Responding to Censorship

The removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video from the National Portrait Gallery last month renews conservative groups’ attacks on the arts. Clearly, it’s timed with the ascension of the Republican majority in the House and attempts to formulate a strategy for eliminating voices and ideas they find troubling.

It’s remarkable how unoriginal and inflexible their thinking and approach has become, using the same arguments they crafted 20 years ago. If someone fell asleep in the 90s and were suddenly to awaken now, this Republican world would look very similar to them, right down to the casting of artist Wojanorawicz as a pariah.

It’s worth noting that such strategies are being aggressively responded to. The artist’s gallery PPOW and 100s of art institutions, such as the New Museum, Transormer, ICP and others, have been showing the removed video in their galleries.

Activists and activist groups like Art+ are mobilizing. The Andy Warhol Foundation, who funded the Hide/Seek exhibition, and The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation have written to the Smithsonian directors voicing their displeasure and cut their funding. The Hide/Seek curators have also been vociferous and quite public in condemning the Smithsonian’s action.

Lenders to the exhibition are asking for their work to be returned from the exhibit. What follows is an exchange between Jim Hedges, who lent a work by Jack Pierson and Martin Sullivan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery.

Jim Hedges wrote to Martin Sullivan, requesting that his loaned work Untitled, Self-Portrait by Jack Pierson be removed from the Hide/Seek exhibition “until such time as the David Wojnarowicz video is reinstated in its full unedited version.”

This is Mr. Sullivan’s response:

Dear Jim,

I apologize for not responding sooner. As you’re aware, the controversy over the Smithsonian’s removal of “Fire in My Belly” ignited a national storm of protest, and the activists on the other fringe have been similarly persistent with Congress and with us, even through the holidays.At the National Portrait Gallery, we sympathize with your objection. Co-curators David Ward and Jonathan Katz have publicly stated their opposition to the removal of the video, and the show continues to attract record crowds while bringing attention to a crucial theme that other museums have not yet highlighted.

Secretary Wayne Clough and the Smithsonian Regents committed to keeping the exhibition up for its full run without further censorship, and we appreciate their firm stand on that question. New private funding has supported a series of enhancements to the website for “Hide/Seek” so we can extend its audience further. The curators have appeared at several public forums, including the December program at the New York Public Library, which is already available on-line, and further such events are in the works.

Jonathan Katz argues that those who would be most punished if additional works are withdrawn from the exhibit are neither the fringe political/religious activists nor even the Smithsonian, but the audiences who lose access to art. In his words, ‘Why fight censorship with more censorship? Shouldn’t we press for real debate and dialogue instead?”

For this reason, I hope you’ll reconsider the withdrawal of Jack Pierson’s “Untitled, Self-Portrait.” The exhibition continues only until February 13, and truly it is reaching hundreds of thousands of visitors. The comment cards are often very touching – disagreement about the Wojnarowicz removal, but delight at seeing the scope and power of the show.

We’re very grateful for your generous loan and for your encouragement of the project, Jim. I will call to explore whether we might be able to reach a middle ground.

Best regards,
Marty Sullivan

Institutions always attempt to recast themselves when they censor. If it’s not the idea or the work, then it’s the effect the work has on a select community, or the specious argument that a lender’s request to remove their own work in response to censorship is, itself, a form of censorship.

This is the time when we need to reexamine and reassess the response to this kind of censorship.

We need to move the debate.

About Blog of the National Coalition Against Censorship

Blogging Censorship is where National Coalition Against Censorship staff weigh in on the censorship issues on their minds.
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