A firestorm of controversy continues over the decision earlier this month by the Smithsonian Institution to yank a four-minute video, “A Fire in the Belly,” from the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) exhibit charting the history of same-sex attraction in American art.
Speaking Monday night about the uproar, nationally recognized Smithsonian art historian David Ward, the co-curator of “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” declared: “The Smithsonian was stampeded into making this decision” to remove the 1987 video by gay performance artist, painter and filmmaker David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS complications in 1992.
Ward called it “the pragmatic, bureaucratic decision” made by the Smithsonian head G. Wayne Clough, aimed at forestalling further congressional threats to cut back federal arts funding by incoming House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Boehner and Cantor had joined the fiercely homophobic Catholic League in saying that the video was anti-Catholic “hate speech” because it contained 11 seconds of a scene depicting ants crawling on a crucifix.
Supporters of the video point out that figures of the crucified Christ are often used in artistic expression to depict suffering — such as in a recent National Gallery of Art East Building exhibit of Spanish baroque portraits of the suffering Christ, shown with gory and blood-stained detail.
Ward told a packed auditorium at the DC Jewish Community Center, where a panel discussion titled “hide/SPEAK” was held to discuss the controversy, that he opposed Clough’s decision, and continues to criticize it as made much too quickly. “I’m not holding myself blameless” about how things were handled, he said, “but I am holding myself innocent.”
Ward said Clough made the decision “to create a firebreak” and “it was not so much for the gay issue but for Christian-ism,” a reference to the Catholic League complaint, but that this ostensible religious objection was nevertheless really a cover for blatant right-wing homophobia. “I’m not happy about” the Clough action, said Ward, “but if it works, great” — that is, to save the remainder of the exhibit, which is scheduled to run at the NPG through Feb. 13.
Ward also criticized the action announced last week by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which warned Clough that unless the Wojnarowicz video is returned to the exhibit it will withhold all future funds to any Smithsonian museum. The Warhol Foundation funded $100,000 of the costs to mount the exhibit, part of $800,000 in total private donations for the show raised by Ward and co-curator Jonathan D. Katz over the past two years. Ward declared that, though “I find their reaction understandable,” it’s more important for such institutions to remain active in support for the arts at the Smithsonian galleries, which in the past has received a total of $375,000 in Warhol funding of various shows including “Hide/Seek.”
Ward also said he had contacted Canadian artist AA Bronson, a pioneer in art with gay themes, to implore him not to follow through on his request — made last week to protest the video removal — for the NPG to take down a print of one of his photographs in the exhibit, a harrowing photo of his partner just after his death of HIV/AIDS causes.
This photo, titled “Felix, June 5, 1994,” according to Ward is “so powerful an image” and is “the anchor for the last part of the exhibition, and I don’t want to lose this piece.” Bronson has also asked all artists in the exhibit to recall their work.
“But I want to keep the exhibit as whole as I can for the remaining six weeks of its run,” Ward told the gathering crowded with at least 300 supporters who cheered every reference to the importance of the show, which until the removal of the video had 105 pieces on display in this first-ever exhibition in a major American museum of art with same-sex attraction so front and center.
“The key fact remains that the show itself has not been cancelled,” he said. “We took a flesh wound but it’s not a mortal blow.”
“Hide/Seek” can be seen at the National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets, N.W. Ward will lead a private tour of the exhibit on Sunday, Feb. 6, with a focus on major gay and lesbian Jewish artists and subjects represented, such as writers Susan Sontag, Gertrude Stein and Allen Ginsberg and photographer Annie Leibovitz. For further details on this event, check with the DC JCC’s GLBT Outreach and Engagement (GLOE).