Museums Held Hostage

by by Olivia Fagon-Jene

illustration by by Annika Finne

In January 2010, Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough decided to pull a four-minute video portrait by artist David Wojnarowicz entitled Fire in the Belly (1987) from “Hide/Seek: Difference in Desire in American Contemporary Art,” an exhibition of works by queer and gay artists at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The video is an edited version of a 72-minute art film. The pulled piece depicts images of the artist with his mouth sewn shut, and a naked Christ figure moaning and screaming, splayed on a cross covered in ants. There has been considerable backlash in the art community—including the exhibit’s sponsors (two of whom have retracted their funding), other curatorial institutions, protesters ,and individual artists—have been extremely critical of what they label an act of censorship.
This case bears an unsettling resemblance to one in June 1989, when under congressional and public pressure, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC cancelled the scheduled exhibition by artist Robert Mapplethorpe. “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment” consisted of 150 photographs of the artist’s works. Mapplethorpe was known for his graphic depictions of subsets of American society, and many of the photographs in his exhibit contained controversial images: displays of sadomasochism, extreme close-ups of crotches, and nude children (not provocatively posed). Many of his works made no explicit sexual reference, and his most graphic material was placed in age-restricted cases within the exhibit. The Corcoran was heavily criticized by the arts community for its decision to bow to political pressure, and for refusing to sacrifice their federal funding for the integrity of their institution.
In August 1989, another provocative and heavily publicized debate surrounded artist Andres Serrano’s piece entitled “Piss Christ,” a photograph composed of Christ’s image submerged in Serrano’s urine. Serrano had received nearly $30,000 for the project from the National Endowment of the Arts, a federally funded institution that distributes grants to support artistic production. These acts of censorship are similar in that they came either directly or because of pressure from elected officials in Congress.

Culture Wars Rage
By the late ‘80s, conservatives in power realized they could strengthen their political platform by attacking controversial art—what they called “morally reprehensible trash”—and trying to censor it, both by threatening cultural institutions with the withdrawal of federal funds, and by holding institutions publicly accountable for the content of exhibited work. In 1989, North Carolina State Senator Jesse Helms threatened to remove the Corcoran’s federal funding if they showed Mapplethorpe’s work. The Corcoran subsequently canceled the show.
Helms expressed his outrage over the Mapplethorpe exhibition through homophobic rhetoric, equating homosexuality with indecency and moral corruption in order to justify censorship. Helms stated that “the American people... are disgusted with the idea of giving the taxpayers› money to artists who promote homosexuality insidiously and deliberately.” Today, the right wing conservative faction can no longer employ overtly bigoted arguments, but the issue of public funding and taxpayers’ rights has proved to be a compelling conservative argument.
In response to the Wojnarowicz scandal this January, Speaker of the House John Boehner stated, “American families have a right to expect better then this from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy.” Boehner and Republican Whip Eric Cantorboth called for the complete dismantling of the exhibit and a serious congressional review of the Portrait Gallery’s budget. Helms’ 1989 argument for censorship still holds, as both Helms and Boehner were able to argue that the art in question was religiously and morally offensive, and that the federally funded status of the Corcoran and the Portrait Gallery as well as the NEA grant support meant that the work chosen for exhibition was somehow under federal control. (Actually, though federal funds support the building, private funds supported the Hide/Seek exhibition.)
Boehner and conservatives have shifted the issue so that the victim in these debates is no longer the marginalized homosexual, nor the censored artist, but is instead the innocent Christian taxpayer forced to give up their hard earned money to fund gay Jesus art.
The continual invocation of the abused taxpayer argument represents the tension between federally funded artwork, and the moral allegiances of federal politicians.Inarguably, Washington museums are prey to the most federal presence, and an institution’s ability to maintain political neutrality in DC is difficult. As the nation’s capital, everything in DC is subject to an exaggerated symbolic significance. In fact, Mapplethorpe’s exhibition opened without controversy in both Philadelphia and Chicago, and only became a point of contention in the weeks leading up to its DC show.
The words “Dedicated to Art” are etched onto the front façade of the Corcoran Gallery and appear in their mission statement, indicating a responsibility to protect and maintain artistic expression.

Prudence or Bigotry?
Initially, the Portrait Gallery demonstrated a definite progressive forward thinking, when it bucked convention and chose to house an exhibit of exclusively gay artists. That intent in itself would suggest that strides have been made in regards to queer artistic visibility and acknowledgment. It’s troubling that the bigoted reasons for canceling Mapplethorpe’s show in 1989 find so much resonance more than twenty years later in the decision to remove Wojnarowicz’s video. Since the Mapplethorpe controversy, gay civil rights and tolerance of homosexuality has progressed, matched by a definite increase in mainstream gay/queer visibility. Yet with the recent increase in homophobic bullying and teen suicide, the gay civil rights debate, and the resurgence of religion-based politics, homophobia and homosexuality remain provocative issues.
Both cases of censorship are indicative of a cultural equation that continues to be made: any display of homosexuality = graphic and prurient moral indecency being crammed down conservative throats. Discomfort over the physical act of gay sex (which some of Mapplethorpe’s work explicitly depicted) and an anxiety over the boundaries of homosexual identity (which Wojnarowicz engaged by fusing religious martyrdom, homosexual persecution, and HIV/AIDs suffering) gave both works the potential for controversy. What both Mapplethorpe’s and Wojnarowicz’s works do best is show the permeability of racial, sexual, religious and gender lines, in order to complicate the ‘otherness’ of those groups. This makes both works threatening to those who still want to maintain a mutual exclusivity between morality and homosexuality, and worthy of silencing.

Sexual Opportunism
Yet the controversy surrounding both events is not fundamentally about religion, nor exploited federal funds. Yes, they are driven by homophobia and bigotry, but the impetus for censoring Mapplethorpe’s and Wojnarowicz’s work is that, for both Helms and Boehner, they offer a unique political opportunity. It’s not as if Boehner and the GOP don’t have pertinent issues like WikiLeaks or the crisis in Egypt to discuss, or maybe even the critical condition of our economy. But the immensity and urgency of these current problems don’t offer the frenzied media hype and publicity that fuel politicians’ public image and political agenda. Because Mapplethorpe’s and Wojnarowicz’s work brings up charged subjects of religion and homosexuality, their censorship, easily done because of the federal status of their venues, are highly publicized but quickly resolved issues, that present Boehner and Helms as effective political and moral forces.
Both Helms and Boehner resisted labeling their campaigns as censorship, but the difference between censorship and controlling the distribution of taxpayers’ dollars on a moral basis is unclear. Our tax system is based on a shared contribution in which we sacrifice not just funds, but the right to, outside of voting, directly decide how those funds will be used. If we use art’s funding to subsidize general taste, then we risk making the precarious position of marginalized or minority artists more unstable. The benefit of living in a capitalist society is that the majority’s cultural demands are satisfied by the market (e.g. Hollywood, best-seller books, gold selling albums). Cooperation between museums and federal funding has the potential to create a crucial safety net for artists like Mapplethorpe and Wojnarowicz who, because of their sexuality and the content of their work,are denied access to this market.

Visible Margins
Ultimately, the fact that art in its entirety still has to convince a large portion of the US of its basic necessity, something worthy of federal aid, has a lot to do with why it continues from 1989 to 2011 to be the target of conservative budget cutting arguments. The double bind of federal funding is that it invests and supports American artistic production, but leaves artistic institutions vulnerable to bureaucratic influence and political pressure. Both the Mapplethorpe controversy and the current Fire in the Belly issue beg the question of how we can fund and show art denied mainstream acceptance, yet with perhaps the most relevant social and cultural commentary, with the same visibility that federally supported art receives in an independent, and non-political way.

If OLIVIA FAGON B’13 had the choice between gay art or straight art, she would choose gay art.