censorship and homophobia, AIDS, sex, art, religion


I never thought we'd still be doing this 20 years on. The image above is of a thin stenciled sign I held up on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art August 1, 1989.

I thought of it as a work of art; I was thinking of both the sign and the afternoon.

I didn't make the sign. Along with a lot of others just like it, and any number of other images and texts, it was a small, elegant part of a powerful New York demonstration protesting the Corcoran Gallery of Art's cancellation of the D.C. exhibition of the show, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment" and the Helms Amendment. The amendment was designed to prohibit the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) funds from ever being used for so-called "obscene" or "indecent" materials, descriptions that at the time had repeatedly been applied to much of Mapplethorpe's art, and to that of Andres Serrano, who had also become a target in what was being called the American "culture wars."

While the artists attacked became more famous than ever, neither the NEA nor our other cultural institutions ever recovered from the assault on their artistic integrity and independence. I'm reluctant to employ the war metaphor (we're going off in every direction with real wars already), but I think most people would say that, whatever it is called, a fundamental culture struggle continues today: There are too many frightened people in this country, and too many anxious to profit from that fear.

Bill Donohue is a vile and disgusting little opportunist with a computer and a fan base which he regularly whips up to get them to send checks his way. A retrogressive darling of the crazy Right, he invents issues and targets which can attract enough visibility to provoke the fears and hatreds of ignorant older Catholics, allowing him to draw a very generous salary of some $400,000 a year. His primary targets are gays, jews, women, progressives of any kind, and all news media (excepting the just-pretend one, Fox).

While Donohue does not represent the Catholic Church, officially or otherwise, he operates within its comfort zone. He may be the crazy ranting uncle everyone would like to ignore, but the Church hierarchy has never disavowed anything he has said; and they all go to the same banquets.

I thought that the kind of primitive depravity he represents had been pretty much squished twenty years ago, but on the 1st of December, which was, whether incidentally or not, World AIDS Day, the head of the Smithsonian, institutional parent of the National Portrait Gallery, pulled the David Wojnarowicz video, "A Fire in My Belly." from the excellent NPG exhibition, "Hide/Seek," and apologized for its contents. The show had already been open for an entire month when complaints from Donohue's Catholic League, several Right-wing House Republicans, and Fox News [sic] resulted in its peremptory censorship, or debasement.

So we have a professional gay-bashing Catholic fanatic leaning on two fellow political and social fundamentalists, House Republicans John Boehner and Eric Cantor, to blackmail a great museum by threatening to cut its funding if it did not remove a work of art to which the Catholic nut objected. Viz. ants on a crucifix. We know it's not about ants: Donohue and his own coterie are unhappy about everything that has happened in the West since the suppression of the Spanish Inquisition. His Republican fellow-travelers may be in it for power, but their sympathies may actually be sincere, however warped.

I hate to do anything to give more visibility to Bill Donohue, or his Congressional altar boys, but this madness has now been covered by the media everywhere, and roundly condemned in as many places, and the Smithsonian has so far failed to reinstall the art it was so anxious to agree with the nasty little man was offensive.


A lot of people are going to be on Fifth Avenue this Sunday demanding that the Wojnarowicz video be returned to the National Portrait Gallery. We will be demonstrating as colorfully and dramatically as we can that we care about censorship and homophobia.

We have to be there, at one o'clock on the steps of the Met, Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street. And why the Met? Because it's the front porch of the art world, because there's plenty of space and a grandstand of sorts. From there the group will march up to the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, which actually is a part of the Smithsonian.

The 1989 demo included the ACT UP group "Art Positive" (broadcasting a double meaning for the second word); the primary target then was homophobia and censorship. The 2010 demo will include members of the 1989 collaborative, and the entire demonstration has been designated "ART+" (only a slightly altered written form of the 1989 name); the primary target is essentially, and shockingly, the same, homophobia and censorship.

But since we're talking about the public treatment of work by an artist closely identified with a disease which as a nation we still haven't fully confronted, the subject of AIDS must not be left out of the discussion. Silence does equal death.

Finally, because we are dealing with people identifying themselves as representing the interests of the Catholic Church, we also have to understand that the targets of their assault necessarily include all women everywhere.


And there's more: America's continuing failure as a society to deal with what it thinks of as the very scary subjects of sex and art (and not only when they are combined, or ignited by the inclusion of AIDS) is inseparable from the ignorance and fear which prevents it from addressing our newest, and rapidly-mushrooming real problems.

In this country the public conversation always gets back to religion (if it ever leaves it in the first place). Organized and intensifying public religion gums up the works of virtualy every institution and increasingly ties our hands when we have to deal with impending national and planetary disasters. We may never grow up enough to understand the damage it has done and continues to do, but there's a slim hope that a larger percentage of the next generation will be able to think for itself.


For more information on the censorship outrage:

ART+ [the demonstration site]

Modern Art Notes [Tyler Green - one of many posts]

NEWSgrist [Joy Garnett - see many posts]

Diamanda Galás [Washington City Paper, Arts Desk]

[the second image is of a slightly-battered veteran ACT UP foamcore-mounted sign which spends its retirement leaning on a wall in our apartment, a constant reminder; the third photograph includes, in addition to the Sontag volume and an old ACT UP "Stop the Church" button, the cover of "Seven Miles a Second", a posthumously-completed graphic novel written by Wojnarowicz in collaboration with James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook, and a small globe turned toward Africa]