On the scandal at the Smithsonian:
Statement from Jonathan D. Katz, co-curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek:Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.
I curated, with David C. Ward of the National Portrait Gallery, the groundbreaking exhibition Hide/Seek. Sadly, I was not consulted when the Smithsonian elected to censor a work by David Wojnarowicz, and then redoubled that insult by referring to “AIDS victims” in their statement—employing the very victimizing locution Wojnarowicz fought with his dying breath to oppose. (Ward was “consulted” but his objections were ignored.) An exhibition explicitly intended to finally, in 2010, break a 21-year-old blacklist against the representation of same sex desire in America’s major museums now, ironically, finds itself in the same boat. In 1989, Senator Jesse Helms demonized Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexuality, and by extension, his art, and with little effort pulled a cowering art world to its knees. His weapon was threatening to disrupt the already pitiful Federal support for the arts. And once again, that same weapon is being brandished and once again we cower. When will it be time for the decent majority of Americans stand against a far-Right fringe that sees censorship as a replacement for dialog and debate? There are larger principles at work, and generations hence will judge our actions today.
This is a culture war we did not seek out, nor start. But appeasing tyranny has never worked and can never work, for tyranny wants only obedience, and blind obedience is antithetical to what this nation stands for; we were, as a people, born in protest to tyranny. Were the men and women whose portraits grace the National Portrait Gallery able to take a stand, I have little doubt they would line up behind the separation of Church and State, enshrined in our Constitution, that this incident calls so painfully into question. Furthermore, they would readily agree that America’s core value, also enshrined in our Constitution, is our freedom of speech. With this as our defining principle, it stands to reason we will disagree, but our disagreements are healthy, even necessary to achieving a genuine democracy. We should be promoting this national conversation, not killing it. Art in general, and this kind of art in particular, is precisely a spur to conversation and to thought–something all civil society should support and celebrate. But when the Smithsonian, under pressure to be sure, starts bowing to its censors, it abrogates its charge as our National museum. But let’s also not lose sight of the fact that the National Portrait Gallery alone had the courage to defy a shameful silence that every other institution in the US upheld. We can not and should not leave them hanging. Where are our democratic Representatives when we most need them to be battling this naked power grab by a resurgent Right? Please write your Senators and Congressional Representatives and urge them to stand against Boehner, Cantor and their calls for a police state. We must nip this in the bud lest 2010 become the 80s all over again.
Over a century and half ago, Walt Whitman wrote, in support of precisely the core values currently under threat:
Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Whoever degrades another degrades me, And whatever is done or said returns at last to me….
Through me forbidden voices, Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil, Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d.
We sought to remove a veil and in opposing that move, our enemies have damaged our democracy once again. I pray it is not another 21 years before someone else tries to remove that veil again. I am sad for us all.
Jonathan D. Katz, Director, Visual Studies Doctoral Program, SUNY Buffalo