Arts Desk

Follow the Money: How Will the Wojnarowicz Controversy Affect the Bottom Line?

Today during a segment on The Alyona Show on Russia Today, Transformer's Victoria Reis squared off against the Catholic League's Jeff Field. Neither was there on behalf of poor friendless National Portrait Gallery. During the back-and-forth, Field said the Catholic League never called on the museum to pull the work but rather asked Congress to defund the Smithsonian Institution.

Alert! This is the Catholic League moving the goal posts to keep a story alive that tells how elites victimize the silent Christian majority. It's a variation on a theme composed by Richard Nixon. So the Smithsonian caves to conservative demands, but then conservatives say they did not demand censorship—maybe they even stand against censorship, and how could elites suggest otherwise—but instead conservatives demand other tribute (defunding, canceling the exhibit). And they won't be happy until they get it. Yet they won't be happy if they do get it. If the Smithsonian canceled the show, there would be a new complaint, and another demand.

It's turtles all the way down. There's no satisfying people who don't want to be satisfied, but there are always novel ways to offend them.

That's all well and good for the haters. But how has the Smithsonian's move affected the show's financial supporters?

As many defenders of David Wojnarowicz have observed, the National Portrait Gallery's "Hide/Seek" exhibit is not publicly funded. The show was made possible by the Calamus Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and a bevy of additional backers—including at least one organization with some relevant experience.

"The Mapplethorpe Foundation does not have an agenda. Not artists with AIDS, not LGBT rights," said Mapplethorpe Foundation president Michael Ward Stout. "We support photography that is good."

Stout said that the Mapplethorpe Foundation was a relatively small backer of the exhibit—they gave $10,000. And they'd do so again, the present controversy notwithstanding. Stout said that he disagreed with the decision to pull Wojnarowicz's work, characterizing the conservative criticism as familiar. Mapplethorpe, who, like Wojnarwicz, died as a result of AIDS-related illness, was the subject of criticism from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) during the late 1980s that culminated in an obscenity trial.

"It didn't affect Robert Mapplethorpe. It won't affect David Wojnarwoicz, either," said Stout. "But it will affect the institution—that's a pity."

Wendy Steiner, the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote the book on political art controversies. Steiner, the author of a new text on art and media mores (The Real Real Thing), said there is considerable reason to be alarmed by conservative calls to cut museum funding over a privately funded exhibition.

"It's pushing the argument about public funding one step farther. Now the exhibit isn't funded by public money, it's the place," Steiner said. "The ultimate extension of that would be that artworks for such an exhibition couldn't be transported on highways that are funded by public money and so on and so forth. It pushes the idea of public control to an absurd point."

Arguably, the question of public control was pushed beyond the point of absurdity when Secretary of the Smithsonian Wayne Clough caved to conservative demands—for no real obvious benefit.

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  • Anonymous, Too

    "Mapplethorpe, who, like Wojnarwicz, died as a result of AIDS-related illness, was the subject of criticism from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) during the late 1980s that culminated in an obscenity trial."

    Ah, yes, the late, great Jesse Helms. Hypocrite, racist, misogynist, cuckholder, segregationist... just a great all-around, retrograde hater.

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