Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

What Else Is In the National Portrait Gallery's "Offensive" Gay Show?

The Catholic League has called some of the art “vile," Rep. John Boehner has called for investigations into “how taxpayer funds are used” for Smithsonian shows and National Portrait Gallery Director Martin E. Sullivan allowed his boss, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, to pull what was evidently the most “offensive” piece from the show. After this sudden re-ignition of the culture wars, it’s hard to recall the accomplishment, pride and liberal self-congratulation on display at the opening of Hide/Seek a month ago.

The National Portrait Gallery seemed extremely proud of itself at the press preview. Director Sullivan joined board members and the curators for remarks, photo-ops and video. It was worth pointing out, said Sullivan, that Hide/Seek’s galleries are adjacent to a photo exhibition on the Civil Rights movement, and in fact "follow" that movement in the space and in history. The curators, David C. Ward and Jonathan Katz, called attention to the boldness and bravery of the National Portrait Gallery backing the show wholeheartedly during a time when “political winds” might have prevented it. The word brave was bandied about quite a lot.

It was important to note, said Katz, that “this show is not happening in San Francisco, or New York, but in the same city that closed down the Mapplethorpe show 21 years ago” under pressure from conservative groups. The support and freedom the Hide/Seek curators had been granted, and the fact that this show was taking place in the seat of American political power, spoke to how much progress had been made since 1989, when such harm came to the Corcoran (and the city’s) artistic reputation.

This sounds horribly ironic now, for if Hide/Seek had indeed landed in one of those other cities, the criticism of it—especially that of the video “A Fire in My Belly” by David Wojnarowicz—would have been noted and summarily dismissed. The curators were right: the fact that the show “highlights a presence unacknowledged in American culture” and “addresses and historicizes same sex desire and talks about it in ways that haven’t been publicly addressed” is progress. But it also speaks to the shaky support those in power now have shown to the gay community. As soon as any pressure was levied against the Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution buckled completely and immediately, all its “bravery” dissipated, shown up as empty self-congratulation.

In 1999, when the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Sensation show drew ire, as well as a physical attack on the art by an irate old Catholic and the tantrumy condemnation of Mayor Giuliani (who refused to hand over the museum’s funding until a court intervened), the Museum stood firm and defended the most ‘offensive’ piece, “The Holy Virgin Mary” by Chris Ofili. (The issue at hand was that the portrait included, as a material, elephant dung.) Putting the offensiveness of art on a relative scale in order to defend it is problematic, but in this case it is useful. The piece that has drawn the most outrage at Hide/Seek is Wojnarowicz’s “Fire In My Belly.” The artist, who died of AIDS in 1992, made “Fire in My Belly” as an indictment of a “diseased” society’s refusal to see the reality of the lives and deaths of its gay citizens. In a 30 minute video (which had been edited to 7 minutes for the Gallery), there are 11 seconds of a small crucifix with ants on it. In New York, the painting that people referred to as the “Shit Mary” hung for months; in D.C., a clip of ants on a crucifix is pulled within weeks.

So what’s the difference? The reason Hide/Seek has drawn such outsized condemnation is obvious, but it’s still worth calling out: it’s the gay thing. It’s the gay thing that’s getting the word “sacrilegious” bandied about. It’s the gay thing that’s got Rep. John Boehner talking about a misuse of the American family’s taxpayer funds. Boehner should know that no taxpayer funds go to the actual exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery. (According to the Smithsonian's report to Congress for the fiscal year 2011, "Almost all of the NPG’s federal budget covers salaries and benefits costs, with a small amount (less than five percent) available for the purchase of artworks.") So it’s the gay thing that has people questioning the show being up during the "Christmas season.” (Because they usually put up the big “Baby Jesus Holy Holy Portrait show”?)

Would a photograph by Annie Leibovitz of a woman wearing sad clown makeup, baggy pants and a bra while holding her breasts be anything worth commenting on (it’s certainly less sexualized than her usual Vanity Fair shoots) if the subject was not a lesbian? Does a nude David offend as much as a nude painting of Allen Ginsberg? It’s the context here that matters. The curators' goal was to bring the subtext of certain pieces of classic American portraiture to the surface.

Which means that all of the works on display at Hide/Seek have been shown before; it’s the context that’s new, and it’s the context that makes people so uncomfortable. The curators built the show because they were tired of seeing, as Katz said, “Museum after museum where they don’t mention the partners, the autobiography, the question of gender and sexuality. It’s hiding in plain sight, yet no one has put it together.”

Though they are generating the hysteria, the most haunting rooms of the show are not the most modern, post-liberation works, despite the many standouts. These artists speak not only to the struggles they face because of their sexuality, AIDS and the larger culture, but also to the loves and joys of their lives, and they create art from an out perspective. The works of the late 19th to mid-20th century artists on view at Hide/Seek, however, are powerful precisely because of how much is unsaid. Many of these artists remained closeted for most or all of their lives, the realities of their romantic and sexual lives deemed shameful and pornographic. These works are strong enough on their own to have long ago made it into the canon of great American Art, but in providing the ‘codes’ to visitors, the curators heighten the emotional import and allow people to read the art in new ways. At Hide/Seek a viewer can unpack the densely coded Marsden Hartley painting in remembrance of his dead German lover (a double no-no post-World War I), “Painting No. 47, Berlin”, and the “visual missives” Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns sent to each other, both during and after their relationship. (As an aside, it would be another bit of liberal self-congratulation to claim that this homophobia is purely conservative—but the New York Times obituary mentioned Rauschenberg’s brief marriage, but not his six-year co-habitation with Johns; ditto, in Sontag's obituary, the long-term partnership of with Annie Liebovitz.)

Johns’ response to his break-up with Rauschenberg, for example, is heartbreaking: his iconic flag is here covered in black and grey, the edges barely visible. A fork and spoon—an odd but paired couple—hang together from the once starry part of the flag (the stars have gone out) and the text at the bottom of the flag reads "in memory of my feelings: Frank O’Hara." Knowing this does not mean that the painting is now relevant where once it was not, but it also, as Ward said at the press preview, deepens the experience by showing that, “yes it’s an exercise in paint, but it has a profound heart beating behind it.”

Conservative art lovers tend to love “American Gothic” by Grant Wood, but they probably don’t want to know about the artist’s homosexuality, or see the mournful starkness of “Arnold Comes of Age” on view in Hide/Seek. In it, a young man stands in the foreground of a Cedar Rapids landscape, a male nude wading into a river far behind him. A lone butterfly (the ‘papillon’ is a coded reference to the term given to gay men in France, where Wood had spent time) flies in front of Arnold’s arm, barely noticeable. All of this subtext is elucidated in the show, which is the problem for Boehner, the Catholic League and, sadly, weak National Portrait Gallery Director Sullivan. For these people, it would have been better if the artists had stayed in the closet, in the shadows, the codes for their art kept only by the small bands of liberal urbanites, away from “American families” and their heterosexual “values." It would be better if the National Portrait Gallery abridged its mission, which is to tell "the stories of America through the individuals who have shaped U.S culture." For these critics, poor Arnold will be fine if he just keeps looking out at you, never turning around to look at or enjoy the temptation of the river.

Jessica Roake lives in Washington DC with her husband and son. She's a regular arts contributor for The Washington Post Express, has a much-neglected blog, and really misses living in New York at times like this.

38 Comments / Post A Comment

Matt (#26)

I think, as ever, it's important to delineate Washington from DC here. The Transformer gallery on P Street is showing "Fire in My Belly" through the 6th as a way of noting and summarily dismissing the criticism.

Not all of us wear Vineyard Vines to a night out on the town at a bar on the street level of some ritzy hotel in Dupont Circle and/or not all of us are John Boehner, thanks.

You're not all John Boehner??? ARE YOU SURE?

Matt (#26)

Some of us are Peter King.

Jessica Roake (#8,851)

I'm pretty sure you're John Boehner. I live here (in a ritzy hotel in Dupont) too, and you're right about delineating Washington from DC, and for calling out the awesomeness of Transformer. But the fact remains that just like the Corcoran before it, a major DC museum caved rather than standing up to small-minded bigots in a way that simply does not happen in New York, or San Francisco, LA, etc. When the Corcoran crumbled on Maplethorpe, the Washington Project for the Arts stepped up, like Flashpoint is doing now, and that is awesome, and speaks to the many fantastic people here in DC. But the Corcoran's weakness, like the NPG's, did a tremendous amount of damage to the city's reputation in the arts community.
Also, I think an attack on Vineyard Vines is unwarranted! Whales on Pants! Delightful!

Peteykins (#1,916)

Whoah, you almost blew my mind. I just checked, and I'm totally not John Boehner. *Whew*

Matt (#26)

Look all I'm saying is that that tack the tag #WASHINGTON D.C. has taken on this internet web site is along the same old "Oh ho ho, those simpletons in that backwater that is Washington, DC, they will never know the majesty that is New York City," canard which is the oldest one in the book and not exactly any "less stupid."

I appreciate your recognition of the awesomeness of Transformer and Flashpoint but it would have been nice to see that reflected in the piece itself. That's all.

The Vineyard Vines thing was a callback and I am Jeff Sessions, btw.

Jessica Roake (#8,851)

Fair enough. Thanks Senator Sessions!

NinetyNine (#98)

New York city stands up to bigots? Ess funny because it's so wrong.

cherrispryte (#444)

So the Portrait Gallery is 2 blocks from my office. Anyone interested in some on-the-scene reporting?

cherrispryte (#444)

Also what Matt said, obviously.

David (#192)

For the record: (November 30, 2010) "White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs confirmed that Obama told the GOP leaders that he needed to do a better job in seeking consensus. Gibbs said. "The president was pretty clearly in acknowledging that he needed to do better, and he would."

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Portrait Gallery Director Martin E. Sullivan: “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.”

What the fuck is the point? I'm sure people have made the argument somewhere that they're personally offended that their tax dollars pay for things like capricious and unnecessary wars, warrantless wiretapping, torture, and c. (I know I certainly am!) But I'm also offended that those few tax dollars that we do allocate for the promotion and preservation of art are spent on salaries for feckless, callow worms like Sullivan and Clough.

Christ on a bike, how easy must it be to be a Republican? You open your mouth, let whatever your R-complex says come out, and you get your way, because your opponents are too frightened and weak-willed to fight.

Well said. I'm pretty offended that things painted with the broad (and opaque) brush of "values" are more relevant than the supposedly lesser virtues of art or equality. And that liberals tend to be stereotypically spineless when the two collide.

libmas (#231)

But couldn't you argue that people who are offended by their tax dollars going to capricious and unnecessary wars should absolutely protest, just as people who are offended by this exhibit are protesting?

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@libmas: Yup! You're totally right. I guess I'm just jealous that the other guys tend to be a lot more successful when they protest.

libmas (#231)

Point taken.

Not to mention, when liberals protest against capricious and unnecessary wars, or in favor of equality, they get called traitors or degenerates, while when conservatives protest things like this, they are held up as examples of "real Americans" whose "real" values are being violated.

La Cieca (#1,110)

But no one is actually offended by this exhibit, and certainly no one is protesting. This situation is essentially bullying by a couple of jerks who want to broadcast the news that they're now in charge.

Though, to be sure, most culture-outrage protesting is astroturfed anyway. Probably not the anti-abortion crowd so much, but in general nobody really cares enough about art to go out and protest it.

ProfessorBen (#1,254)

Wow – this was really nicely written! Thanks so much, and for the tears in my eyes too.

ep (#8,509)

Museum directors and curators are institutional apparatchiks that discretely, politely, diplomatically and eagerly lick the hand that feeds them. Always. So it's probably a mistake to attribute too much backbone to the Brooklyn Museum in this comparison. "Sensation" was, after all, a market-fluffing Saatchi publicity stunt and the museum's funding structure was always pretty secure. Guiliani's arm-waving outrage was good business and good politics for everybody.

alannaofdoom (#4,512)

Jessica, great article, thank you!

On a related note, did anyone else hear Bill Donohue (president of the Catholic League) on Morning Edition this am? I quote: "Why should the working class pay for the leisure of the elite when in fact one of the things the working class likes to do for leisure is to go to professional wrestling? And if I suggested we should have federal funds for professional wrestling to lower the cost of the ticket, people would think I'm insane." (There may be more to this quote; that's when I threw the radio across the room in a rage.)

Bill: ARE YOU SUGGESTING A GOVERNMENT TAKEOVER OF WWE? First they came for my health care, etc.

bluesuedeshoes (#8,610)

That photo is of my very good friend! I know it's out it the world in this way, but every time I see it, it still shocks me a bit.

David (#192)

you mean, of Cass Bird? "I look just like my Daddy"

bluesuedeshoes (#8,610)

Cass Bird took the photo. I meant "of," as in the subject. Whatever, it's annoying to meantion. It's just shocking to see your friend's face when you scroll down and aren't expecting it.

Kevin (#2,559)

It's a brilliant photo and even though I don't know the subject; it's like a sucker punch.

Cobalt (#7,571)

Thanks so much for this analysis.

When I think about this, I don't know if the poor, anti-cultural American education system is to blame; or if politicians guided by divisive and non-compassionate religious dogma are to blame; or if curators and gallery or museum directors that care more about money instead of art and that are too afraid of controversy instead of standing up for freedom of expression are to blame. Or, if it's ultimately that some people who don't understand something, believe it's their right (morally, dogmatically, legally) to squash it and prevent others from having access to it. Seems like gay is still the new black.

bluesuedeshoes (#8,610)

And, on a much more relevant note, this article is very strong. I have this (admittedly half-baked) theory that conservatives like to fund the arts because it's a way of getting a tax break and showing off their status while helping the smallest number of people in need possible. This impression mostly came from living in Houston, which has a very well-funded arts community, due to all the petroleum money in the city. I've always found this interesting, since most of the great artists I know and know of are queers and degenerates.

barnhouse (#1,326)

I loved this, is all.

trsqw (#8,863)

I agree with the general thesis of your article; namely, that the outrage and fury over this "sacrilegious" piece is hiding behind an anti-gay agenda.

However, I think you are missing the key institutional difference between the Smithsonian and another museum in New York City or San Francisco. The NPG and some 25 over museums rely on a federally sponsored budget to operate (even if the art shows themselves are privately sponsored). So when the future Speaker of the House states publicly he's going to "investigate" the Smithsonian, it's a big deal. True cowardice on the part of the SI would be pulling the exhibit all together, not 1 piece out of the 103 currently on display.

The fact remains that, as a result of a fringe group's agenda and a politician trying to score off an anti-intellectual movement in this country, the NPG, if not the entire Smithsonian, is going to lose money from its budget. During a stifling economy. Which means it will be years before they attempt to do something as provocative, and frankly interesting, as this exhibit again.

And of course the instant Director Clough (and let's face it, he's to blame) pulled the piece in an attempt to appease the mighty gods of budget, he pissed off everyone else on the other side of the debate so the museums surely won't make up the support there.

What's lost in the battling headlines of "Censorship!" and "Paying for Offensive Art!"is that the exhibit is still there. The pieces you so excellently described are still up as well the insightful commentary that forces the viewer to revisit these landmark pieces of art. And despite the taint now surrounding the exhibit, it's still worth seeing.

…well, that was long-winded. And I may have just accidentally defended censorship. But still, all those in DC should go see the exhibit. And the "offensive" work at the the Transformer Gallery

barnhouse (#1,326)

In related news, TPM connects this with institutional fear of the incoming House.

celtickilt53 (#8,872)

Shouldn't it be hard to hate gays and whistle a Gershwin tune . . .? Really enjoyed the perspective you offered in this article.

facepunches (#7,757)

All I could do after reading this was make this [NSFW i guess]

good essay, crystallizes my thinking. the artificial outrage is more worry about being "left behind"; they are correct, they are history. the NPG is the white bread version: the piece was already "pre-edited", taking out the nudity. Clough is a good Tech academic, but fails to understand, that pusillanimous passivity won't ward off the calls for entrance fee, and institution bashing: better to stand by the curators and institution, than the philistine, iconoclast critique. we need some better street theater for the smithsonian hearing: how about a procession behind cross, christians for modern art? (we're praying for you)

escapetochengdu (#8,894)

Help keep public pressure on NPG! Sign the petition telling the Portrait Gallery not to cave to bullying by Fox News and other extremists:

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