Art, Sex, and Censorship—Washington Style

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., Georgia State University

A suddenly contentious special exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery closed its doors just before Valentine’s Day.

Entitled “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture“, the show was designed to provide a glimpse into nineteenth and twentieth century North American art that was explicit in its homoeroticism, and suggestive as well of what we might almost refer to as Modern art’s implicitly “gay gaze.”

Given the imprimatur provided by the Smithsonian Museum, the national museum of this our contentious Republic, controversy surely must have been expected.  And less than two months after the show’s opening, the inevitable controversy arrived, if in an unusual and unexpected form.  One piece in the show—a four-minute clip from a film entitled “Fire in My Belly,” not a painting or photograph—was summarily pulled from the show, prompting a renewed debate about “censorship” in the guise of threatened federal funding for the arts.

Given the complex and sometimes sordid blending of religion and sexuality in this culture, the debate morphed significantly in late November 2010—just after the elections, be sure to note—from sex to religion.  That is to say, from a debate about the virtues of exhibiting a show devoted to gay and lesbian sexuality, into a debate about obscenity, blasphemy, as well as varying perceptions of religious offense in a religiously diverse democracy such as our own.

This case potentially offers a unique glimpse into some of the distinctive features of mainstream American values (or, perhaps we should say, confusions) concerning the implicit relationship between religion and sex.  And I would like to suggest that a closer look at this case offers some interesting resources for possibly moving beyond the current impasse defined by an allegedly secular left and an allegedly religious right.

But to get there, a great many misperceptions need to be cleared out of the way, first.  I will ultimately conclude that what is most revealing about this story is how unimportant, or rather how banal, were the public claims and counter-claims that made this a news story in the first place.  The real story, and the hope, lay outside the museum.


At the center of the controversy stands a film and a filmmaker.  The artist is David Michael Wojnarowicz (1955-1992), and the film in question is entitled “Fire in My Belly,” completed in 1987 at the panicked height of the AIDS crisis.  The film seems originally to have been 30 minutes in duration, though that original has apparently been lost.  Sequences from the film are available, one of thirteen-minute duration, as well as the four-minute clip that was a part of “Hide/Seek” exhibition.  (Information about the film may be found at the P.P.O.W. website, which possesses rights to the Wojnarowicz estate, or they may be contacted in person at 511 West 25th Street, Room 301, NewYork, NY 10001).

Most of the imagery in this film comes from a Mexican “Day of the Dead” festival.  Far and away the most jarring images are those of a set of hands sewing two halves of a loaf of bread together, eerily juxtaposed with a man whose mouth has been sown shut.  This rough reference to the “Silence=Death” credo, from the early years of the AIDS crisis, was nonetheless drowned out in the controversy concerning eleven seconds of episodic footage that depicted a crucifix laying on the ground with ants crawling over it.  There are other Christian images in the film, such as a living Christ figure wearing a bloody crown of thorns, and bandaged hands with “blood money”pouring through them.  But it was it was the periodic ant sequence that allegedly initiated the controversy.

It is striking that these eleven seconds should have so dominated discussion of the film, and the show. What this debate has done is to turn a show about sexual difference into a debate about religion… and then into a political debate about public funding for the arts and the necessary limits of free expression. The whole thing made any deeper engagement with the artist’s work virtually impossible.

Wojnarowicz had been a vocal advocate for gay and lesbian recognition, though his artistic practices and self-understanding were radicalized in the mid-1980s as the HIV-AIDS epidemic decimated the arts community in New York and San Francisco, as well as around the world.  The issue was personalized when Wojnarowicz’s lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, died of HIV-AIDS related complications and he himself was positively diagnosed as infected with the virus. This 1987 film was one response to the epidemic and to his own personal losses, further chronicled in his 1991 book, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage Books, 1991). Wojnarowicz died the following year at the age of 37.

What, then, was thought to be so unbearable in this film?


We will never have a clear answer to that question, because less than 23 hours separated the first electronic cry of alarm posted by the “Media Resource Center,” complaining about a show that they misconstrued as a deliberately offensive “Christmas Season Exhibit”(apparently posted at 4:47pm on November 29, 2010), and the email announcement by Martin Sullivan of the Smithsonian that the four-minute film sequence would be pulled from the show (apparently posted at 3:30pm on November 30, 2010).

In between that first cry of outrage and the final sigh of resignation came a far more ominous message posted by John Boehner and Eric Cantor on the “Media Resource Center” website, suggesting that their new Republican legislative majority would be looking into, not just the issues in this case, but rather all the federal funding that the Smithsonian receives.

Two days after the video was yanked from the show, an internal Smithsonian email was leaked to the press, one that showed G. Wayne Clough, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (since 2008; he was formerly President of the Georgia Institute of Technology), to have been personally responsible for this decision.

Expressions of outrage in the arts and museums community was swift and unanimous. To be sure, this is an imprudent precedent, to pull any object from a museum show once that show has opened to public viewing, barring some revelation of clear illegality (such as a stolen or falsified work of art).

Personal offense, expressed by whatever person, ought not be permitted to dictate museum practices after a show opens to the public.  That was the idea, and the one piece in the show on loan from the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa was recalled by that Museum in protest, though in the end they were not legally able to reclaim it.  I’ll return to that disturbing piece at the end of this essay.

In any case, that is where things stood when this became a news story.  Since one could well argue that the electronic media and the twenty-four hour news cycle made this story a story in the first place, it is perhaps worth pulling back a bit, to take a slightly longer and slightly calmer view, and more specifically, to let the story emerge materially by paying a visit to the museum and to the show.  A rather different story emerges from such a visit, it appears to me.


The National Portrait Gallery is housed today in what was once the home of the U.S. Patents Office.  Abraham Lincoln used the third floor of the building for the receiving line after his Second Inaugural Celebration in 1864.  The building was badly damaged in a fire in 1877, when most of the patent models in their care were destroyed.

And so the U.S. Congress authorized a massive restoration project (to the tune of more than $500 million) that began in the 1960s but was not completed until 2007.  The lovely inner courtyard, which had been a grassy garden knoll, is now a covered portico with tables and a café.

The Congress made its own intentions clear; they wished to create a “place to celebrate and present the achievements of the American people.”  In other words, this building, which had always been a “temple” to American innovation and ingenuity, is now more explicitly intended to celebrate our ingenuity and innovativeness in the visual arts.

The new National Portrait Gallery is just that, dominated by its permanent collection of noted American portraiture, but there are large halls reserved for Special Exhibitions on the second and third floors as well. “Hide/Seek” was one such Special Exhibition on the second floor.

It is worth noting the subtle choreography that takes one to that show, by noting where it is placed within the larger flow of the second floor.  If one takes what is designed to be the preferred itinerary, then one is deposited on the second floor into an open hallway (with accompanying side rooms) dedicated to 19th century American art.  Most striking in these rooms are all the female nudes, nudes that the Museum’s signage reminds us would have been shocking to their Victorian audience, but for the fact of their identification as “art” and their dedication to primarily “pagan” themes.

These galleries read like a “Who’s Who” of 19th century American sculptors: Hiram Powers (1805-1873), William Wetmore Story (1819-1895), Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937) and Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) are all here.  And, to be sure, most of the most memorable themes are pagan: Sappho, the Libyan Sibyl, a bound Greek Slave, the Death of Cleopatra, a Bacchante with an Infant Faun, Venus and Adonis, Diana, Prosperpine, Undine, and so on.  But there are a number of nude female forms intended to depict abstract ideas—like Hope and California, and even America herself.

But there are several nude Eves in these rooms as well, along with one especially moving topless image of a Native American entitled “The Last of the Tribes.”  At least one of the Eve-figures is depicted fully and frontally nude.  A number of the paintings are even more risqué.  And so the stage is set, our expectant visual appetites whetted, for explicit nudity and implicit sexuality, long before we make our way to “Hide/Seek.”

The crucial difference is simply that there we will meet the male form on surprising display.

This gradual segue to the display of the male form commences in the next gallery, the Fred W. Smith Gallery of Portraits of American presidents.  Needless to say, there are no nudes in these rooms, though there are several plaster casts of Lincoln’s face and hands, one dated from 1860 and one from 1864, which not only put that martyred president’s body on display in a most vulnerable way, but which eloquently testify to how deeply the War left its mark on this President’s face in only four years.

From the presidential gallery, we are ushered into the first of the Special Exhibition rooms, where there is currently a short and somewhat discombobulated show entitled “The Struggle for Justice.”  Some of these images are superb, like Ben Shahn’s sketches of the three Civil Rights activists murdered in Mississippi in 1964, or Andrew Wyeth’s unapologetic and exquisitely erotic frontal nude entitled “The Clearing” (1979), or William Burrough’s 1955 photographic portrait of Allen Ginsberg.

But the narrative of the show was more didactic than is workable for a museum.  It wished to juxtapose images of women, of blacks and other ethic minorities, of gays and lesbians, and of the mentally disabled, all in order to tell the story of America’s ongoing work of inclusion, our work in granting political recognition and fuller recognition as persons to those who had been excluded from the original American experiment.

There is some truth to this story and it is a very moving story, but the suggestion that the current attempt to address gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered concerns is the next chapter of the Civil Rights story is doubly false.  It is descriptively false because many citizens committed to the cause of racial justice are not yet self–professing members of the new movement, and simply to assert that these stories are the same story will not make it seem so. Second, it is conceptually false, to suggest that the “justice” involved in each of these struggles for inclusion and political recognition is “the same.”  To equate gay and lesbian sexual identity with physical disability is unwittingly problematic, to say the least.

The quotation on the wall from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle” makes this point eloquently.  The “Hide/Seek” show was clearly intended by the Smithsonian to make a contribution to the struggle.  But the overly didactic historical frame of which it is a part, seems to suggest that GLBT liberation is also rolling on the wheels of inevitability, as clearly it is not.

Observe how we have moved through a very interesting choreography in preparation for the “Hide/Seek” exhibition: from bold displays of the naked female form; through American history since the founding of the Republic; through a gesture toward civic inclusion and civic justice; to the explicit admission of the long presence of deep sexual difference in that Republic.


What “Hide/Seek” wishes us to recall is that this has been so for a very long time, and that just because we are talking more openly about it now, does not mean it was any less true before.  Some very moving photographic portraits of Walt Whitman at the end of his life remind us that some of the most important voices in the early American experiment in creative individualism and enacted freedom were gay.

Closeted persons were and are still persons; this is the main idea.  Framed in this way, it is hardly a controversial claim, and a very difficult political position to resist in the second decade of the 21st century.

The first image in the show makes this point subtly with Thomas Eakins’s (1844-1916) “Salutat,” an 1898 painting that depicts an eroticized boxer, viewed in very brief briefs from behind, with one arm raised in salutation before an entirely male audience of cheering admirers.  It is not a subtle painting, when once it is viewed in the context of this show; that is the key curatorial point of the show.

The rest of the exhibition is organized chronologically, so that the viewer is walked through a series of rooms dedicated to various chapters in this story.  Chapter One focuses on the New York City bathhouse scene, on Gertrude Stein’s Paris in the 1920s, and on the roughly contemporary Harlem Renaissance.

The next chapter leaps ahead to the post-War era, when we see the question of homoeroticism coming into public view for the first time, perhaps in part due to the emerging and evolving therapeutic paradigm.  All of the pieces in this room date from 1945-1965.

After the Stonewall Riots of 1969, a gay and lesbian subculture became increasingly visible and increasingly vocal; fittingly enough, the art in this room became increasingly aggressive and in-your-face.  Gender bending, and the frank exploration of the leather scene dominate the images in this room.  Moreover, the implicit violence of many of these images, with their Nazi helmets, guns and chains—all of them dated between 1979 and 1984—sets the stage for the morbid conclusion of this exhibition.

If the show began with a thought-experiment of sorts (GLBT mobilization is like the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s), then it concluded with a harrowing reminder of what the AIDS epidemic did to the art world in the United States.  The final room of this show is dedicated precisely to death.  This is where the Wojnarowicz film was screened; its place has now been taken by a video clip from the gay classic, “Pink Narcissus” (filmed between 1963 and 1970). That substitution makes very little chronological sense, given the logic of the placement and the context of the show.

The frame within which to view the Wojnarowicz film is provided by what is, by far, the single most disturbing image in the show, a fully wall-sized enhanced photograph by the Canadian artist, A. A. Bronson, entitled “Felix June 5, 1994.”  Playing on the old 19th and 20th century tradition of photographic memento mori, the artist took this photograph of the skeletal face of his lover, several hours after he died of AIDS-related complications.  It is an utterly haunting image, and one cannot escape the gaze of those cavernous eyes anywhere in the room over which he presides in grim unseeing silence. (This is the piece that the National Gallery of Canada demanded returned when the Wojnarowicz film was pulled on November 30, 2010).

Now, one can reasonably question the appropriateness of this curatorial choreography. Turning a show about sexual difference into a show about HIV-AIDS, or rather, turning a show about sexuality into a show about death, is a very bold curatorial decision indeed, one intended to shock and challenge, but one fraught with unintended consequence as well.  One misses any acknowledgment of the upside to this story, the way in which many people are now able to live with this disease, and the way in which a society actually rallied around the victims of the epidemic rather than simply consigned them to the horrific end depicted in the Bronson photo.

It is remarkable to recall that there was no nudity in the Wojnarowicz film sequences, none at all.  There was a lot of blood, and fire, and there were some very jarring juxtaposition, but the ants were as unobtrusive as virtually anything in what was designed to be a visual assault on the viewers’ senses, a rallying cry to become sensitized to the enormity of what had truly become a plague in 1987.

There is no doubt that this film, like the show, was not intended in the Christmas spirit, but that is beside the point and no real objection to its display.  So why was the Secretary of the Smithsonian so quick to pull the video?

There is no simple way to answer this question, and no real way to know, but it certainly appears to have been a left-leaning reaction to a right-leaning attack.

The curatorial purpose of this show is obvious from the choreography I have rehearsed: it was intended to weave the GLBT communities more intimately into the fabric of this civic nation, and to insist that gay liberation is a case of civil rights.  The video was yanked so that the show might go on, and it was all done so quickly that, one suspects, the “Media Resource Center” was caught off guard.  What they had presumably hoped was that controversy would drag on so the whole show might be called into question.

The video was hardly the most problematic piece in the show, after all.  And it just as certainly should not have been pulled.  These fairly obvious facts are what prompted two independent citizens to involve themselves in the controversy when they first heard about what had been done at the Smithsonian in late November.


In the first week of December 2010, Mike Blasenstein opted to protest the Smithsonian’s decision in a fascinating way.  He loaded the forbidden video sequence on his iPad , hung the thing around his neck, and placed himself in the exhibition hall precisely where the offending video had been screened.  His friend and co-conspirator, Michael Dax Iacovone, filmed the encounter, as the two men were ushered out of the National Portrait Gallery and apparently forced to sign a document banning them from the Smithsonian for life.  This story may be followed on their website.

Undeterred, the two raised funds, located volunteers, and acquired the permits withwhich they have installed a trailer of sorts in front of the F Street entrance to the National Portrait Gallery (very close to Walt Whitman Street), one they call “The Museum of Censored Art.”  Volunteers, many of them art students from local universities, staff the trailer, and the local commercial ambience has rallied around the protest, providing coffee, sandwiches and such.  This impromptu “museum” offers important summaries and timelines chronicling the controversy, as well as a continuous screening of the offending four-minute film clip.  There is little argument that this film has been much more widely seen now, not only because of the controversy, but also because of the creative insurgency of two democratic citizens deeply committed to the principle of the freedom of artistic expression.  It is, or at least parts of it should be, a story that we can all feel good about.

How this film was turned into something else again, something we are invited to feel very bad about, may tell us a great deal about what the most entrenched sides in the culture wars really want.  The right wanted a story about the pornographic or obscene, and decidedly blasphemous, tastes of a certain liberal aesthetic elite.  The left wanted a story about the alternating Puritanism and philistinism of a certain conservative Christian.  Neither story takes us very far and neither seems very accurate as a description of what actually took place here.

There is another story to tell, the real story, about how several concerned citizens, rather than throw up their hands in despair—the sort of “pox on both your houses” viewpoint of the 21st century cultured despiser—decided to do something very simple and very eloquent and very powerful about this.

The story began in banality, but it ends in a way concerned friends of democracy can feel good about.  The show began with multiply bad decisions: the hasty curation of an overly didactic and decidedly uneven show; the landing upon a video sequence as illustrative of precisely what it was not; the panicked decision to sacrifice the film to save the show.

There is plenty of blame to go around.

But rather than content themselves with blaming, two citizens decided to do something about it.  And because of their work, and the countless volunteers who are still working with them, we can see the film, and see the show, and pose deeper and better questions about both—and then we can examine what we understand the subtle and complex overlap between art, sexuality, and religion actually to be.

And who doesn’t need a quiet democratic success story, which seems like a far finer and more lasting gift, when all the Valentine chocolate has been consumed and the flowers wilt before us?

Filed Under: ChristianityCulture & ArtFeaturedLouis A. RuprechtPolitics


RSSComments (0)

Trackback URL

Comments are closed.