Bill Donohue, art promoter

December 30, 2010

As is so often
the case in these situations, the only part of the National Portrait Gallery's
show "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" that I have
seen is the part dubbed "offensive" and removed from the exhibition thanks to
the Catholic League's William Donohue and a few congressional representatives.
It is 11 seconds of a four-minute video by late artist David Wojnarowicz,
and it's now available all
over the Internet
--often not the whole video but just the offending 11
seconds.

According
to Philip Kennicott
, the clip I have seen is "culled from a few minutes of
video, itself culled from an unfinished work that was not among Wojnarowicz's
best." It depicts ants crawling over an apparently discarded crucifix--and like
most meaningful art, it is open to a number of interpretations, some
sacrilegious and some even devout, as S. Brent Plate argues.

To some on the
National Portrait Gallery's advisory board--such as former commissioner James
Bartlett, who resigned over the controversy--the problem is letting Congress
(or in this case a few outraged senior members of Congress) decide which art
gets displayed in museums. This is what curators do, and when they do it, they
consider a wide range of circumstances and realities, including the delicate
issue of how the public will respond. To turn this process over to political
manipulation is bad for public discourse, bad for art and bad for museums--it
is a lose-lose-lose.

The show in
question is the first ever at the National Portrait Gallery on the theme of
gay, lesbian and transgender life. Is the controversy over the 11 seconds a red
herring? Is the real issue what retired Episcopal bishop Clark Grew calls
"an ongoing and increasingly nasty gay-lesbian-transgender-bashing that
is so prevalent with some members of Congress"? Is religion or sexuality--or
once again the conjunction of religion and sexuality--at the heart of the
dispute?

This is difficult to know since the video was quickly
removed by the Smithsonian and called a "distraction," yet the effects
reverberate as artists and curators cry foul and decision makers go into
hiding. I am struck by the irony that once again, the Catholic League makes
famous the very piece of art they claim to want banished. Maybe they are
actually working for the artists.