has decided to withhold all future funding for all Smithsonian Institution museums in the wake of the decision by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough to pull down a video about AIDS from the exhibit.
The decision was announced on Monday in a letter from Joel Wachs, the foundation’s president, in a letter to Clough demanding that “you restore the censored work immediately,” an action that Wachs said was decided unanimously by the foundation board of directors last week.
In the letter, made public by Wachs, he told Clough that the action to remove a video artwork from the exhibit, a four-minute video titled “A Fire in the Belly,” by painter, filmmaker and performance artist David Wojnarowicz, was “blatant censorship” and “unconscionable” and “inimical to everything the Smithsonian Institution should stand for.”
After noting that the foundation has previously donated more than $375.000 over the past three years to fund several exhibits at various Smithsonian museums, including $100,000 to help stage “Hide/Seek,” Wachs told Clough: “we cannot stand by and watch the Smithsonian bow to the demands of bigots who have attacked the exhibition out of ignorance, hatred and fear.”
In early December, the Catholic League complained over several seconds in the short silent video which ants are shown crawling on a crucifix — a familiar use of the insects in the artist’s work, in this case to represent the agony of HIV/AIDS. Wojnarowicz, prominent in the New York City art world in the 1980s, died of AIDS-related complications in 1992 at the age of 37. But the Catholic League claimed the work to be offensive to Roman Catholics and was anti-Catholic “hate speech,” a theme quickly taken up by two Republican House leaders including incoming Speaker John Boehner.
After these complaints, Clough consulted with National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan and Smithsonian art historian David Ward, co-curator of the exhibit, but not with the other curator, Jonathan D. Katz, who was then in London lecturing at the Tate Modern. The decision to remove the video was made by Clough over the objections of Ward and late also from Katz.
Ward told the Washington Post that the video “is not anti-religion or sacriligious. It is a powerful use of imagery.” He said the action was reminiscent of the Corcoran gallery of Art decision in 1989 to cancel an exhibit of Robert Maplethorpe’s photography — ironically, Maplethorpe is featured in the current NPG exhibit. “Once again,” said Ward, that same weapon” — to halt federal funding of the arts — “is being brandished, and once again we cower.”
Katz also denounced the decision, adding that it’s unfortunate that “the exhibition itself is being lost in the mudslinging” and that “homophobia and raw politics” were at the root of the action.” However, said Katz, the show itself, “by remaining up, continues to resist the politics.”
On Dec. 9, NPG commissioner James T. Bartlett resigned in protest. Earlier, on Dec. 2, activists marched from the Transformer Gallery, which showed the video briefly following its removal from the exhibit, to the Portrait Gallery, and on Dec. 5 two protesters were detained by police and barred from the gallery for holding leaflets while one of men, Mike Blasenstein, was wearing an iPad running the Wojnarowicz video, an action forbidden by Smithsonian policy.
Wachs told Clough that the Warhol Foundation action was necessary because “the decision to censor this important work” put the donors in this position.