Gay Performance, or Why the Director of the National Portrait Gallery Should Resign

Tim Miller Lay of the Land.jpg

This is a short post about long-held beliefs.

If you know the abbreviated world of performance art or the run-on-sentence world of gay activism, you’ve heard of Tim Miller. Thirty years ago, the nervy tyke co-founded PS 122 on First Avenue and Ninth Street in Manhattan’s East Village. His lightning struck twice in Santa Monica, when he co-founded the performance space Highways more than 20 years ago. Tim is also known nationally as one of the NEA Four
Although I’ve seen Tim perform throughout his career and urge you to attend his latest, Lay of the Land, at the almost refurbished PS 122 this week and next, I am not offering a full review. Miller onstage is like no one I know, charming, grating and riveting at once. His passionate queer-rights work is central, unavoidable, to any history of people-centered theater. Just go, to understand why the core metaphor of the piece is “homophobic gristle” that must be urged out of the choking gay boy’s throat by his father, holding a knife. But don’t imagine grim. Champagne poodle hair appears, and Tim believes that prying open certain giant closets will solve global warming.
But here’s the happenstance reason we New Yawkers must attend. There’s a gay art show at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in gay marriage-positive DC. The Smith — a national institution with some quite dirty underwear, by the way — doesn’t call the exhibition “gay,” exactly, but it’s relatively brave. Yet the old-fashioned, right-wing Catholic and Republican haters did a Piss Christ on a short David Wojnarowicz video tribute to his AIDS-deceased lover Peter Hujar, and, in response, the director of the gallery, Martin E. Sullivan, removed the work just the other day. Here’s Sullivan’s explanation in the New York Times:
It’s really a very tough call to make. Obviously the Portrait Gallery is a part of the Smithsonian. It’s just one of many, many players in this new discussion or debate that’s going on in Congress about federal spending, the proper federal role in culture and the arts and so forth. We don’t think it’s in the interest, not only of the Smithsonian but of other federally supported cultural organizations, to pick fights.
Sound familiar? Oldsters may also recall a certain Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition that DC’s Corcoran refused to show (you can Google this), while other, better spaces did. 
I actually know a few museum directors and understand that their problems and positions aren’t easy: who pays for wine at openings, how can we keep the board happy, etc. These are often bureaucratic, Kafkaesque jobs that deaden ambition, no matter what the elevated salary. Yet once in a while, a mild-mannered museum director is given a chance to leap into history.
He or she may decide to stand up to bigotry and stupidity, declaring that the art they love, the art they are hired to love, is worth defending. 
Such chosen directors usually have only one chance in a lifetime to show their stuff. But sometimes they fail that chance, either in court — I think of the small-minded cowardice when the Mapplethorpe show’s Philadelphia originator was challenged at its 1990 obscenity trial in Cincinnati — or just behind their desks. In this instance, Mr. Sullivan has failed to put up a fight at the very start. 
Dead gay artist mourns his dead lover. Dismissed. Anger vies with pity in this particular museum case.
I’ve written obituaries, and although all obit writers try to emphasize the positive, semi-prominent folks such as museum directors are usually remembered publicly for just one thing.
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PS: Tim Miller’s work has long been word-centered, and that’s not in any way a bad thing. His handsome, animated face virtually sprays language at you. Still, my earliest memory of Tim on this stage is one in which his young body moved smartly, silently, with his long-gone partner John Bernd. Their twin forms spoke volumes.
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  1. says

    Thanks, Jeff, for this concise, to-the-point piece with passion intact. I was just sorting through the morning e-morass that keeps me from getting to work in a reasonable time when this great “Out There” spoke loudest.