As 'Hide/Seek' Ends, A Step Back To Look For Lessons

When the National Portrait  Gallery removed a work after pressure from activists and politicians, a project called the Museum of Censored Art set up shop right outside the museum's doors. i i

When the National Portrait Gallery removed a work after pressure from activists and politicians, a project called the Museum of Censored Art set up shop right outside the museum's doors. Erin Schwartz/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Erin Schwartz/NPR
When the National Portrait  Gallery removed a work after pressure from activists and politicians, a project called the Museum of Censored Art set up shop right outside the museum's doors.

When the National Portrait Gallery removed a work after pressure from activists and politicians, a project called the Museum of Censored Art set up shop right outside the museum's doors.

Erin Schwartz/NPR

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture has gotten a lot of attention. Not for what's in it, but for what's been taken out — a controversial work of video art that briefly shows a crucifix covered in ants during a stream of powerful, often nightmarish images.

When Hide/Seek opened last fall, co-curator David C. Ward — a historian and self-described bureaucrat who's worked for the Smithsonian for 30 years — described the show as mainstream. It's the first Smithsonian Institution show to focus on gay and lesbian contributions to American culture, and it's filled with masterpieces by major American artists. Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Thomas Eakins — "canonical figures," in Ward's words. The intention, he said, was hardly to provoke.

From 'Hide/Seek'

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    "Hike/Seek" begins in the 1880s with Walt Whitman — before the legal codification of "homosexual." Whitman spent the days before and after the Civil War with his lover, Peter Doyle, a Confederate deserter. Walt Whitman, 1891
    Walt Whitman/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    Eakins' Salutat, 1898, depicted a boxer after a fight — an object of admiration by a male audience, rather than an athlete in a fight.
    Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    American writer and art connoisseur Lincoln Kirstein founded a literary magazine at Harvard called Hound and Horn, which featured writing by the likes of Walker Evans and Alfred Stieglitz. Lincoln Kirsten in Dorm at Harvard, 1930
    Walker Evans/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    Georgia O'Keeffe, averse to the interpretations of her work, responded with a series of horns and antlers. According to the exhibition, this one was a "representation of womanhood, protected and bulwarked from the world of men." Goat's Horn with Red, 1945
    Georgia O'Keefe/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    "The Lavender Scare" of the 1950s, paralleling the Red Scare, refers to the persecution of gays and lesbians. Artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, lovers for years, opposed that prevailing political culture in their work. Canto XIV [From XXIV Drawings From Dante's Inferno], 1959
    Robert Rauschenberg/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    Souvenir, 1964
    Jasper Johns/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    Beauford Delaney was associated with, although not necessarily in, various circles in New York City — he had African-American friends in Harlem, white gay acquaintances in Greenwich Village, where he lived, and contemporaries in the modernist art circles. James Baldwin, 1963
    Beauford Delaney/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    The gay liberation movement arose after the Stonewall riots in New York City's Greenwich Village in 1969. Robert Mapplethorpe was a well-known artist-photographer at the time, also known as Patti Smith's lover. Self-Portrait, 1975
    Robert Mapplethorpe/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    The intellectual Susan Sontag had an early marriage to sociologist Peter Reiff, but later in life had a committed relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz. Susan Sontag, 1975
    Peter Hujar/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    With his series of camouflaged portraits, Warhol continued to reinforce his notoriously evasive persona. Camouflage Self-Portrait, 1986
    Andy Warhol/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    In 1990, more than 18,000 Americans died of AIDS, painter Keith Haring being one of them. Unfinished Painting, 1989
    Keith Haring/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe also died of AIDS in 1989 — which explains the stark contrast between this 1988 portrait and his playful 1975 portrait. Robert Mapplethorpe Self-Portrait, 1988
    Robert Mapplethorpe/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    About a quarter-century after AIDS first appeared, a number of artists are examining gender identity in a way that resembles the exhibition's starting point. Ellen Degeneres, Kauai, Hawaii, 1997
    Annie Liebovitz/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

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"We're not doing 'Up with gay people,'" Ward said when interviewed for a piece in November 2010. "We're not doing a political exhibition."

But it became political. Now, standing outside the show's entrance with a bit less than a week before the scheduled closing, Ward ruefully shakes his head.

"It's been interesting since last we talked," he says.

'Now You Have To Clothe Your Homophobia'

The show had been open for a month, and hadn't received a single complaint. Then the conservative Catholic League got wind of Hide/Seek and urged supporters to deluge the Smithsonian and members of Congress with grievances. Republican politicians including John Boehner and Eric Cantor — now the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader — advocated canceling the exhibition, though it's unclear if they actually saw it.

Scholar Jonathan Katz, who co-curated the show, believes it's telling that much of the criticism of Hide/Seek was couched as an objection to what some argued was anti-Catholic bias.

"It's no longer the same game that it was 15, 20 years ago, where you simply had to point out the homo and yell, 'Kill it,' and the mob attacked," Katz says. "Now you have to clothe your homophobia in something else."

There's a long history of loud fights over controversial art in museums that receive public funding — from Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" to Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs of gay leather culture.

"It's the same, structurally, since the '90s," says Jeff Weinstein, who helped cover the art controversies of the '80s and '90s for the Village Voice. What's different this time, he says, is how the Internet helped the controversy flare up fast.

The response of the head of the Smithsonian was to pull the video. That was the wrong move, according an internal review conducted by the Smithsonian's board of regents.

"Once an exhibition is opened, absent actual error, things should not be removed without a significant consultation process," said regent Patty Stonesifer during a press conference last week.

Still, attendance at the Portrait Gallery shot up more than 75 percent from this time last year. And David Wojnarowicz, who died almost 20 years ago, is now a free-speech cause celebre.

'I'm Glad That I'm Seeing It'

Wojnarowicz is the artist whose video — "Fire In My Belly," created at the first height of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. — was pulled from Hide/Seek. Since the controversy erupted, "Fire In My Belly" has been viewed online more than a million times. It's been screened in solidarity by galleries nationwide, and was recently purchased by the Musuem of Modern Art.

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From The Awl (includes video):

One of the places it's been drawing attention is in a nondescript trailer, parked right outside the Portrait Gallery, called the Museum of Censored Art. "Fire In My Belly" plays there on a continuous loop, and organizers say 5,000 people have seen it there so far.

"It is very provocative," remarked Derek Smith, a lawyer who wandered in during lunch one recent weekday. He stood in his winter coat, absorbing the video's surreal images — the crucifix, coins falling into a bowl of blood, red string stitching a mouth shut.

"I'm glad that I'm seeing it, and I would be disturbed if I was denied the ability to see something like this," Smith said. "I definitely would consider it art, without a doubt."

As for Wojnarowicz, journalist Jeff Weinstein, who knew him, isn't sure what he'd make of the controversy today.

"He would be so thrilled that people weren't dying, gay men weren't dying all over right and left, all over dropping," Weinstein says. "I don't know what he would make of it, because the world is a different place."

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