Arts Desk

A Letter to Wayne Clough from Transformer

Transformer Gallery just issued an open letter to Wayne Clough, calling for the reinstatement of David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly in the "Hide/Seek" exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery.

UPDATE, 5:11 P.M.: The Washington Project for the Arts also issue a statement calling for the Smithsonian to reinstate A Fire in My Belly.

Washington Project for the Arts supports the right of artists to make work that represents their ideas, even if they offend some (or the majority of) people, and the right of museums to show these works of art without censorship. WPA applauds the National Portrait Gallery for organizing the exhibition Hide/Seek, but deplores the decision to remove David Wojnarowicz and Diamanda Galas' work "A Fire in My Belly" from the exhibition in response to pressure from outside groups who wish to suppress freedom of expression.

Our national museums have a responsibility to show works of art that represent the diversity of artistic expression in our country. Just because works of art are found offensive by a group or groups is not enough reason to remove them from an exhibition, nor is it reason to withdraw federal or other funding from that institution. As Americans we must support an artist's right to freedom of expression and our citizens' right to freedom of speech. This holds true for our cultural institutions as well.

Washington Project for the Arts

Transformer Gallery's letter:

Dear Secretary Clough,

We recognize your leadership and courage in deciding some months ago to support the National Portrait Gallery leadership and curators in exhibiting "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." However, we are deeply troubled by your decision to remove the David Wojnarowicz piece from the exhibit.

As you may know, the "controversy" over this video art began earlier this week in an article published by the Conservative News Service, a disreputable right-wing on-line publication. The piece objected to what was described as an "ant-covered Jesus" and denounced the Smithsonian itself for referring to the art as "homoerotic." Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor suggested the entire exhibit be cancelled, and threatened the federal funding of the Gallery unless the Smithsonian pulled the Wojnarowicz piece. William Donohue of the Catholic League initiated a right-wing action campaign directed toward your email address.

The Smithsonian then pulled the Wojnarowicz video. We believe this decision is wrong and should be reversed immediately.

The National Portrait Gallery is supported by U.S. taxpayers and, according to press reports, it features signage saying it is committed to "the struggle for justice so that people and groups can claim their full inheritance in the American promise of equality inclusion and social dignity." The Gallery has described the exhibit as "the first major exhibition to examine the influence of gay and lesbian artists in creating modern American portraiture."

Wendy Olsoff, who represents the Wojnarowicz's estate, said: "David believed the imagery of ants' society was parallel to human society."

You must know – but in the event you do not – we the undersigned are here to tell you that your right-wing critics, including in the Congress, know nothing and care nothing about art. They care not a wit about freedom of expression, or free speech, or "the American promise of equality, inclusion and social dignity."

Do not be afraid of the ants. Artists and academics promote culture in America, political activists do not. Americans are facing unprecedented challenges right now at home and abroad, we do not need another phony "culture war" distraction.

We agree with the statement of Rep. James P. Moran, chairman of the subcommittee that provides funding for the country's major art institutions, in today's Washington Post. "The whole point is that we should not be censoring we should be discussing." Moran went on to say that right-wing critics are using the 11 seconds in Wojnarowicz's work involving the ants to undermine your entire exhibit for partisan gain.

Given your position representing American culture to the world, we are ready to stand with you, if you do the right thing for art and artists around the world and reverse your mistaken decision in this matter immediately.

Sincerely,

James Alefantis, Board President of Transformer

Victoria Reis, Co-founder and Executive & Artistic Director of Transformer

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