Smithsonian/Wojnarowicz censorship protest, NYC

what would David think?

Sunday's march up Museum Mile attracted around 400 to 500 people to the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt Museum to demand the return of David Wojnaroowicz's video, "A Fire in My Belly," to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) exhibition, "Hide/Seek."

I've uploaded here a few images from my experience of the rally; they are arranged in chronological sequence.

Committed artists, writers, thinkers and other citizens demand that the Smithsonian, which controls the NPG, restore the work so the public can see the exhibition as the curators intended. G. Wayne Clough, the Secretary of the Smithsonian and the man who cowardly pulled the art from the show one month after it opened, must apologize to the entire country, and to the people of all the first, second and third world countries which should be able to expect of the United States something other than institutional and governmental censorship and the pandering to demagogues and the benighted.

The arbitrary suppression of words and images inconvenient to those who wield power cannot go unchallenged.

We attracted a lot of press coverage both before and after the protest. The issue and our demands have been broadcast to a lot of people, but even as I headed uptown on Sunday I was wondering if, in defending light and reason, we might also be helping the devil. Those thoughts disturbed me then and they still do.

It's like this: Bill Donohue is dumb, and although John Boehner and Eric Cantor may be little smarter, none of these hollow men is too dim to know that when they and other self-appointed censors and moralists pull these publicity stunts they only ensure that more people get to see what they think they shouldn't.

So while Donovan and the others make lots of money off of their bullying and intimidation, they and others drawn into encouraging and supporting this transparently-cynical chicanery continue to do so because of both the illusion and reality of power produced by the wide media attention it draws. What discourages me most is the thought that the more public the blowup today, the more successful the censorious attacks of the wacky Right may be tomorrow, intimidating future victims from doing anything which might offend the morality police. These rows may actually inhibit free speech and expression going forward, and we have already seen that the leaders of our institutions are spectacularly lacking in courage.

While I'd rather not dwell on these gloomy thoughts, unfortunately the National Portrait Gallery show remains expurgated as I write this, with no sign of any change. Of course the whole thing is ridiculous, but are the censors winning? We have to know what we are up against if we hope to defeat them.

Since the demonstration on Sunday I've come across two links which may help explain to those who first came across this old war story only this month: They describe the issues, relatively unchanged in over two decades, and their historical context.

James Romberger, David's collaborator, writes about his friend. And this 1990 video, showing the artist talking about the right-wing backlash against the NEA and arts funding, helps us to realize how much we lost when David's voice was silenced, in the end not by the bigots, but by AIDS.

A printed excerpt from the video, David speaking:

And the thing that makes me laugh is that in the last twenty years images and words that artists or writers make have had absolutely no power, given that we're essentially competing against media, you know, in order to create something that reverberates in those image or words. And the fact that, if at this point the images and words that can be made by an individual have such power to create this storm of controversy, isn't that great?

It means the control of information has a crack in its wall.

Recent national and international stories, involving an explosive challenge to the dominance of corporate and government news sources, suggest that the crack can be protected, and enlarged, only if we're willing to work at it.

Betsy Crowell and Louise Fishman on the steps of the Metropolitan

the picket forming on Fifth Avenue

Jonathan "Ned" Katz below the steps

our spanking-new ART+ banner

A-list establishment queers, plus one random journalist, checking out the scene

the picket about to head north

international sign

Jerry Saltz loving David

target Smithsonian, here its Cooper-Hewitt satellite

masks as epithets designating "the other" (black, red, yellow, queer, female. etc.)

on 91st Street, haranguing the Smithsonian

family of art ants outside the museum (Target is a major funder of the Smithsonian)

ADDENDUM: Philip Kennicott has a smart, even electrifying piece in the Washington post, "After removing video from 'Hide/Seek,' Smithsonian chief should remove himself".