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

by Jessica Roake

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.