December 20, 2010

The Furor Grows Over Censorship At The Smithsonian

A couple weeks ago, I posted about the removal of a work of art from the Smithsonian's groundbreaking exhibit about gender identity, Hide/Seek.  After criticism from the Catholic League and Weeper of the House John Boehner, the Portrait Gallery caved and removed a video by artist/activist David Wojnaorwociz called "Fire In My Belly", which showed ants on a cross as an analogy to his AIDS diagnosis.  The artist died in 1992.

Since then, the furor has only grown.  And rightly so.  This sort of censorship by the Smithsonian is totally unacceptable behavior by a national cultural institution and more like something one would expect in the old Soviet Union.  The repercussions of this disastrous decision continue to grow.  Last week, Canadian artist AA Bronson asked to have his work, a stunning wall-sized photo of the artist's partner a few minutes after his death from AIDS, removed from the exhibit.  This piece is easily one of the most powerful in the exhibit and its loss would be devastating.  Currently, it's not clear if the artist has the right to remove it as the piece is on loan from a Canadian museum.  But his request, sent directly to the head of the museum, makes it clear how strongly artists believe that this act of censorship cannot stand.

Meanwhile, here in New York, there was a previously scheduled panel with the exhibit's curators Jonathan Katz and David Ward at the NY Public Library on Wednesday.  Though they publicly stated that the museums' action were "abhorrent", the curators tried to keep the focus on the fact that it's still a landmark show for the Smithsonian and that there are 104 other works worthy of discussion.  However, the audience was not having it.  In the Q/A, they were asked angry and pointed questions and there were even attempts to start a chant to restore the works.  This weekend, there was also street protest here in NYC which drew hundreds of people angered by the situation.  They marched up the Museum Mile to the Smithsonians' Cooper-Hewitt Museum demanding the video be restored.  There was also a protest in Washington last week where people gathered in front of the Portrait Gallery wearing masks of the artist and projecting the video onto the building's facade.

From all this activity, it's clear that this issue is not going away and that the Smithsonian has to address this crisis.  Of course, their initial action was taken because their bottom line was threatened by Boehner's veiled threat that the funding of the museum could be at stake.  Unfortunately, the real financial threat could come from elsewhere.  The Warhol Foundation has threatened to cancel it's funding of the museum and other donors are considering doing the same.  The Smithsonian must take a stronger stand against this sort of "artistic bullying".  Their future depends on it.

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