Late last Fall, the exhibition Hide/Seek opened at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, the first major museum exhibition to explore gay and lesbian identity in American art. One month into its run, conservative website CNS News wrote a scathing editorial about the show, focusing its attacks on David Wojnarowicz’s video piece A Fire in My Belly. The video’s montage of unsettling images expresses Wojnarowicz’s suffering as an AIDS victim and his anger at society for demonizing AIDS and refusing to help those in need. CNS decried one scene in particular, in which ants are shown crawling over a crucifix, as sacrilegious and intentionally offensive. The author called for the immediate removal of the piece and even the entire exhibition, deeming it “pornographic.”
A letter-writing campaign brought the issue to the attention of Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and they declared the show a waste of taxpayer money. Cantor threatened, "The museum should pull the exhibit and be prepared for serious questions come budget time.” The senators had not seen the exhibition. Within days the Smithsonian acquiesced and removed Wojnarowicz’s video. In response to the museum’s decision, both the Warhol and Mapplethorpe Foundations announced that they would not contribute funding to any future Smithsonian exhibitions, and several artists attempted to remove their works in solidarity.
The move set a dangerous precedent for censorship of the arts. When salaries and operating costs are factored in, government dollars make up nearly sixty percent of the National Portrait Gallery’s budget, and although this money does not pay for the exhibitions themselves, the museum would cease to function without it. Many arts institutions across the country operate on similar terms. If the government has the ability to censor unpopular exhibitions, we will cease to have this platform for engaging in conversations about our history and identity. Hide/Seek co-curator David C. Ward stated that, “The American Portrait Gallery is where Americans go to see themselves,” and that includes the gay, lesbian, and transgendered community. Art for all cannot be dictated by the opinions of the few.
There were no plans for the exhibition to travel after its run at the National Portrait Gallery, but in light of the censorship debacle, the Brooklyn Museum is now opening the complete Hide/Seek exhibition, including two additional versions of the Wojnarowicz video. Just before its opening, the show faced similar criticism from the Catholic Bishop of Brooklyn, Nicholas DiMarzio. In response, co-curator Johnathan Katz retorted, “If the Bishop would like me to teach him the iconographic tradition of the church, I’d be happy to do so.” He went on to explain that the image of the crucifixion has been used for centuries to express suffering and engage viewers’ empathy.
The exhibition spans one hundred years of American art, tracing a narrative about sexual identity that begins with coded signals in the late 19th century and continues, through expressions of loss and anger at the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic, up to the present. Juxtaposed pieces by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg speak to the influence of their romantic relationship on their work. Nan Goldin’s photos of her drag queen friends show the beauty and honesty of self-expression. Felix Gonzalez-Torres poignantly represents his AIDS-afflicted lover through a slowly-depleting pile of shiny hard candies (visitors are encouraged to take one).
The works in the show are considered canonical pieces of American art, but in this context, they speak to a neglected aspect of art history: the roles gay and lesbian identity have played in shaping our culture.