'Hide/Seek' (and Remove)

Jonathan D. Katz's career as an art historian can be framed by controversies over federal support for art that offends some people -- and specifically about art dealing with gay people.

December 6, 2010

Jonathan D. Katz's career as an art historian can be framed by controversies over federal support for art that offends some people -- and specifically about art dealing with gay people.

He was working on his dissertation, "Opposition, Incorporated: On the Homosexualization of Post-War American Art," when in 1989 the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, called off an exhibit of sexually explicit work by Robert Mapplethorpe, amid calls from many conservative lawmakers to punish the National Endowment for the Arts for awarding a grant to the show. Since then, no major American art museum has attempted a show focused on gay sexuality -- until one that just opened, co-curated by Katz.

Since earning his Ph.D., Katz has become a leading force in gay studies and art history, serving as the first tenured faculty member in gay studies in the United States (at City College of San Francisco), becoming the founding director of the gay studies program at Yale University, curating exhibits, and publishing extensively on modern art. Last week, Katz found his latest exhibit center stage in another Washington controversy over federal support for art involving gay people.

The new exhibit, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," is at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery. The exhibit's guide says that the work "considers such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art -- especially abstraction -- were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society’s evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment." The periods covered range from the era when sexuality could only be hinted at to a more open society. The reviews have been strong, with The Washington Post calling it "one of the best thematic exhibitions in years," with "powerful art."

But last week, the Smithsonian removed one controversial work -- amid calls from some Republicans to have the show shut down, raising the question of how much has changed since 1989.

Katz is furious about the removal of the work, a video with metaphors about the experience of having AIDS. And he sees similarities between now and 1989. "Once again, they are going after the homos, and especially homos with AIDS," he said. "It was an old habit that was hard to let go of. It's raw politics in America." But Katz -- who is this year beginning a doctoral program in visual studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo -- sees progress as well. In an interview from London, where he was participating in a conference at the Tate Modern when the piece was removed, he discussed what he sees as the significance of "Hide/Seek" to art history and scholarship.

For about 15 years, Katz said, he has been pushing to create an exhibit like "Hide/Seek," and he has been turned down by many prominent museums. And he said the Smithsonian deserves praise for being willing to O.K. the idea and for standing behind the exhibit (minus one piece). While the Smithsonian's federal ties attract scrutiny, Katz said that "paradoxically, a federal museum is freer" to sponsor an exhibit like this. Many museum boards are "beholden to a few donors who dictate what happens" and who are fearful of art that focuses on sexuality.

Katz said that he is not shocked that Republicans went after the show, especially after they triumphed in the midterm elections. "Everyone involved knew that this had the potential to be controversial."

The controversy broke on CNSNews.com, a conservative website that says it provides "the right news." The site asked Congressional leaders from both parties to respond to a video in the exhibit, "Fire in My Belly," by David Wojnarowicz, an artist who died of AIDS. The video includes, among other things, ants crawling on a Jesus figure and (in a separate sequence) male nudity -- all in a work depicting the suffering of those with AIDS.

Both Rep. John Boehner, the incoming speaker of the House of Representatives, and Rep. Eric Cantor, the incoming majority leader, called for the exhibit to be canceled. A spokesman for the speaker-elect said: "Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves to end the job-killing spending spree in Washington."

Other Republicans have joined in, with Rep. Jack Kingston calling for a full investigation, saying: "This is a museum that, by the way, has next to it a display of the American presidents, on the other side, Elvis, and then you go through this – which is really perverted sick stuff -- ashes of an AIDS victim, in a self-portrait, eating himself. Male nudity, Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her own breast -- lots of really kinky and really questionable kind of art...." (The exhibit itself, like most all Smithsonian exhibits, was financed by foundations and other donors; federal appropriations to the Smithsonian generally pay for salaries, building upkeep and so forth, not temporary exhibits.)

As the criticism grew from Republicans, Martin Sullivan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, issued this statement: " 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture' is an exhibition of 105 works of art that span more than a century of American art and culture. One work, a four-minute video portrait by artist David Wojnarowicz (1987), shows images that may be offensive to some. The exhibition also includes works by highly regarded artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Thomas Eakins and Annie Leibovitz. 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. It was not the museum’s intention to offend. We have removed the video."

Smithsonian officials have said that nothing else will be removed and that the exhibit will continue. (A local gallery in Washington, meanwhile, has started showing "Fire in My Belly.")

Katz said he is "100 percent opposed" to the decision to remove the video from the exhibit. He said that while Republicans have accused the video of being anti-Christian, the work actually is consistent with a theme in Christian art -- "the image of Christ as the personification of human suffering."

Despite his frustration at the removal of the video, Katz said that he would like to see the National Portrait Gallery backed for continuing the show -- and he applauded statements of support from Smithsonian leaders. "I had a great fear that if the National Portrait Gallery had been hung out to dry over this incident, it would be another 21 years before we would have another exhibit like this."

Katz is determined that that won't be the case. He is currently working on plans for a traveling exhibit for 2014-15 called "Art / AIDS / America" with the Tacoma Art Museum -- and that may eventually involve the Corcoran, where Mapplethorpe was blocked 21 years ago. Asked if he would include "A Fire in My Belly" in the exhibit, Katz said it is too early to tell, but that he would not be influenced by "the idiotic and ignorant commentary" about the video.

And over the next year, Katz also plans to apply the current controversy as he starts SUNY Buffalo's new doctorate in visual studies. He said one of the underlying goals of the new program is to "explore the role of ideologies in visuality," to understand that what we see in art is influenced by "a social world" of ideas. Of the current controversy, he said, "we have a new, remarkable test case that just landed in our laps."


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