Two activists detained in December after protesting a decision by the Smithsonian Institution to remove a video from the “Hide/Seek” exhibit about gay art in America were officially permitted to return to the National Portrait Gallery, site of the exhibit, for a private tour sponsored by Washington Blade on Feb. 3.
After intervention by the Blade, David Ward, co-curator of the exhibit, agreed to seek an official end of the enforcement of any “ban” by Smithsonian security officials barring the two protesters — videographer/photographer Mike Iacovone, who is straight, and Mike Blasenstein, who is gay — from entering any Smithsonian museum. The two were detained following their protest of a decision in late November by Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough to remove a four-minute video, an extract from a longer video by the late gay artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1993, showing for a few seconds ants crawling on a crucifix, imagery that a right-wing group, the Catholic League, claimed to be anti-Catholic.
They were detained when Blasenstein and Iacavone entered the National Portrait Gallery and Blasenstein displayed the video on an iPad hung around his neck. He was also holding a stack of fliers with text explaining his protest at the video’s removal from the exhibit. Iacaone was then also detained by Smithsonian police for filming Blasenstein’s run-in with security. Each was released but only after being made to sign letters pledging not to return to any Smithsonian facilities.
Explaining his decision to protest, Blasenstein later told the newsletter ArtInfo, that he joined in actions critical of the removal of the video because, he said, “I just felt this was an important issue.”
“I’m not really an artist or an activist,” Blasenstein said, “but when I heard that they took it down, it just seemed to send such a clear negative message. So I thought to myself, I would send my own message and bring this art back into the museum.”
Blasenstein later told the Blade that they were not only banned from the museum but during their detention they were “forcibly stripped of our materials, handcuffed, dragged into a stairwell, and told to sign papers thrust in front of us or be arrested.” They were then escorted from the building, he said, “without being given copies of what we had signed.”
Ward, an historian at the Portrait Gallery and co-curator of the exhibit with Jonathan D. Katz of the State University of New York in Buffalo, told the Blade that the ban was actually “never imposed” by the Smithsonian, but was instead “done by D.C. Metro,” the city’s police force, which was called to the scene, “without our knowledge or acquiescence.”
“They then passed the buck back to us to make us ‘lift’ a ban that wasn’t our doing,” he said. Ward personally welcomed both Iacovone and Blasentein to the exhibit for the private tour on behalf of the Blade, saying, “I hope this is the end of it.” He also stated he wanted to “move on” from the entire controversy over the edited video, one of 105 items in the exhibit, which opened in late November, and closes on Feb. 13.
Blasentein told the Blade that he never felt the ban was purely a paper reprimand, saying, “let me tell you, when everyone around you is wearing guns, nothing about the process feels ‘bureaucratic.’” He said that though “you could spend hours untangling this thing” Ward was correct to insist that the so-called ban was really triggered by the city’s police, but he added that “the sergeant I spoke to at MPD was pretty clear in his opinion that MPD doesn’t ban anybody, but merely enforces a ban on behalf of the property owner.” He also stressed that the Smithsonian management “to the best of our knowledge” never insisted on barring them from the museum. That action, he believes, “was solely a decision of Smithsonian police.”
Blasentein said that “the story here is not primarily our ban,” but rather the act of official censorship itself. However, he insists that “had we been allowed back into the building,” after the incident with the iPad and the leaflets, “our protest would have been a lot different.”
“The only reason a trailer is parked outside the National Portrait Gallery is because that was the closest we were legally allowed to get to the building. If the Smithsonian had let me stand there for seven and a half hours with the iPad, we would have mobilized volunteers to do the same every day until Feb.13,” the day the exhibit closes its doors.
Instead, Iacovone and Blasenstein secured paperwork from the city to park a trailer directly in front of the museum at its entrance in the 700 block of F Street, N.W., where what they call the Museum of Censored Art — to show “the art the Smithsonian won’t,” will remain open until Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Even though they can now legally enter the museum, Iacovone said their counter-exhibit in the trailers will continue to remain open, staffed by 12-15 volunteers through Sundayt.
Iacovone said they have spent more than $6,500 so far on trailer and parking space costs and for powering batteries to run the video player. He praised two art galleries — the Hamiltonian and Flashpoint, as well as two others, Transformer and Civilian — for assisting them in various ways. More than 4,000 people have entered the trailers and viewed the video, he said, noting that “our biggest day so far was over 500 people,” and he thinks by the time the Museum of Censored Art shuts down they will reach the 5,000-visitor mark.
The exhibit is the first on the subject of same-sex desire in American art and shows the work of noted artists Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent as well as more recent icons such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe, the latter a photographer whose photo images showing explicit male sexuality caused the Corcoran Gallery to halt the exhibit planned of his work more than 20 years ago.
Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough, the official responsible for the decision to order removal of the video, part of a larger work in 1987 called “A Fire in My Belly,” meanwhile, has been the target of calls for him to resign in the wake of that decision. Last week, about 30 protesters rallied outside the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall during a quarterly meeting of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, to demand that they fire him.
Organized by Art+ (positive), a New York City-based group that fights censorship and homophobia, and backed also by the activist group, People For the American Way, protesters declared that Clough had given in to right-wing pressures and should step down. They chanted “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Clough must go!” and “Ants in my pants, fire in my belly — Clough has got to go!”
The regents, however, announced after their meeting that they supported Clough, though even he subsequently acknowledged that perhaps it had been made in haste and that he would respond differently in the future.
“I’d like to think I’m a little wiser than I was six months ago or three months ago,” he said at a news conference following the meeting with the regents, which reviewed the entire controversy and then issued a statement backing him. However, a three-member panel reporting to the regents implicitly criticized the way the censorship decision was made and communicated. And regents repeatedly asked by reporters whether Clough had made the right decision refused to answer directly.
Another rebuke, this time more direct, came from the board of a Smithsonian member institution, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, that met last week and issued an open letter, saying they were “deeply troubled by the precedent” of the November decision to pull the video from the show.