Tag Archives: Smithsonian

The Queer Cultural Center and San Francisco Camerawork to screen “A Fire In My Belly” by David Wojnarowicz Friday December 10

The Queer Cultural Center and San Francisco Camerawork present a special screening of the entire 13-minute video of A Fire in my Belly by David Wojnarowicz. The screening is one of many being held at galleries in cities country-wide to protest the recent censorship of the Wojnarowicz video from the Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. A Fire In My Belly is being made available by the the artist’s estate and the P.P.O.W. Gallery. The 13-minute video will be folowed by a presentation on censorship and the arts by art historian Robert Atkins. A roundtable discussion of the issues will include a Skype visit by Hide/Seek curator Jonathan Katz. Ian Carter, Kim Anno and others will join in what is sure to be a lively discussion.

Friday, December 10, 2010 at 7:00 pm

San Francisco Camerawork 657 Mission Street San Francisco, Second Floor

Curator Jonathan D. Katz Statement on Smithsonian NPG censorship of Hide/Seek exhibit

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

Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery pulls Wojnarowicz Video from Big Gay Art Show on World AIDS Day

The venerable and generally conservative National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian has been playing things a little closer to the edge of late. A 2009 exhibit on the self-portraiture of Marcel Duchamp has been followed with this year’s “Hide and Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” – a show broadly based around love on the Gay side. After being pressured by The Catholic League and assorted unnamed “conservatives” the museum has removed the David Wojnarowicz video “A Fire in my Belly” a beautiful and chilling piece with music by Diamanda Galas and which includes an eleven-second sequence of ants crawling on a crucifix.

Gallery Director Martin Sullivan has issued the following statement:

“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” is an exhibition of 105 works of art that span more than a century of American art and culture. One work, a four-minute video portrait by artist David Wojnarowicz (1987), shows images that may be offensive to some. The exhibition also includes works by highly regarded artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins and Annie Leibowitz.

I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious. In fact, the artist’s intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. It was not the museum’s intention to offend. We have removed the video.

I encourage people to visit the exhibition online or in the building. Public comments can be directed to National Portrait Gallery PO Box 37012 MRC 973 Washington, D.C. 20013 or npgnews@si.edu Martin Sullivan, Director, National Portrait Gallery.”

In reference to screening the video in the first place, Mr. Sullivan writes that it was “not the museum’s intention to offend.” Fair enough. We wonder, though, what the intention was in removing the piece. In placating one set of sensibilities, the Gallery has managed to offend a lot of other sensibilities and a lot of other people. Our people. Gay people. On World AIDS Day. Charming, Mr. Sullivan. And thank you…for the clarification. Anytime a group acquires a bit of political clout, false allies emerge. It is important for us to know who are friends really are. Friends don’t throw friends under the wheels of the Vatican Express. Or the Happy Rainbow Pride Float. Shame on the Smithsonian and the NPG. They sure blew it this time. Really icky! Not fun and sticky…

For more, read Blake Gopnik’s Washington Post article.