What Else Is In the National Portrait Gallery’s Offensive Gay Show – The Awl

byJessica?

Roake

TheCatholicLeaguehascalledsomeoftheart“vile,”Rep。

JohnBoehnerhascalledforinvestigationsinto“howtaxpayerfundsareused”forSmithsonianshowsandNationalPortraitGalleryDirectorMartinE。

Sullivanallowedhisboss,SmithsonianSecretaryG。

WayneClough,topullwhatwasevidentlythemost“offensive”piecefromtheshow。

Afterthissuddenre-ignitionoftheculturewars,it’shardtorecalltheaccomplishment,prideandliberalself-congratulationondisplayattheopeningofHide/Seekamonth?

ago。

TheNationalPortraitGalleryseemedextremelyproudofitselfatthepresspreview。

DirectorSullivanjoinedboardmembersandthecuratorsforremarks,photo-opsandvideo。

Itwasworthpointingout,saidSullivan,thatHide/Seek’sgalleriesareadjacenttoaphotoexhibitionontheCivilRightsmovement,andinfact“follow”thatmovementinthespaceandinhistory。

Thecurators,DavidC。

WardandJonathanKatz,calledattentiontotheboldnessandbraveryoftheNationalPortraitGallerybackingtheshowwholeheartedlyduringatimewhen“politicalwinds”mighthavepreventedit。

Thewordbravewasbandiedaboutquitea?

lot。

Itwasimportanttonote,saidKatz,that“thisshowisnothappeninginSanFrancisco,orNewYork,butinthesamecitythatcloseddowntheMapplethorpeshow21yearsago”underpressurefromconservativegroups。

ThesupportandfreedomtheHide/Seekcuratorshadbeengranted,andthefactthatthisshowwastakingplaceintheseatofAmericanpoliticalpower,spoketohowmuchprogresshadbeenmadesince1989,whensuchharmcametotheCorcoran(andthecity’s)artisticreputation。

Thissoundshorriblyironicnow,forifHide/Seekhadindeedlandedinoneofthoseothercities,thecriticismofit?

—?

especiallythatofthevideo“AFireinMyBelly”byDavidWojnarowicz?

—?

wouldhavebeennotedandsummarilydismissed。

Thecuratorswereright:thefactthattheshow“highlightsapresenceunacknowledgedinAmericanculture”and“addressesandhistoricizessamesexdesireandtalksaboutitinwaysthathaven’tbeenpubliclyaddressed”isprogress。

Butitalsospeakstotheshakysupportthoseinpowernowhaveshowntothegaycommunity。

AssoonasanypressurewasleviedagainsttheGallery,theSmithsonianInstitutionbuckledcompletelyandimmediately,allits“bravery”dissipated,shownupasemptyself-congratulation。

In1999,whentheBrooklynMuseumofArt’sSensationshowdrewire,aswellasaphysicalattackontheartbyanirateoldCatholicandthetantrumycondemnationofMayorGiuliani(whorefusedtohandoverthemuseum’sfundinguntilacourtintervened),theMuseumstoodfirmanddefendedthemost‘offensive’piece,“TheHolyVirginMary”byChrisOfili。

(Theissueathandwasthattheportraitincluded,asamaterial,elephantdung。

)Puttingtheoffensivenessofartonarelativescaleinordertodefenditisproblematic,butinthiscaseitisuseful。

ThepiecethathasdrawnthemostoutrageatHide/SeekisWojnarowicz’s“FireInMyBelly。

”Theartist,whodiedofAIDSin1992,made“FireinMyBelly”asanindictmentofa“diseased”society’srefusaltoseetherealityofthelivesanddeathsofitsgaycitizens。

Ina30minutevideo(whichhadbeeneditedto7minutesfortheGallery),thereare11secondsofasmallcrucifixwithantsonit。

InNewYork,thepaintingthatpeoplereferredtoasthe“ShitMary”hungformonths;inD。

C。

aclipofantsonacrucifixispulledwithin?

weeks。

Sowhat’sthedifference?

ThereasonHide/Seekhasdrawnsuchoutsizedcondemnationisobvious,butit’sstillworthcallingout:it’sthegaything。

It’sthegaythingthat’sgettingtheword“sacrilegious”bandiedabout。

It’sthegaythingthat’sgotRep。

JohnBoehnertalkingaboutamisuseoftheAmericanfamily’staxpayerfunds。

BoehnershouldknowthatnotaxpayerfundsgototheactualexhibitsattheNationalPortraitGallery。

(AccordingtotheSmithsonian’sreporttoCongressforthefiscalyear2011,“AlmostalloftheNPG’sfederalbudgetcoverssalariesandbenefitscosts,withasmallamount(lessthanfivepercent)availableforthepurchaseofartworks。

”)Soit’sthegaythingthathaspeoplequestioningtheshowbeingupduringthe“Christmasseason。

”(Becausetheyusuallyputupthebig“BabyJesusHolyHolyPortrait?

show”?

)

WouldaphotographbyAnnieLeibovitzofawomanwearingsadclownmakeup,baggypantsandabrawhileholdingherbreastsbeanythingworthcommentingon(it’scertainlylesssexualizedthanherusualVanityFairshoots)ifthesubjectwasnotalesbian?

DoesanudeDavidoffendasmuchasanudepaintingofAllenGinsberg?

It’sthecontextherethatmatters。

Thecurators’goalwastobringthesubtextofcertainpiecesofclassicAmericanportraituretothe?

surface。

WhichmeansthatalloftheworksondisplayatHide/Seekhavebeenshownbefore;it’sthecontextthat’snew,andit’sthecontextthatmakespeoplesouncomfortable。

Thecuratorsbuilttheshowbecausetheyweretiredofseeing,asKatzsaid,“Museumaftermuseumwheretheydon’tmentionthepartners,theautobiography,thequestionofgenderandsexuality。

It’shidinginplainsight,yetnoonehasputittogether。



Thoughtheyaregeneratingthehysteria,themosthauntingroomsoftheshowarenotthemostmodern,post-liberationworks,despitethemanystandouts。

Theseartistsspeaknotonlytothestrugglestheyfacebecauseoftheirsexuality,AIDSandthelargerculture,butalsotothelovesandjoysoftheirlives,andtheycreateartfromanoutperspective。

Theworksofthelate19thtomid-20thcenturyartistsonviewatHide/Seek,however,arepowerfulpreciselybecauseofhowmuchisunsaid。

Manyoftheseartistsremainedclosetedformostoralloftheirlives,therealitiesoftheirromanticandsexuallivesdeemedshamefulandpornographic。

TheseworksarestrongenoughontheirowntohavelongagomadeitintothecanonofgreatAmericanArt,butinprovidingthe‘codes’tovisitors,thecuratorsheightentheemotionalimportandallowpeopletoreadtheartinnewways。

AtHide/SeekaviewercanunpackthedenselycodedMarsdenHartleypaintinginremembranceofhisdeadGermanlover(adoubleno-nopost-WorldWarI),“PaintingNo。

47,Berlin”,andthe“visualmissives”RobertRauschenbergandJasperJohnssenttoeachother,bothduringandaftertheirrelationship。

(Asanaside,itwouldbeanotherbitofliberalself-congratulationtoclaimthatthishomophobiaispurelyconservative?

—?

buttheNewYorkTimesobituarymentionedRauschenberg’sbriefmarriage,butnothissix-yearco-habitationwithJohns;ditto,inSontag’sobituary,thelong-termpartnershipofwithAnnieLiebovitz。

)

Johns’responsetohisbreak-upwithRauschenberg,forexample,isheartbreaking:hisiconicflagisherecoveredinblackandgrey,theedgesbarelyvisible。

Aforkandspoon?

—?

anoddbutpairedcouple?

—?

hangtogetherfromtheoncestarrypartoftheflag(thestarshavegoneout)andthetextatthebottomoftheflagreads“inmemoryofmyfeelings:FrankO’Hara。

”Knowingthisdoesnotmeanthatthepaintingisnowrelevantwhereonceitwasnot,butitalso,asWardsaidatthepresspreview,deepenstheexperiencebyshowingthat,“yesit’sanexerciseinpaint,butithasaprofoundheartbeatingbehind?

it。



Conservativeartloverstendtolove“AmericanGothic”byGrantWood,buttheyprobablydon’twanttoknowabouttheartist’shomosexuality,orseethemournfulstarknessof“ArnoldComesofAge”onviewinHide/Seek。

Init,ayoungmanstandsintheforegroundofaCedarRapidslandscape,amalenudewadingintoariverfarbehindhim。

Alonebutterfly(the‘papillon’isacodedreferencetothetermgiventogaymeninFrance,whereWoodhadspenttime)fliesinfrontofArnold’sarm,barelynoticeable。

Allofthissubtextiselucidatedintheshow,whichistheproblemforBoehner,theCatholicLeagueand,sadly,weakNationalPortraitGalleryDirectorSullivan。

Forthesepeople,itwouldhavebeenbetteriftheartistshadstayedinthecloset,intheshadows,thecodesfortheirartkeptonlybythesmallbandsofliberalurbanites,awayfrom“Americanfamilies”andtheirheterosexual“values。

”ItwouldbebetteriftheNationalPortraitGalleryabridgeditsmission,whichistotell“thestoriesofAmericathroughtheindividualswhohaveshapedU。

Sculture。

”Forthesecritics,poorArnoldwillbefineifhejustkeepslookingoutatyou,neverturningaroundtolookatorenjoythetemptationofthe?

river。

JessicaRoakelivesinWashingtonDCwithherhusbandandson。

She’saregularartscontributorforTheWashingtonPostExpress,hasamuch-neglectedblog,andreallymisseslivinginNewYorkattimeslike?