Muzzled: the art world strikes back

By Bob Hicks

We are the land of the free, except, of course, when we aren’t. Fortunately, when we aren’t, we are still sometimes the home of the brave — or at least, of the politically canny.

David Wojnarowicz self-portrait/Wikimedia CommonsIn the latest turn in the David Wojnarowicz flap, the Associated Press reports that the Andy Warhol Foundation has given an ultimatum to the Smithsonian Institution and its National Portrait Gallery: restore Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly to the gallery’s exhibit Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, from which it was removed after complaints from the Catholic League and U.S. Rep. John Boehner, or say bye-bye to any future Warhol checks.

We’re not talking fifty bucks and a bag of popcorn. The Warhol Foundation has given $375,000 to Smithsonian museums in the past three years, including $100,000 for Hide/Seek, a show that explores the impact of sexual orientation on art. So far the Smithsonian hasn’t blinked. We’ll miss the money, it’s essentially said, but we won’t be bullied into changing our minds. That’s a neat spin, invoking principle and bravery to defend an act that was itself a craven and expedient caving-in to political pressure. The whole tawdry affair makes Wojnarowicz’s lips-sewn-together self-portrait shown here seem disturbingly prescient. Speak no evil, indeed.

In the light of international furor over Wikileaks revelations, the Smithsonian’s position seems like just another skirmish in the battle between the power of information and the power of power. Certainly the Smithsonian finds itself in a vise, squeezed between potent interest groups. Boehner is the presumptive speaker of the House of Representatives when the new session of Congress is seated, and the Catholic League is, well, the Catholic League. Arts and freedom-of-speech advocates are vociferous and perfectly capable of embarrassing an institution, but they don’t generally have the political and financial heft that the big boys have. That’s why the Warhol Foundation’s move is potentially potent: it punishes the museum in the pocketbook. (Its threat is still, of course, a minor annoyance compared to the financial havoc that Boehner and his colleagues could create by reducing or cutting off federal funding: in the most basic sense, the Smithsonian has simply demonstrated that it knows who its master is, and its master is not we the people.)

As is usually the case, the fact of the cave-in is more important than the nature of the art itself, and the demands for censorship — for that is exactly what we’re talking about — have relatively little to do with a sober analysis of the art and a whole lot to do with the wielding of power. As in the days of Jesse Helms and the NEA Four, a cynical shell game seems to be in play: create a controversy over morality in the arts playpen and divert attention from more substantive issues of power and politics elsewhere.

Wojnarowicz died in 1992 at age 37 from complications of AIDS, and his art grew out of the issues and realities of the disease. For his critics, the red flag in A Fire in My Belly is its depiction of ants crawling over a crucifix — hardly, at a time when even many of the faithful decry the sometimes repressive policies of religious institutions, a radical or profane depiction. It seems to fall clearly, if surrealistically, into the category of dissent (which has a long and fascinating history in the Catholic Church), and efforts to suppress it veer uncomfortably close to the extreme fundamentalism of punishing artists for supposed defamation of Mohammed. The Wojnarowicz case also brings to mind the supposed blasphemies of Andres Serrano‘s Piss Christ and of Chris Ofili‘s The Holy Virgin Mary, with its elephant dung and cut-out images of female genitalia surrounding the central image. In fact, Ofili’s painting fits into a tradition that opposes the sacred and profane to illustrate that holiness exists within a context of human depravity. Objections to the dung Madonna and the ant crucifix seem to venerate the object itself, not the mystery of what the object represents, as inviolably sacred — or maybe the objections are just a handy and opportunistic tool in the quest to accumulate and wield power.

When arts organizations yield too easily to political pressure, they become complicit in a high-stakes game of thought control. Though it’s gotten less attention than the Wojnarowicz/Smithsonian case, another example is brewing in Los Angeles, where, as Randy Kennedy reports in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art has ordered a mural it commissioned by the Italian graffiti artist Blu painted over.

Why? Because Blu painted rows of soldiers’ coffins draped in dollar bills instead of flags — and the wall “faces an ambulatory care center for veterans and a monument honoring Japanese-American soldiers from World War II.” Controversial, certainly. Inflammatory, possibly. But the work gains its power precisely from its location, and MOCA’s decision to paint it over was a capitulation to power at the expense of expression. Whether the artist meant it this way or not, the mural also seemed a direct response to one of the most notorious of recent American government attempts to control and channel public sentiment — the Bush Administration’s banning of any news photography of soldiers’ coffins returning stateside from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

If the truth hurts, hide it. When museums adopt such Quisling expediency as working policy, they demonstrate all too painfully that they are neither free nor brave. The spectacle isn’t pretty. Look, they tell the purveyors of power. We’ve stitched our mouths closed. May we have some money, pretty please?