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Pushing Back Attacks on Artistic Freedom

by Linda Stein


September 15, 2011

Conservative Republicans flexed considerable muscle earlier this year and threw a knockout punch against freedom in the arts.

Led by House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Catholic League and other groups, conservatives succeeded in getting the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to remove a four-minute 1987 video, “A Fire in My Belly.”

Edited from a longer unfinished surrealist collage by late gay activist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS, the video includes an 11-second scene of ants crawling over a crucifix. The National Portrait Gallery included this video in its exhibition, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.

The show, as described in the exhibition catalog, was a scholarly and historical exhibition about sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture. But it was considered an outrageous use of taxpayer money by Catholic League President Bill Donohue, who was quoted in ArtNews. “Why should the working class pay for the leisure of the elite when in fact [they prefer] wrestling,” he said.

Despite the fact that Hide/Seek with the Wojnarowicz video had been privately funded, the National Portrait Gallery caved under pressure and, as pointed out in an email by James Saslow, Professor of Art History at Queens College, “the Smithsonian directors never raised the crucial argument that the interpretation imposed on the Wojnarowicz work by the Catholic League – that it was somehow anti-Christian – was totally baseless. It ignored the fact that Wojnarowicz, himself born Catholic, used religious symbolism to dignify AIDS suffering and gay oppression, not to mock the church.”

The censorship has attracted substantial media attention, including from bloggers and some newspapers.

In 1999, a similar situation occurred when a prize-winning work of art, The Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili, a depiction of a black Mary that used elephant dung in its materials, was shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art; Mayor Rudolph Guiliani cut off funding for the museum and threatened to evict the entire institution.

In 1989, a photograph by Andres Serrano, Piss Christ generated controversy and scorn from elected officials. At that time, television host Bill Moyers asked Sister Wendy Beckett, an art critic and Catholic nun if she were offended by Piss Christ. “No…it’s what you make of it,” Sister Wendy replied. She said that the work could make one feel “a deep desire to reference the death of Christ more.” Piss Christ is the opposite of “comforting art,” she said, where the viewer “is not challenged in the slightest.” In contrast, said Sister Wendy, “real art makes demands.” In April, Piss Christ was destroyed by hammer-wielding Catholic fundamentalists in France.

Jonathan David Katz, co-curator (with David Ward) of Hide/Seek, described his dismay at the removal of Wojnarowicz’ work in an email. “When will we stop letting the Right dictate cultural policy according to their most cynical and opportunistic political calculations? When will our leadership grow a backbone and vigorously oppose the ignorance, distortion and threats promoted by the enemies of pluralism in this country? Let's be clear, the Right spawned this, but the failure of our Democratic leadership, from the President on down, to oppose this makes them a party to the same cynical political calculations. These are dark days for those of us who believe art has a responsibility not to reflect power, but to challenge it.”

But some view the issue as extending beyond art. Wendy Olsoff, co-owner of PPOW Gallery, which represents the estate of David Wojnarowicz, believes that the fast-moving process was not different than the Congressional assault on women’s health care. “Where are our elected officials? Why aren’t they speaking up?” she asked. “An image taken out of context of ants crawling on a crucifix for eleven seconds is hardly the issue and merely a smokescreen for the real horrors that Americans will endure if the Democrats do not speak up quickly and take a stand – the censorship of a ‘Fire in My Belly’ should be a call to arms.”

Joan Marter, Rutgers University Professor of Art History and Co-editor of the Woman’s Art Journal, agrees that “the actions of the Smithsonian in removing a video installation from the show are outrageous.” She called Hide/Seek a ground-breaking exhibition. “At long last a show that focuses on artists and issues that should have been given full consideration decades earlier!” she said. The only payoff from the censorship, she believes, is that the video by Wojnarowicz has gone viral on the Internet. “The artist has received well-deserved recognition for his genius,” said Marter.

This Right-wing censorship does not bode well for the direction of the arts. Congress immediately put the National Endowment for the Arts and other arts funding on the chopping block, and the pressure against the arts remains powerful. “(A)rts professionals need to be proactive now if they want to forestall a new culture war,” Executive Editor Robin Cembalest warned in ArtNews earlier this year.

The Wojnarowicz video may or may not appeal to one’s aesthetic sensibility, but censorship is inappropriate. People interested in preserving artistic freedom must keep punching back at this Right-wing censorship and bullying.

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Linda Stein, Art Editor of On The Issues Magazine, is an artist, activist and lecturer. She is represented by Flomenhaft Gallery in Manhattan and Longstreth Goldberg Art in Florida. Her solo exhibition, “The Fluidity of Gender: Sculpture by Linda Stein,” is traveling throughout the country through 2013, currently at East Tennessee State University. Her archives are at Smith College. Web site:www.LindaStein.com.

Also see Frances Jetter in “The Art Perspective” curated by Linda Stein in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See ”Understanding the Myth: Why Cassandra Must Not be Silenced” by Laura A. Shamas in the Cafe of this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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