Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

02 December 2010

Art, AIDS, and the USAmerican Public Sphere

The Smithsonian Institution announced today that they are removing a video-piece by artist and writer David Wojnarowicz (who, as you probably know, died many years ago) from their landmark exhibition Hide/Seek, currently at the National Portrait Gallery, an exhibition I confess to have been aching to see since it opened at the end of October. You can read or listen to the story from NPR here. New York magazine has the story here. NPR has titled its story "Smithsonian under Fire for Gay Portraiture Exhibit," which is, on the surface, rather a misleading title.

The Smithsonian is under fire - they received threatening letters from Congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor - not specifically for so-called gay portraiture (a term the exhibitors themselves have noted is indefinable) but for somehow maligning the Christian faith. The logic is that if taxpayer dollars cannot be used to fund religious practices, than they ought not be allowed to fund anti-religious practices.


The allegedly offensive images (I say allegedly because as far as I can tell no one has actually been offended - none of the complainants actually even saw this video in the National Portrait Gallery) come from, get this, eleven seconds of a thirty-minute video piece commemorating the death of Wojnarowicz's lover from AIDS.

Some thoughts on this topic:
I fail to see how this image in any way maligns Christianity, Christians, or any religious faiths. The decomposing and grotesque image of the body of the dead Christ is a tradition in Western art going back to the Italian Renaissance.

Christianity is most likely the most powerful force in the United States, a power evidenced and demonstrated through the legal power mobilized against this image deemed offensive. Members of the United States Congress have acted in service of this powerful behemoth which quite clearly is not actually vulnerable at all given the amount of state power that has been wielded at its slightest behest. Note that no one in power in the U.S. Congress has come forward to disagree with Congressmen Cantor or Boehner and come out in favor of sacrilege. The power is all on one side, here.

The president of the Catholic League Bill Donahue, who is the main guy protesting here, has said this is about religious intolerance and has called these eleven seconds "hate speech." The logic here is that eleven seconds of video desecrating an icon of Islam would likely not be allowed at the Smithsonian, but they have no problem with images that (allegedly) desecrate the Catholic faith. But hang on a second! Let us not get confused, Mr. Donahue. This isn't actually about Christianity at all, and Donahue's choice of the term hate speech makes this abundantly clear. Make no mistake: this is only nominally about religion and manifestly about deviant sexuality.

Oh yeah. It is one of the bitter ironies that this story breaks on World AIDS Day. Wojnarowicz's piece is intended as a memoir and a portrait of his lover who died of AIDS; that portrait is being removed on a day intended to recognize and spotlight the many men and women who live with AIDS (over 60 million worldwide) and the millions who have died from the disease. The political and legal heft that has been mobilized against these eleven seconds further underscores the United States government's silence and intransigence about AIDS during the first years of the pandemic as well as the responsibility that the institution of Catholicism itself ought to take for its part in the spread of the pandemic. This is a religion that - in 2010! - continues to outspokenly oppose the use of condoms, a stance that has caused incalculable, unconscionable, unforgivable damage in the global fight against AIDS.

So the U.S. government comes to the aid of Catholics who are offended by an alleged desecration of a religious icon? That the alleged desecration is actually an elegiac piece created in memory of a gay man who died of AIDS should surprise none of us. As it turns out, the Catholics and the Republicans still think that a memorial to a gay man who died of AIDS is artistically worthless. Worse, they manage to construe a piece that appears to come from a deep source of pain, from an artist who suffered immensely, as something that needs to be combated rather than appreciated.

The attack on this piece strikes me - more than anything else - as deliberately unkind, an obvious ploy to attack the first exhibition the National Portrait Gallery has ever done that explicitly discusses queer topics. It strikes me that NPR's story is titled correctly. "Smithsonian under Fire for Gay Portraiture Exhibit" describes this perfectly. The Republicans and the Catholics are not angry that Catholicism might possibly have been maligned (Catholicism is, after all, maligned in the Baptist Church nearly every Sunday by some minister or another), they are angry that a portraiture exhibit on queer topics even exists.

You would think that they would console themselves by remembering that Wojnarowicz's partner, and Wojnarowicz himself, are both dead; one might even say that the men died as a result of the U.S. government's refusal to take the threat of AIDS seriously, its inability to act, and its complete disregard for the lives of U.S. citizens who lead so-called sexually deviant lives. If the institution of Catholicism has led to the spread of AIDS, so, surely, has the United States Congress.

The attack on this piece ought to remind us of the tens of thousands of human lives that the U.S. Government still views as less important, less worthy of memorializing, less than other USAmerican citizens. The attack on this piece ought also to reminds us (how could it not) of the furor over Andres Serrano's work in 1987 - i.e. more than twenty years ago. Boy have we not come a long way baby.