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Critic’s notebook

Offensive? ICA lets the public decide

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / December 16, 2010

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Just over two weeks ago, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., removed a video by the late artist David Wojnarowicz from its gay-themed exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.’’

The video is a four-minute, surrealistic montage of footage shot in Mexico called “Fire in My Belly.’’ The offending imagery? Intermittently recurring footage of ants crawling on a small painted crucifix that lies on the ground.

In removing the video, the museum was responding to protests from the Catholic League, various right-wing commentators, and senior members of Congress, who threatened the Smithsonian’s funding. A national outcry from the arts community ensued. And now the controversy has come to Boston, as the Institute of Contemporary Art has joined dozens of cultural institutions across the country screening “A Fire In My Belly’’ to speak out against censorship.

“We chose to show it as a way of not letting it become just a news story, a scandal,’’ said ICA chief curator Helen Molesworth yesterday. “We want to reclaim it as art, and to allow for the possibility of having an experience with it in a public museum.’’

Some people clearly find the notion of ants crawling on a crucifix sacrilegious. But why should it be inherently offensive? When it comes to representations of Christ’s death, the Christian tradition is full of base and wretched imagery, as anyone who has seen Matthias Grünewald’s shudderingly graphic “Isenheim Altarpiece’’ in Colmar, France, or for that matter Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion,’’ would know.

Likewise, secular art is filled with appropriations of the powerful imagery of the crucifixion (powerful precisely because it is so shocking) for the purposes of channeling its message of despair and hope.

That was the case in Wojnarowicz’s 1986-87 video, which is in part a response to the AIDS-related death of his friend and colleague, Peter Hujar. Wojnarowicz himself died of AIDS-related complications in 1992, at age 37.

The National Portrait Gallery defended its decision by saying that it is sensitive to public perceptions and didn’t want any controversy to overshadow the main theme of the exhibition, which is the representation of gay and lesbian identities in American portraiture.

This thinking seems naive in retrospect, given the furor that has ensued. It also looks foolish.

The Association of Art Museum Directors, which represents institutions across North America, was right to condemn it. On the other hand, the response of the Andy Warhol Foundation, which provided financial support to the show and threatened on Monday to cut all future financial contributions to the Smithsonian if it did not reinstate the video, strikes me as counterproductive: a case of kicking a beleaguered institution when it is down.

The ICA and other museums around the country, which have responded to the decision by displaying Wojnarowicz’s work in their galleries, have done the public a much bigger service. They have made it easier for us to make up our own minds.

Art is a subjective business; it welcomes multiple interpretations. Many people are uncomfortable with this. They want to know what an artwork means, and react angrily when clear meanings are not forthcoming.

Wojnarowicz’s video offers no such satisfactions. It is a surreal collage of moving images: We see a spinning eyeball, a street performer breathing fire, a jerky puppet with guns and a sombrero, close-ups of newspaper clippings, footage of cockfights and bullfights, clowns, acrobats, performing monkeys, and coins that drop into a bandaged hand and are washed in a basin of blood.

The video taps into a long Western tradition of finding everyday life in Mexico inherently surreal and bracingly cognizant of death (the Day of the Dead celebrations are connected, let’s not forget, with Mexican Catholicism). Its conflicting images are not supposed to suggest any one thing, any one idea.

It is important to know how the controversy started.

It was instigated by Penny Starr, a reporter and conservative activist who works for the right-wing news site CNSNews.com.

Starr wrote a story that took issue with the show as a whole. “The federally funded National Portrait Gallery, one of the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, is currently showing an exhibition that features images of an ant-covered Jesus . . . and a painting the Smithsonian itself describes in the show’s catalog as ‘homoerotic,’ ’’ she wrote.

According to the journalist Brian Beutler, writing for the liberal website Talking Points Memo, Starr also sent out an e-mail seeking comment from House and Senate leaders of both parties. Beutler said he obtained a copy of the e-mail.

A quick response came from a spokesman for House minority leader John Boehner and from House minority whip Eric Cantor, who demanded that the show be closed down and threatened the Smithsonian’s funding.

“This is an outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season,’’ Cantor told Fox News. “When a museum receives taxpayer money, the taxpayers have a right to expect that the museum will uphold common standards of decency. The museum should pull the exhibit and be prepared for serious questions come budget time.’’

The story was propelled on Fox News by Glenn Beck, among others, and by Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League, who called the work anti-Christian “hate speech.’’

This kind of pressure would make any museum skittish, particularly a Washington museum that is partially funded by taxpayers in a time of economic hardship. (The exhibit itself was not government-funded.) Boehner and Cantor are two of the most powerful men in America.

The National Portrait Gallery had already put up signs at both entrances to the exhibition warning that it “contains mature themes.’’ And Wojnarowicz’s work, which combined two longer pieces, edited down to four minutes, was optional viewing: Visitors could see it by touching a small screen inside the exhibition. (At the ICA, it is in a small separate room, with a suitable warning regarding the content.)

Critics are questioning whether it was right to mount a show with homosexual themes and provocative subject matter in the first place. I have not yet seen the show, so I cannot judge. But art’s mandate is to come to grips with the full range of human experience. Rembrandt, who painted some of the most sublime and affecting portraits and religious images in history, also drew monks fornicating in cornfields and old women urinating.

So the idea of exploring such a theme seems to me not only legitimate but commendable. The National Portrait Gallery has used the opportunity to display works by giants of American art — including Thomas Eakins, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol — in a new and, I’m told, revealing light.

Given the long history of homosexual repression and all the many forms of response to that repression, it’s hardly surprising that some of the work is controversial. But that doesn’t mean such a public institution should steer clear of it.

On the contrary, as an art museum at the heart of our democratic republic, it has a responsibility to engage, sensitively and intelligently, with the full range of human experience. And a look at its exhibition track record suggests it has been doing just that.

The decision to remove Wojnarowicz’s work was made by G. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian. On CNN, National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan told John King that “the criticism, which was vigorous and aggressive, came almost entirely from people who had not been able to see either the exhibition or the video, but who read certain accounts of it that got them convinced that this was intentionally a sacrilegious placement of a piece of work. That’s a misinterpretation in our view.’’

The phrase “in our view’’ is a reminder that the language that usually surrounds art — the language of ambivalence, emotions, psychology, historical inheritance, and beauty — is sadly ill-equipped to answer accusations leveled at art in the political sphere. But how demeaning it is to our democracy to have politicians who have not even seen the thing they deplore presuming to protect us from the motions of our own minds.

When those uninformed criticisms then turn to bullying (“be prepared for serious questions come budget time’’) it is inexcusable.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

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