Four Facts About the National Portrait Gallery Controversy
The fracas at the National Portrait Gallery continues today with a protest organized by Transformer. Dozens and maybe even hundreds of artists and arts supporters—those who didn't head down to South Beach for the Miami Art Basel fairs, that is—intend to meet at Transformer in Logan Circle at 5:30 p.m. to descend on the National Portrait Gallery at 6 p.m. You can download your Wojnarowicz or Rimbaud masks, courtesy of artists Geoffrey Aldridge, Grant Duncan, and Ed Rock.
Those out demonstrating (and those enjoying solidarity from the comfort of their own homes) ought to keep four points in mind.
1. This is not the National Portrait Gallery's fault. Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Wayne Clough told staffers in an e-mail that he was responsible for the final decision to pull David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly. He made the call to pull the video because it was "detracting from the entirety of the exhibition."
Good thing Clough nipped that distraction in the bud.
2. The National Portrait Gallery was not showing Wojnarowicz's work. The museum's major sin was to show a four-minute edited version of A Fire in My Belly in place of the full 30-minute feature. This is in line with the NPG's rather casual attitude toward authorial intent. For example, the museum regularly changes the titles of works to reflect the name of the subject of a portrait instead of whatever the artist called it.
According to NPG spokesperson Bethany Bentley, the NPG cut of Wojnarowicz's video features an ACT UP march as the soundtrack. The full-length original, which is now screening in Transformer's storefront at 1404 P Street NW, features an original soundtrack by radical new-music vocalist Diamanda Galás.
Speaking of the original: A Fire in My Belly comes courtesy of New York University's Fales Library, which hosts Wojnarowicz's letters and archives. Tom Rauffenbart, Wojnarowicz's companion and executor of his estate, shared the video with Transformer.
"I give Transformer permission to show this clearly censored work. I only wish David were alive, he would tear these censors apart," said Rauffenbart, according to the organization's website.
3. House Republicans do not care about David Wojnarowicz. The Smithsonian did not cave to pressure from incoming Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), because they never actually pressured the Smithsonian. As I reported yesterday, Speaker-designate Boehner never contacted Clough or NPG director Martin Sullivan or anyone else at the Smithsonian. A flack from Boehner's office fed some talking points to CNS's Penny Starr when she called.
Similarly, Majority Leader–designate Cantor's talking points on Wojnarowicz as artillery in the War Against Christmas ring hollow, given that Rep. Cantor is Jewish. In any case, the Smithsonian has not reported receiving any actual pressure from his office on this issue.
4. It's the news-cycle, stupid. Secretary Clough might have weathered a day and a half of phone calls from the Catholic League and recycled talking points from bored flacks. Had Clough stood behind Sullivan and delivered a short, curt defense of the museum's right to show works by GLBT Americans in the face of bullying, the story would have faded away by the end of the week. The Catholic League would have gone back to ignoring the show, just as they did between its opening in October and its explosion on Tuesday. News controversies end when there's no more oxygen to feed them.
Removing one piece from a GLBT exhibit only prompts Bill Donahue to call for the removal of every other piece he finds grody. And it only sours the arts community the Smithsonian should count on for support.
But as another Smithsonian staffer told me today, "Fear and caution is something one gets used to working at the Smithsonian."
David Wojarowicz, Untitled, 1990, still from the film Silence = Death.