A major controversy has exploded over an exhibit of how same-sex love has been portrayed in paintings and photographs throughout American history. “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” opened at the National Portrait Gallery in the nation’s capital in late October to rave reviews—the Washington Post called it “one of the best thematic exhibitions in years.” But some social conservatives had a different take. After the right-wing website CNSnews.com alerted Republican congressional leaders to the show’s content, House Speaker-designate John Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) called for the exhibit to be shut down.
“When a museum receives taxpayer money, the taxpayers have a right to expect that the museum will uphold common standards of decency,” Cantor said. “The museum should pull the exhibit and be prepared for serious questions come budget time.”
Boehner and Cantor expressed particular outrage at a video by gay artist David Wojnarowicz. The four-minute work, created in 1987 and titled “A Fire inMy Belly,” includes 11 seconds that show a small crucifix with ants crawling on it.
Before his death of AIDS complications in 1992, Wojnarowicz said he created the video in an effort to depict the suffering that his lover Peter Hujar, who died of AIDS complications, had experienced.
Last month, gallery officials—or, more accurately, gallery cowards—removed the video from the exhibit.
The attack clearly has little to do with religion and much to do with gayness. CNS News.com’s original story condemned the crucifix video, but its lead paragraph also criticized several other images in the exhibit, including “male genitals,” “men in chains” and “Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts.” With regard to male genitalia, the reference may have alluded to Andrew Wyeth’s painting of a young male nude, with long blond hair, standing in a wheat field—the hardback book that accompanies the exhibit compares the piece to “Boticelli’s Venus emerging from her shell.”
The men in chains reference is to one of the most playful photographs in the show. Taken by Robert Mapplethorpe, it features two leather-clad men—the only skin visible on either subject is on their hands and faces—posing for the camera in a wonderful inversion of the classic family photo. The couple’s seeming machismo is undercut by the strikingly conventional living room in which they’re positioned, replete with a traditional wing-back chair, a lush Oriental rug, a sculpted lamp and grass cloth wall covering.
As for DeGeneres, she appears in a photo by Annie Leibovitz that has the talk show host’s breasts concealed under a swimsuit top. What’s more, her face is covered with white makeup like a clown might wear, a cigarette hangs out of her mouth, her hair is a mass of tangles, and her infectious smile has been replaced by a vacant stare. (READ: There’s nothing glamorous about the shot.)
Among the facts that the website story did not include is that the entire $750,000 it cost to curate the show was paid by private donors and foundations that support gay and lesbian issues, setting a record for the most individual contributors ever to support a show at the gallery. Nor did CNSnews.com find room to mention that the exhibit includes stunning works by many of the modern era’s most notable photographers and painters, such as Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, George Bellows, Grant Wood, Georgia O’Keefe, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jasper Johns.
Also absent from the right-wing website was the observation that Wojnarowicz’s video is nothing more than a 1980s iteration of the historical tradition of using images of Christ to represent the suffering of all humankind. For example, the National Gallery of Art’s recent show of Spanish sacred art from the 17th century included grisly images of Jesus that couldn’t have been more gory or distressing. Wojnarowicz’s video is a relatively tepid version of that very same imagery.
Since the video was removed from the “Hide/Seek” exhibit, numerous artists and foundations have protested that decision. Among the actions that have been taken:
Transformer, a Washington-based arts organization, began playing the “A Fire in My Belly” video on a 24-hour loop. More than 50 dozen museums and galleries have followed suit and are either now showing or are planning to show the work.
Photographer Michael Katakis has written to the head of the Smithsonian asking that the institution return his portrait of architect Maya Lin, which he donated to the National Portrait Gallery two decades ago.
Artist AA Bronson asked that the gallery remove his photograph from the “Hide/Seek” exhibit. The work shows the body of Bronson’s partner a few hours after he died of AIDS complications. The gallery refused to comply with Bronson’s request, pointing out that it had borrowed the photo from the National Gallery of Canada.
The Calder Foundation is withdrawing “Aztec Josephine Baker,” a work that it had agreed to lend the National Portrait Gallery. The Andy Warhol Foundation of the Visual Arts has stated that it will provide no further financing to the Smithsonian unless the Wojnarowicz video is reinstated. For those of us whose memories extend back a couple decades, the current controversy is reminiscent of the one that erupted in the late 1980s over the exhibits of gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who focused on homoerotic subjects, and Andres Serrano, who submerged a crucifix in his own urine and took a photo of the composition that he named “Piss Christ.” Members of Congress were so outraged that the National Endowment for the Arts had provided funding to the artists that they cut the agency’s budget by 40 percent.
“Hide/Seek” is scheduled to remain at the National Portrait Gallery through Feb. 13.
By Rodger Streitmatter
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