Cults: December 2010 Archives

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".


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]

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