David and Art - “Postponing, Cancelling, and Removing”

Nov 9, 2020

Outside pressures about what a museum should display intrude on what a curator’s job should be.

The recent decision by a quartet of prestigious art museums to postpone an exhibit on which they had collaborated reminded me of a controversy from the past.

Ten years ago this month the Smithsonian Institution found a 

hornet’s nest hurled in its direction from the National Portrait Gallery, the arm of the Smithsonian that houses, among other things, most of the country’s famous portraits from George Washington to Barak Obama.

In the fall of 2010, an exhibit opened at the gallery called “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” It examined the way American artists have explored the complex issues of gender and sexuality through the traditional medium of the portrait. It included works by such museum stalwarts as Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keeffe, Annie Leibovitz, and many others.

Also included in the show was a video by artist David Wojnarowicz that drew the ire of a handful of Christians and consequently, of some in Congress. In the course of its repeating four minutes, one of its many images was a few seconds of a crucifix on which were crawling some ants.

Upon hearing about it, the President of the Catholic League branded the work “hate speech” and fired off angry letters to Congress hoping someone would bite.  Someone did. Immediately, then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia condemned the piece as an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians.” Others said that it was “symbolic of the arrogance” with which official Washington spends money and dropped threatening hints that the Gallery’s budget now may face additional scrutiny.

With a rapidity that startled everyone on both sides, National Portrait Gallery Director Mark Sullivan announced that the piece was being removed. The gasps were audible.  “I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious,” he said.

In writing about the whole affair, which shocked and angered artists who felt betrayed by the museum, Washington Post critic Blake Gopnik said flatly that the often-invoked community standards of decency don’t really exist, and perhaps shouldn’t in a pluralistic society. “My decency is your disgust,” he wrote, “and one point of museums, and of contemporary art in general, is to test where lines get drawn and how we might want to rethink them.”  The editorial board of the Post said the decision to remove the video was “highly disappointing” and that “the use of public dollars does not give lawmakers the right to micromanage or censor displays.”

At least this time around in terms of suspending a controversial exhibit, the politicians aren’t involved and the decision is coming from curators.  That makes me feel a little better about it.  I bet most politicians have never even heard the name Philip Guston.