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The Smithsonian’s Gay Christmas Show: Art or Provocation?

December 4, 2010

The notion that art should be beautiful (or even ennobling) seems to be about as relevant today as an Underwood manual typewriter. A century of brutal and discordant modern art has reshaped our sensibilities to the point that we almost require art to disturb us. At least the professional critics require it, and the artists are happy to oblige.

Still, an ongoing war rages between the iconoclasts and the traditionalists. The war made headlines again this past week, and it shows no sign of abating anytime soon.

The National Portrait Gallery’s controversial current exhibit, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” is the latest battlefield of that war. Mounted in October, but running through the Christmas season, the exhibit comes across as an edgy, angry, flamboyantly morose celebration of gay artists, gay alienation, gay suffering, gay deaths from AIDS, and gay people in general. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

The exhibit's signature image is a 1927 portrait of lesbian expatriate journalist Janet Flanner by photographer Berenice Abbott.

But the timing of the exhibit, and its place of prominence in a taxpayer-funded museum (the National Portrait Gallery is a branch of the Smithsonian, though its individual shows are supported overwhelmingly by private donations), has raised the hackles of conservative observers throughout the land. Especially the ant-covered Christ.

The offending iconic image was part of “A Fire in My Belly,” a ferociously apocalyptic video by the gay artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. Edited down to a running time of four minutes from the original 70, the vitriolic video still contained enough repellant footage to provoke the predictable bourgeois outrage: a bloody human mouth being sewn shut, a man undressing, the obligatory male genitals, mummified human remains and a bowl of blood, in addition to the inflammatory depiction of the ant-encrusted Jesus.

Co-curator Jonathan D. Katz, who also happens to be founder of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale, explained that the image should not be construed as anti-Christian:

The crucifix, covered with ants, represents the lack of attention to Christian teachings in that Christian morality has been cast to the ground and the teachings of Jesus abrogated by speaking in his name. In the film this represents that the most vulnerable and the most in need are the most aggressively attacked.

I’ll award this interpretation a few points for earnestness, especially in comparison to the flimsy aesthetic justifications for Andres Serrano’s infamous “Piss Christ” (a color photo of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine). Still, the video and its unfortunate timing caused such an unseemly furor that the museum pulled it from the show.

Jesus and the ants: pulled from the exhibit in response to conservative protests

This deferential gesture naturally provoked an outcry from the artistic left flank, which accused the Smithsonian of knuckling under to conservative pressure. Meanwhile, the rest of the exhibit remained mounted on the walls in all its defiant homophilia: the much-discussed photo of two naked brothers locked in a passionate kiss, the frankly homoerotic nude painting of a cocksure poet by his male lover, the Annie Leibovitz shot of a brazenly butch Ellen DeGeneres, made up in whiteface, cigarette dangling insolently from her lips, aggressively grabbing her own breasts… as well as less inflammatory works of art from all the usual suspects, including Andy Warhol, Thomas Eakins, Georgia O’Keeffe, Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Should the Smithsonian have passed on this hot-potato exhibit, or at least timed it so that it wouldn’t coincide with Christmas? Once they committed to mounting the show, was it gutless of them to bow to pressure from the nation’s self-appointed moralists?

All this fuss and consternation reminds me of a relevant episode from my college days. Back around the Pleistocene Era, I served on the board of the Rutgers Student Center in the capacity of art chairman. I was responsible for mounting the exhibits that would adorn the walls of our display space, which happened to be a heavily trafficked corridor between the entrance lobby and the main student lounge.

One memorable evening I was visited in my dorm by a representative of the Student Homophile League, a perspiring lad who came to me with plans for a gay art show that might be held at the Student Center if I gave my consent. I was intrigued but wary. The representative assured me that the show would contain nothing explicit or offensive, that it would be a tasteful affair. I don’t know what I envisioned — maybe paintings of men as intimate buddies, enjoying each other’s company at the movies, at bars, at a Judy Garland concert, all in the spirit of campy chumminess. I was 20 and naive.

When opening day arrived, I was gobsmacked by what I saw. These fellows were hanging paintings that would have made the Smithsonian show look like a Renoir retrospective. There was a full-length portrait of a naked and happily erect Jesus titled “He Is Risen”… literal depictions of gay sex… a veritable garden of schlongs ejecting precious bodily fluids… plus a live naked man facing a cross with his backside toward us, arms raised to either side in an easygoing simulation of crucifixion.

The Student Center people were in a panic… the college radio station wanted to interview me… word even got around that Time magazine was asking for my side of the story.

How did I handle it? I suppressed an urge to cancel the show; after all, I had made a commitment and the exhibit space had to be filled. I shunned the publicity, too — I knew it would put me in the hotseat no matter what I decided. So I herded the more egregious works, including the risen Jesus and the spurting organs, behind closed doors —  into the adjoining lounge where the crucified student held forth. The Homophile League howled in protest, but I thought I made the right decision at the time. I’d probably make the same decision today.

Yes, people have a right to create and view offensive art, but that art should never be imposed on an unwary public or take them by surprise. It should always be an opt-in experience. By that standard, the Smithsonian exhibit passes the test.

It’s a tightrope walk. Granted, a national art museum shouldn’t have to go out of its way to avoid controversy. But it also shouldn’t make a habit of trafficking in special-interest polemics or the theater of shock. The catch is that you can hardly avoid the polemics and the shock when you choose to display contemporary art.

For better or worse (mostly worse), art has evolved or devolved into a stream of political and cultural statements. Some of it is always going to offend somebody. But it stands as valuable documentary evidence of a civilization careening headlong toward the nearest abyss, and on that level it should be seen. The Smithsonian exhibit should be allowed to stand, too — as long as it provides ample warning about its graphic contents.

Still, I have to lament that so many contemporary artists have shunned the sublime in their zeal to pose as provocateurs. It seems so adolescent, all this perpetual outsider posturing and protest, this perennial urge to shock the parents. Will they ever outgrow this obnoxious phase of their development? A hundred years of in-your-face art more than gets the point across. It becomes wearisome. No wonder so many desperate Americans have turned to the consoling, cloying prettiness of Thomas Kinkade’s genteel village scenes.

But there’s more to the story. I also lament the fragmentation of our society into a myriad of angry victim subcultures. Granted, the members of these subcultures often have much to be angry about, but here’s a little-known secret: so do most of us who don’t belong to those subcultures.

Get over it, I want to tell them. Life is hard for nearly everyone, heterosexual white Christian males included.

Terminally frustrated liberal arts graduates, henpecked husbands and abused wives, overworked managers, classical musicians, underpaid teachers and journalists — we all have a primal urge to vent our discontents. But most of us choose not to play the victim in public. If the disaffected members of minority communities could only see that misery hasn’t made its home exclusively on their own turf — that suffering is an equal-opportunity affliction — we might actually be able to stitch our splintered populace back into something resembling a nation.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Kathy Martin permalink
    December 4, 2010 9:46 am

    Good article Rick. Most of the “art” you mentioned crossed the line in my opinion — into utter vulgarity & offensiveness. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to see this stuff. I agree that it is a juveline “in your face” attitude — shock for shock’s value only. Doing it at Christmas & involving Jesus Christ in any form is in extreme bad taste.

    • December 6, 2010 12:38 pm

      Kathy: It’s more evidence that art is pretty much bankrupt. I don’t think this
      shock art” phenomenon can last much longer. If they have to keep shocking us to impress us, it’s not going to be shocking any more.

      It might also be that traditional art, based on ability and beauty, is no longer relevant in a society that values excitement over contemplation. Sad thought.

  2. sicklygreyfoot permalink
    December 4, 2010 1:02 pm

    The true aesthetic of “art” what has always drawn my eye. Aside from the ideological/political fervor that pervades so much modern art, I’ve never even been a fan of the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Dadaists, etc…The best example I can give is Michelangelo, whom I deem the greatest artist the world has ever known. Perfect harmony of Romanticism and realism–a testament to the aspiring beauty of the human condition. And so my aversion to the above “art” goes without saying.

    Mr. Bayan, this is one of the greatest posts on the site. What saddens me, though, is that most of the ideologues and pundits who would also denigrate those juvenile expressions of angst wouldn’t bother to do so with such cool-headed understanding. They’d simply levy the opposite extreme attacks, thereby fueling the angst the original artists feel they’ve sole claim. I truly wish more “heterosexual white Christian males” would listen to this, or sentiments like it, instead of allowing their initial revulsion to push them into the hands of a “moral authority” that so often proves to be just as detrimental.

    Again, terrific post.

    • December 6, 2010 12:57 pm

      Thanks, greyfoot. It’s both a blessing and a curse to be able to see both sides of any issue… but as long as that seems to be one of my strengths, I have to go with it.

      Some critics of the Smithsonian exhibit (see below) bring up only the taxpayer funding issue; I think the art itself, and what it has to say about our culture, is still the central issue. I have to wonder what it says about contemporary society that our leading artists and critics prize ugliness above beauty — in music and architecture as well as art. I really think we’re at the end of Western Civilization; we’re entering a global techno-civilization that hasn’t established any values yet.

      • sicklygreyfoot permalink
        December 8, 2010 9:58 pm

        One quibble with this last comment, Mr. Bayan. Let’s be careful not to slip into doomsday prophecies. Western civilization and its values aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Remember that much of the “art” that many find beautiful (in the classic aesthetic sense, that is) now was also once controversial. To use ole Mikey again, his Sistine Chapel ceiling was painted over from an aversion to the depicted nudity. Now, I’m not an incorrigible relativist; I certainly won’t compare the nihilistic venom present in the displays discussed above to the Renaissance or anything close to it. But the same society that produced Rembrandt thought nothing of enslaving people from foreign lands. My point is that every generation’s “art” critics have declared that the collapse of civilization will be heralded by the proceeding generations lack of values. Is there a noticeable lack of beauty or aesthetic today? I think so. Is this due to a fundamental degeneration of values in our society…or has the actual amount of “good” art remained unchanged while the bad art has multiplied exponentially, due mostly to increased population, period. Obviously it’s not quite that simple, but while my (and OUR, I suppose) generation’s artistic preoccupations with the destitution of the human being is more prevalent, I’ve seen enough appeals to human beauty to keep hope alive.

  3. December 4, 2010 7:49 pm

    What is and is not art is irrelevant. The critical issues here is the involvement of the government. Whether as a sponsor or exhibitor the Smithsonian is government, if we do not want it to be, then we should sell it. It is none of my business what a private patron sponsors, nor what a private gallery or museum shows. I can vote my approval or disapproval in the private context using my wallet – as can those who embrace what I do not like.
    But when the Smithsonian takes a position it represents our government, further it represents our citizens as a whole – everyone – the youngest child and the most easily offended grandmother. The Smithsonian speaks for them too.
    The price of public sponsorship and exhibition is that what government sponsors or exhibits will be bland and inoffensive. Just as in your college exhibition those things inappropriate for a college public forum we shifted out of the hallways and into something less accessible, so should we understand that the Smithsonian is in essence an elementary school hallway. We would not hold this exhibition in a national park, how would the Smithsonian be different.
    The entirety of society needs not be reduced to the level palatable to a kindergartener, but that part exposited by government should. This is why government does not belong in the arts in the first place.
    It is not important to me that these works are shocking, or homoerotic, or vulgar or …. I have not seen them and will reserve judgement on their value as art until I have – and even then that will be my personal judgement no more. But as described they are inappropriate for children, and government should not be checking drivers licenses prior to gaining entry to government galleries.

    • December 6, 2010 1:12 pm

      Dave: Well-reasoned response, but I still care deeply about the art itself and what it says about our culture. Also, you’ve kind of put the Smithsonian between a rock and a hard place: they shouldn’t mount an offensive art show using taxpayer dollars, and yet they also shouldn’t give us a watered-down show for grandma and the kids.

      I understand what you’re saying — that the government doesn’t belong in the art business at all. But the Smithsonian is a priceless repository of great art and artifacts. Maybe that’s all it should be: a repository of works that have already passed the test of time. And yet… it would be a shame to eliminate contemporary shows altogether.

      I think the solution is better judgment on the part of the curators. Judgment is subjective, of course. But the caretakers of a national museum should know better than to mount an exhibition that includes so much in-your-face protest art.

  4. Priscilla permalink
    December 5, 2010 9:13 pm

    I am in total agreement with Dave. Moreover, while the idea of government subsidizing the arts seems noble in theory, it ultimately props up artistic endeavors that are inferior, offensive or unnecessary. Central artistic planning is no more effective than central economic planning, and generally favors those artistic endeavors that preferred by the elites who run the government. Plus artists who are funded by the government may be less likely to criticize or offend that government………

  5. December 6, 2010 1:18 pm

    Priscilla: I know… we don’t want a Soviet-style ministry of culture. You’re right that the current structure favors the tastes of the elites — especially the educated liberal elite that has dominated “highbrow” culture since, oh, World War I.

    So I don’t think we have to worry about government-funded artists in the U.S. producing timid inoffensive work. They’ll produce what the liberal elite wants to see… especially shock art from “oppressed minorities.”

  6. Priscilla permalink
    December 9, 2010 7:54 am

    Agreed, Rick, although I would wager that any exhibit that similarly offended Muslims, even if produced by approved “oppressed minorities” would never see the light of the Smithsonian day. The excuse would be that it would endanger lives, given the Islamist propensity to issue fatwas against artists who offend them, but it’s rather stunningly hypocritical to see the liberal elite lose their taste for edgy, offensive art when the offended targets of that art are not Christians……….

    • Priscilla permalink
      December 9, 2010 8:01 am

      A grammatical correction: “rather stunningly hypocritical of the liberal elite to lose their taste for edgy, offensive art when the offended targets of that art are not Christians……….”

      The ex-teacher part of me was bothered by that 😉

  7. December 9, 2010 3:45 pm

    Maybe Christians should start issuing fatwas. No, no, let me take that back. Maybe it’s time for Muslims to recognize that Western societies operate by Western laws, including freedom of speech (well, except in France and Germany).

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