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Outcry Over Smithsonian Censorship Grows

A screenprint made from an iconic David Wojnarowicz portrait
//yeti-cir-test.s3.amazonaws.com/uploaded/images/2010/12/david-w/original/4174316630_99ab0d2f03.jpg
A screenprint made from an iconic David Wojnarowicz portrait
 
SFMOMA, Warhol Foundation and others take action after video work removed

Like any modern protest, last Friday's gathering at SF Camerawork to screen the full 13-minute video piece by artist David Wojnarowicz— a longer version of the one pulled by the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery — began with an e-mail.

On Dec. 2, two days after the piece was yanked from the "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" show, with the subject line "exhibition censorship," California College of the Arts professor Tirza Latimer sent a message calling for people to sign an online petition. From that first missive, dates for a screening and discussion took shape, with a variety of Bay Area arts institutions chiming in.

Chuck Mobley of SF Camerawork and Rudy Lemcke of the Queer Cultural Center took the charge, but in keeping with these viral times, the action was decentralized. YBCA opted to show the video on a continuous loop during their "Noel Noir" party; Southern Exposure gallery is doing the same in its Mission space. SFMOMA scheduled a screening in early January, to coincide with free "First Tuesdays" and Stanford opted for a date in mid-January when school is back in session. Bay Area arts workers Julia Haas and Allison Maurer  set up a site for people to post their screenings, as organizations big and small across the country responded to the National Gallery's decision. 

Perhaps the most striking complaint was lodged Monday. The Pittsburgh, PA-based Andy Warhol Foundation, who funded the exhibit to the tune of $100,000, announced that unless the piece was reinstated, they would not fund future Smithsonian projects. They said they have given $375,000 over the past three years.

The diffuse protest illuminates one of the more striking characteristics of this brouhaha. The artist, who died in 1992, was no stranger to the culture wars of the 1980s and '90s: He actually won a Supreme Court case against a religious group for its improper appropriation of a still image for its literature. But in 2010, while the terms of the debate are eerily familiar, the response is not.

"This whole thing dramatizes, to me, how different the networks in place now are in 2010, as opposed to 1989," said Latimer. "There was an equally virulent and proactive response to the Mapplethorpe debacle..the modes of intervention are different, though. In the mode of [gay activist organization] Act Up, there was a very sophisticated system of people who were ready to galvanize on short notice.

"However, what I think is more astonishing is the number of people in different places who can mobilize simultaneously."

"Hide/Seek" curator Jonathan Katz, who lived in San Francisco during the period 1989-2001, echoed this, noting the new roles of social media and religion in the debate. "It's only the religion wrinkle that's new, the rest of it is the typical divide-and-conquer tactics of the right," Katz said.

"More to the point, this show was up almost 30 days without a peep," said Katz. "The thing is, I expect those bastards to act like bastards. I was surprised they'd find as welcoming an atmosphere today, thanks to the rank idiocy of the Smithsonian."

Many have noted the speed of the Smithsonian's response to a story posted by the Catholic League, which got picked up and trumpeted by Rep. John Boehner and Rep. Eric Cantor, who decried Wojnarowicz's piece as "designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians." The offending bits appear to be a section where ants crawl over a crucifix, imagery used by the artist to speak to the depth of his grief over the loss of his lover, fellow artist Peter Hujar.

The irony, of course, is that the protest has made the show far more prominent than it would have been otherwise. Katz was Skyped into the discussion on Friday, which drew around 130 people, according to Mobley. But even though the attention might be a "curator's dream," Latimer cautioned that the "psychic residue" of such toxic controversy might be long-lasting. "It could make curators more afraid to stick their necks out," she said, noting that the previous culture war had a chilling effect on arts funding and curation.

Katz shared those concerns, noting that the issue isn't that it was a mistake to do the exhibit in a publically funded institution.

"The idea that we could have done the show somewhere else was absurd," he said. "I'm very careful in my criticism of the Smithsonian — I want to laud them for having the courage to put it up in the first place." "Hide/Seek," a show designed to illuminate queer artists and works, had been turned down by many private institutions before landing at a public one.

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