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From “Piss Christ” to Ant-Covered Jesus: The Culture Wars Resume

“David Wojnarowicz Smoking” by Peter Hujar

As if rising tensions between North and South Korea, Iran’s scary nuclear program and the damaging diplomatic fallout from WikiLeaks weren’t enough, the Republican leadership of Congress has found another burning issue requiring immediate action—the screening at a federally funded Washington museum, the National Portrait Gallery, of late gay activist David Wojnarowicz‘s provocative 1987 video, “A Fire in My Belly,” which includes images of large ants crawling over the body of Jesus.

The piece is admittedly very tough, very grating, and definitely not for the children. I had to force myself to watch (online, here) the full four minutes that were excerpted from the original 30-minute video, on view in the NPG’s current exhibition—Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (to Feb. 13). (The “difference” referred to discreetly in the title is homosexuality.)

As reported by Christina Wilkie in yesterday’s Washington Scene:

Kevin Smith [spokesman for House Speaker-designate John Boehner] said, “Smithsonian officials should either
acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough
scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves
[in].” He later clarified that Boehner wanted the exhibit “cancelled.”

[Incoming Majority Leader Eric] Cantor demanded that the exhibit be “pulled,” calling it “an outrageous use of taxpayer money.”

The museum has already pulled the plug on the incendiary video, as reported yesterday by the Washington Post. Ironically, this self-censorship occurred just before World AIDS Day, which is today. I can’t imagine that the NPG would completely capitulate by taking down the entire show without a fight. And the arts community—no matter how reluctant it might be to take on this battle at a time when times are tough—would be almost obliged to rally behind the NPG, taking a stand for free artistic expression and against inappropriate government meddling in museums’ professional prerogatives.

There’s just one catch, however: Although it does receive private donations (which funded the now controversial exhibition), the National Portrait Gallery is not merely an institution that gets some federal support. It’s a federal institution—part of the Smithsonian. I may catch some flak for saying this, but the rules of engagement for a federal institution in the nation’s capital are arguably different than for the Whitney Museum or the New Museum, where pushing the envelope is understood as part of the mission.

I previously wrote about this possible difference in protocols for federal institutions in my 1996 Wall Street Journal article about a hot-button photography show on slavery—The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation. Ruffling the feathers of some Library of Congress employees, it was taken down by that federal institution the same day it was put up (and later mounted instead at the local Martin Luther King Library). And who can forget the National Air and Space Museum’s drastic revision of its controversial show about the Enola Gay (another controversial “gay” show!), the plane that carried the bomb to Hiroshima at the end of World War II?

What I’m trying delicately to suggest is that federal institutions may not be the most appropriate venues for highly provocative or controversial takes on emotionally charged subjects. The likelihood of goading conservative politicians into cracking down on the arts more broadly makes such undertakings in D.C. uniquely risky. On the other hand, a show on the gay experience in America—surely a legitimate area of exploration anywhere—might be incomplete without the inclusion of the anguish, rage and, of course, sexuality that are part of any comprehensive consideration of this topic. Some might persuasively argue that the nation’s capital is exactly where such a show should be seen.

If I seem conflicted in my views about this, it’s because I am.

This was not the first time that Wojnarowicz’s work has been targeted by federal officials. In the NY Times obit for the artist, who died young of AIDS in 1992, art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote:

Wojnarowicz gained the national spotlight in 1989, when the National
Endowment for the Arts decided to rescind money for a catalogue to an
exhibition about AIDS because of an essay in which he attacked various
public figures. The endowment reversed itself. It also supported a
10-year retrospective of his work that was organized at the University
Galleries of Illinois

Maybe this will be another instance where Wojnarowicz—posthumously this time—snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. Frankly, I’m not all that optimistic.

an ArtsJournal blog