Art Critic on 'Ideological Strong-Arming' of D.C. Gay Artists Show: 'Difference Was Sent Back Into Hiding'

The Times is making up for lost time, catching up to the controversy in D.C. over the gay-history themed exhibit "Hide/Seek" installed at the National Portrait Gallery. It had previously featured a brief but controversial clip by deceased artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, of ants crawling over a crucifix.

Art critic Holland Cotter not only made Saturday's front page with an overheated opinionated piece on the "self-censorship" by the Smithsonian ("As Ants Crawl Over Crucifix, Dead Artist Is Assailed Again") but also reviewed the exhibit in the inside pages, in pretentious and didactic political terms, showing less concern with the aesthetics of the art on display than what the removal ("censorship") of a small part of the exhibition meant for gay acceptance.

In his front-page fret, Cotter first took us back to the '80s, packaging the current controversy as the refighting of a culture war he assumed was over.

Twenty years later, history is repeating itself, with variations. Wojnarowicz's work is under similar attack, this time by Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, and several members of Congress. The offending material is again a detail of a larger work, an image of ants crawling over a crucifix, excerpted from a Wojnarowicz video that was included in a large group show called "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

On Dec. 1 the gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, took the video off view. One big change from 1990, however, is the nearly universal presence of the Internet. Word of the self-censorship instantly spread, and the video itself, titled "A Fire in My Belly," went viral, turning up on a number of Web sites, including YouTube. Untold numbers of people could now see something that, without the publicity generated by the dispute, they never would have known existed.

And what are they seeing? A raw, moving, disturbing piece of art that comes in two sections: one is 13 minutes; the other is 7 minutes, video of the same title found on a separate reel after Wojnarowicz's death from AIDS. In an added complication, the two tapes were edited down to one that is roughly 4 minutes for the National Portrait Gallery show.

Cotter described the video's juxtapositions of images like "Day of the Dead candy skulls and a painting of an Aztec human sacrifice" with newspaper clippings of massacres. Cotter figured out it was a meditation on the era of AIDS:

That "A Fire in My Belly" is about spirituality, and about AIDS, is beyond doubt. To those caught up in the crisis, the worst years of the epidemic were like an extended Day of the Dead, a time of skulls and candles, corruption with promise of resurrection. Wojnarowicz was profoundly angry at a government that barely acknowledged the epidemic and at political forces that he believed used AIDS, and the art created in response, to demonize homosexuals.

Cotter's politicized review of the show for the Arts section, "Sexuality in Modernism: The (Partial) History," is less-than-impressed with "Hide/Seek" on its own terms, but very concerned with its potential importance as a piece of pro-gay propaganda. Cotter even claimed the removal of the video enhanced the show in his eyes, though his dense thicket of academic-ese makes it hard to comprehend exactly how.

With the exhibition "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," one of our federally funded museums, the National Portrait Gallery, here in the city of "don't ask, don't tell," has gone where our big private museums apparently dare not tread, deep into the history of art by and about gay artists.

Cotter's brief recap of the removal of the video was followed by a history of "same-sex desires" from poet Walt Whitman to (Holland implies) painters Grant Wood and Andrew Wyeth and the relationship between two modern artists, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

The Wojnarowicz video, "A Fire in My Belly," belonged in this group. It was made in the late 1980s in response to a lover's death and after the discovery of the artist's own H.I.V. And crucial elements missing from much of the exhibition - personal and political anger, formal rawness, overt spirituality - are embodied in that work. In a sense the video was missing even when it was here: it was edited down for the occasion to barely 4 minutes from 20. But to have removed it entirely because of ideological strong-arming was to violate the premise and the promise of the show: difference was sent back into hiding.

It is way past time for mainstream art history to acknowledge the shaping role of sexual difference in modern art. And "Hide/Seek," with its many strengths, begins to do so in a persuasively accessible way. Equally important is the need to assess the price that acceptance into history, and into the world, on mainstream terms may exact.

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