The Circle of Censorship [UPDATED]

When it comes to images of same-sex attraction, one needn't seek long to find multiple examples – up to and including the current Hide/Seek exhibit – of their being hidden

On June 14, 1989, The New York Times reported, ”The Corcoran Gallery of Art has canceled a planned retrospective of the work of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, anticipating that its content would trigger a political storm on Capitol Hill.” The decision came at a time when Ellen DeGeneres was playing the role of Margo Van Mete on Fox’s one-season show Open House, and she was nearly a decade away from declaring, ”Yep, I’m Gay.” Few saw DeGeneres then or since as nearly as controversial a figure as Mapplethorpe.

A still from David Wojnarowicz's video, ''A Fire in my Belly,'' that was removed from the Hide/Seek exhibit
A still from David Wojnarowicz’s video, ”A Fire in my Belly,” that was removed from the Hide/Seek exhibit

But now, following an article about the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture exhibit by CNSNews.com – a project started by right-wing activist L. Brent Bozell III’s Media Research Center – DeGeneres, Mapplethorpe and AIDS writer, artist and activist David Wojnarowicz some common ground may have been found in their work.

CNSNews.com described the exhibit in a Nov. 29 report as ”featur[ing] images of an ant-covered Jesus, male genitals, naked brothers kissing, men in chains, Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, and a painting the Smithsonian itself describes in the show’s catalog as ‘homoerotic.”’

As detailed by The Washington Post‘s Blake Gopnik, however, the ”ant-covered Jesus” comes from a video by Wojnarowicz – ”a four-minute excerpt from a 1987 piece titled ‘A Fire in My Belly,’ made in honor of Peter Hujar, an artist-colleague and lover of Wojnarowicz who had died of AIDS complications in 1987.”

Gopnik, who positively reviewed the exhibit in the Post earlier in November, writes, ”[F]or 11 seconds of that meandering, stream-of-consciousness work (the full version is 30 minutes long) a crucifix appears onscreen with ants crawling on it.”

In response to inquiries from CNSNews.com, the spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said, ”American families have a right to expect better from recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy.” The spokesman later told CNSNews.com that Boehner wanted the exhibit ”cancelled.”

Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), meanwhile, spoke out directly about the exhibit, telling CNSNews.com, ”This is an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”

Martin Sullivan, director of the gallery, said in a statement provided to Metro Weekly, ”I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious. In fact, the artist’s intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim.”

Despite that, Sullivan concluded, ”It was not the museum’s intention to offend. We are removing the video today.”

The Post‘s Gopnik wrote that the move left the gallery – and the Smithsonian Institution of which it is a part – ”look set to come off as cowards.”

He concluded, ”Until Tuesday afternoon, museum staff, under [Sullivan], believed that ‘Fire’ was interesting art that made important points. And now it looks as though they’re somehow saying that they were wrong about that, and that it really was unfit to be seen or shown, after all.”

Back in 1989, when the Times reported on the Corcoran’s cancellation of the Mapplethorpe exhibit, the director of the Washington Project for the Arts, Jock Reynolds, told the Times, ”The Corcoran should look to the inscription that is carved over its entrance: ‘Dedicated to Art.’ They should stand by their motto and let Mapplethorpe’s work speak for itself.”

Among the donors who provided funding for the Hide/Seek exhibit that now is on display without Wojnarowicz’s video is The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.

Update: It did not take long for someone in the District to pick up and show the video now removed from Hide/Seek, although the screening is not currently planned as an extended exhibit like Hide/Seek

An email sent out today from the Transformer nonprofit detailed the following: “The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution have CENSORED the 1987 video work A Fire in My Belly, by David Wojnarowicz. Under pressure from the Catholic League, The Smithsonian Institution has removed this work from the National Portrait Gallery’s current Hide/Seek exhibition. Transformer will begin showing this important video work in our 1404 P Street, NW Washington, DC storefront project space beginning at 1 pm today.” 

A person answering the phone at Transformer said the video was currently playing on a loop in the storefront window on a monitor so that people can see it on the street as they pass the space. It was not clear how long Transformer would be running the video display. 

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