Rights & Wrongs

Why the Smithsonian Institution has failed the basic tenets of a nation

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David Wojnarowicz Silence = Death (1990)

David Wojnarowicz Silence = Death (1990)

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution reads: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’ Although currently questioned by the know-nothing zealots of the Tea Party, the principle clearly enunciated in these words and buttressed by subsequent jurisprudence is that there shall exist a clear separation between Church and State, and that the latter shall not sanction the former becoming an authority over the beliefs of its citizens. Given that many of the emigrants who founded the nation had fled religious persecution, there can be little doubt that they had gauged the full weight of this terse, unequivocal declaration.

A corollary of the injunction contained in the First Amendment is that the government shall not enter into religious disputes in such a manner as to take sides by endorsing one interpretation of doctrine over another, or by favouring one imputed meaning of a sacred symbol over another. This seems straightforward enough. However, nothing is ever straightforward where fanatics labour to obscure basic truths and undermine basic rights. It only gets worse when those in positions of responsibility who know the law and our individual and collective stake in insuring its strict observance start to dodge, wobble, cede ground or just plain cave in to the very pressures against which the Constitution was designed to serve as a bastion.

Supposedly self-evident statements such as mine don’t offer much opportunity for snappy critical prose, but unfortunately an art column must become a civics column every time fundamental freedoms are jeopardized by fundamentalisms of other sorts. For the past 30 years, through the Reagan–Bush–Bush years these freedoms have been under unrelenting assault. But, while they may be brief, these are the Obama years. Nevertheless, at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., the Director Martin E. Sullivan, apparently on orders from his superiors, removed a video work by the late David Wojnarowicz from what was intended to be a paradigm-shifting exhibition of historical and contemporary art by Gay and Lesbian Americans, the unself-effacing Others in Walt Whitman’s self-celebrating multitude.

The 1987 work is titled Fire in my Belly, a gung-ho expression evoking he-manly John Wayneism that Wojnarowicz thoroughly queered with searing images and a shrieking soundtrack. The show is named ‘Hide/Seek’, after Pavel Tchelitchew’s 1940–2 camp classic of trompe l’oeil painting, which New York’s Museum of Modern Art has long owned but usually keeps in the closet. (I showed it twice during my MoMA tenure and the guards thanked me because the public loves it.)

But the self-appointed spokesmen of the silent majority that always pop up in such situations don’t love Wojnarowicz. Proclaiming themselves the advocates of religious tolerance – their offended ‘leader’ is William Donahue of the Catholic League – they objected to the fact that among other things the artist’s tape featured a plastic crucifix with a bleeding Christ being overrun by ants, presumably leaving it at that because they dared not mention the sequence of a man opening his fly and jerking off. Without any push-back from the National Portrait Gallery, pious bigotry got its way. The museum’s voluntary censorship of its own exhibition was a profound breach of trust occuring at the worst of moments, just as the Pentagon was preparing to remove the ban against homosexuals in uniform despite the fact that Congress almost failed to vote for the requisite legislation. In the end Congress made the historic leap; the Smithsonian balked and made history in reverse.

Meanwhile, who says that Wojnarowicz’s art is sacrilegious? Of course, Donahue is at liberty to assert that it is but anyone with even the faintest knowledge of Catholic iconography can cite gruesome examples of the mortification of the flesh as a symbol of profound belief. Among the most horrifying is Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. The problem for Donahue – who must have speed-read the Sermon on the Mount – is that Wojnarowicz associates holy suffering with aids and so with ‘forbidden’ desire. Wojnarowicz is not the only one. Jasper Johns has quoted from the Isenheim Altarpiece in numerous works devoted to the same taboo and the same terrible illness. Johns’ pictures have hung at the National Gallery but Donahue raised no hue and cry.

Now back to basics: it is not within the government’s purview to decide whether Wojnarowicz’s Catholicism is less worthy than Donahue’s. Nor, for that matter, is it up to government to decide whether Wojnarowicz’s art is less worthy of protection than that of Johns. Yet every right guaranteed by the First Amendment has been put at risk by this incident, and none of the federal officials charged with defending those rights has honoured them. The Liberal Spring of 2008 is plunging into deep Reactionary Winter.

Issue 137

First published in Issue 137

March 2011

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