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