Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fighting censorship: SPACE to screen video banned from Smithsonian

Published in the Portland Phoenix

A video banned from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery last week in the wake of threats from conservative politicians will be on view in the front window of SPACE Gallery (538 Congress St., Portland) this week and next, as part of a nationwide show of solidarity between art galleries and the organizers of the Smithsonian's show.

The show, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," includes works by a large number of renowned American artists, including photographers Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Annie Leibovitz; and painters Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley (a Mainer of whom a photographic portrait by George Platt Lynes is also included).

On November 28, nearly a month after the exhibit's October 30 opening date, the conservative Web site reported that it had asked incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner (an Ohio Republican) and incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (a Virginia Republican) to comment on one element of the show, an excerpt from David Wojnarowicz's A Fire In My Belly (A Work In Progress), which includes a scene of ants crawling on a crucifix.

Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith told, "While the amount of money involved may be small, it's symbolic of the arrogance Washington routinely applies to thousands of spending decisions involving Americans' hard-earned money at a time when one in every 10 Americans is out of work and our children's future is being threatened by debt."

Cantor, who is Jewish, denounced the exhibit as "an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season," according to "When a museum receives taxpayer money, the taxpayers have a right to expect that the museum will uphold common standards of decency. The museum should pull the exhibit and be prepared for serious questions come budget time," he said.

Both politicians seem unclear on how federal funds are used by the Smithsonian. The organization reports that public funds do not pay for specific exhibits, which are instead funded by private donations. Federal funds cover the costs of building maintenance, care of the artworks in the museums' custody, and staff, including exhibit curators.

Nevertheless, the Smithsonian removed the video from its exhibit, without consulting the show's curator, Jonathan Katz. (Katz registered a powerful objection, decrying the decision as a capitulation to bullying: "appeasing tyranny has never worked and can never work, for tyranny wants only obedience, and blind obedience is antithetical to what this nation stands for; we were, as a people, born in protest to tyranny," he wrote in a formal statement.)

"When a work of art is censored because of a minority opinion about the work, it's cause for alarm," says Nat May, executive director of SPACE Gallery. The ants, according to the artist's own statement of purpose, are his metaphor for society, particularly during the AIDS crisis, which claimed Wojnarowicz's own life in 1992.

May's own opinion of the video is that "it's pretty harmless. I think we see more challenging and much more disturbing work every day on TV."

When he learned that other galleries around the country were showing the video as a sign of support for the censored artwork, May called the gallery representing Wojnarowicz's estate to ask if SPACE could show the film as well. "They got back to me immediately — within minutes" asking for his address and saying they would send the DVD.

The video will show in the front window of SPACE, along with printouts of various opinions about the work, including several objecting to it.

"I'd really like this to be an opportunity to discuss censorship," May says. "The biggest concern is that you have a couple of loud voices critical of something and before a conversation happens, the piece is removed. That's not how the rest of the world works. Because it's art and because it's in a public place" the standards should not change, he says, though apparently they do.

The SPACE exhibit will include the full statement by Katz, which ends with a quote from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself:" "Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!/Whoever degrades another degrades me,/And whatever is done or said returns at last to me. . . . Through me forbidden voices,/Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil'd and I remove the veil,/Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur'd."