Jonathan Katz, director of the doctoral program in visual studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo and co-curator with David Ward of the National Portrait Gallery’s controversial Hide/Seek exhibition, takes strong exception to CultureGrrl’s take on the issues raised by that show:
As the co-curator of “Hide/Seek,” I think you couldn’t be more wrong. Do you honestly believe that a privately funded museum would even go for this exhibition in the first place? I tried for 15 years to slate variants of this exhibition somewhere without so much as a nibble.
Private institutions are entirely in the thrall of their boards, which is to say, their donors. Controversy in general is bad for donations. Surely you’ve noted how extensively the American museum world has become an extension of private capital and in the process lost any
commitment to public service.
We did this at the National Portrait Gallery because the National Portrait Gallery had the courage to do what was right. Instead of asking why we did the exhibition at NPG, you should instead be asking why MOMA has not done such an exhibition, or even acknowledged the full content and context of the Wojnarowicz images they have mounted on their walls?
Ask why the Metropolitan Museum, Whitney and Guggenheim have not only refused to acknowledge the import of sexuality in recent exhibitions of the work of living artists like Johns or Twombly (and Rauschenberg, who was alive when his retrospective was up), but dead ones, too, as in the Met’s Eakins retrospective. Even worse, let’s ask why 25 plus years of queer studies scholarship has been purged from the catalogs for these shows.
You are blaming the wrong parties here. We need you to underscore that the museum world is and has been systemically and profoundly homophobic since the Mapplethorpe controversy in 1989 and only the NPG, finally, had the will to break a taboo that art writers like you should have been talking about all along.
In this context, it should be noted that at least one privately funded museum—the New Museum in New York—announced on Monday that it would show, through Jan. 23, “A Fire in My Belly,” the Wojnarowicz video that the NPG withdrew, under pressure, from its show. Other museums are displaying other works by Wojnarowicz or hosting screenings of the hot-button video.
And in other “Hide/Seek” news:
—The Smithsonian issued a new statement on Monday, Smithsonian Stands Firmly Behind “Hide/Seek” Exhibition, which states that “the museum and the Smithsonian stand firmly behind the scholarly merit and historical and artistic importance of the exhibition.” The statement continues to defend the removal of the video on the grounds that “the attention it was receiving distracted from the overall exhibition.”
—The statement issued yesterday by the College Art Association takes a stance that I support: decrying the political pressure brought to bear on the NPG and encouraging people to let the politicians know how they feel. CAA praises (rather than condemns) the NPG for its “thorough, pioneering scholarship and the challenging curatorial judgment.”
—Dan Cameron, who in 1999 curated a Wojnarowicz retrospective at the New Museum, issued a statement dated Dec. 5 (in the e-mailed message disseminated yesterday by the Fluent~Collaborative, Austin): Why Wojnarowicz Matters. He decries the removal of the video as “an act of unspeakable aggression against artists, writers, intellectuals, people affected by AIDS, and especially the entire LGBTQ community in this country and throughout the world.”
—The NY Times today published an editorial, Bullying and Censorship, calling the NPG’s removal of the video “an appalling act of political cowardice.”
What’s most “appalling” to me is the escalation of intemperate rhetoric, because while it may feel good right now to righteously hammer home points about homophobia and the cowardice of museums, the end result may be that cultural institutions get hammered.
My expanded views on this brouhaha can be found at the links in the first paragraph of this post. I think it can’t be emphasized enough (as Katz states in his comments, above) that the NPG was brave, not cowardly, in mounting this show. I’m glad that some other museums are stepping up to the plate in showing Wojnarowicz.
I’d like to see this contretemps serve as a teaching moment about the importance of including in museums’ exhibitions and collections the creations and sensibilities of all Americans in our pluralistic society—LGBTQ and all the other acronyms in our social alphabet.