Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Q&A with AA Bronson on ‘Hide/Seek,’ ‘Felix’

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AA Bronson is the artistic director of the Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He’s also the artist of Felix, June 5, 1994 [below], which is included in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Yesterday Bronson asked the National Gallery of Canada, which owns the version of Felix in “Hide/Seek” to remove the artwork from the exhibition.

UPDATE, 130pm EST: NPG tells MAN that Felix will stay in the show.

MAN: Could you tell me the story behind your decision?

AA Bronson: I’m involved with the Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice, I’m the artistic director there. We do programming in which we try to bring contemporary art into a dialogue with religion through social justice. So, for example, we had a lecture last week by Alfredo Jaar and the week before by Paul Chan. We’ve just taken down an exhibition of 10 artists who are dealing with social justice, with those kinds of issues.

In response to the whole thing with David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly being removed from “Hide/Seek,” we came up with a plan to host a panel discussion which was originally supposed to be tomorrow at the seminary. The idea was that we would try to bring together all the voices that are involved: [Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne] Clough, National Portrait Gallery director Martin Sullivan, one or both of the politicians who are being outspoken, Bill Donohue from the Catholic League along with people who represent a different kind of view, including religious people and the curators from the exhibition. We wanted to really put together a group representing all the different views and try to create some dialogue with the hope of creating even some kind of reconciliation. Maybe that’s far too ambitious.

It was, of course, much too short notice. Very few of the people were available. We decided to put it off until the end of February. In the end, we may do this in Washington instead of in New York. In the process of doing that, it became clear that there’s not going to be any movmenet on the part of the Smithsonian.

Then when the Warhol Foundation announced their position, and when the [Smithsonian] responded to Warhol… My piece in the show, the Felix portrait, is built around the same subject matter as the Wojnarowicz. I realized that just from a position of solidarity with an artist who’s not here to defend himself I had no choice but to withdraw the piece from the show.

I was hoping for reconciliation and I was trying to hold back from doing anything too extreme. I haven’t seen the exhibition but I’ve heard how wonderful and groundbreaking it is. I value that, but on a personal level I can’t support what’s happened at the Smithsonian, which I feel as also a personal affront to edit out that aspect of queer history. I can’t stand for that. So I made the decision to withdraw the work based on that.

There’s s one other thing I want to mention in passing: When we do our panel, when it comes to that, we really want to focus on the bigger issues rather than focusing on the censorship of one video. In the response of the Catholic League, they talk about art as being the purview of rich white people and therefore funding should be cut off because it’s not for everyone. I’m sure the Smithsonian’s education department would be very quick to disagree with that.

It’s a kind of racism on their part to put it that way because it denies that people of color have culture and it denies there’s an audience for culture. It’s very racist on the part of the Catholic League. Those are the issues that come out of this but they don’t make headlines.

MAN: To date the Smithsonian leadership – the Wayne Clough, who made the call – has remained silent. He’s not spoken to the press, given a speech, nothing. Do artists in the show, in particular, need to hear from him?

Bronson: We received an email from his secretary saying that he wouldn’t be available for the panel discussion that was originally supposed to be tomorrow. We haven’t heard anything directly from him at all.

But yes, that’s why we invited him to be on the panel discussion. He does in a way hold the key to the whole thing. But I don’t expect…  frankly, I’ve kind of given up. I don’t expect to hear from him. As one of the artists in the show, yes, a reassuring statement would certainly be helpful. Probably his silence has made the whole situation worse.

MAN: At this point, would the Smithsonian’s restoration of the Wojnarowicz, no matter how unlikely, be enough to correct its error?

Bronson: I think they need to restore the video and issue an apology. I think that would be enough, frankly. It would be enough for me. I would leave my piece in the show.

I should just explain my piece in the show belongs to the National Gallery of Canada. It’s on loan from them to the National Portrait Gallery. So whether I have the legal right to remove my work I don’t know. I heard from the contemporary curator at the NGC, who sent me a very supportive email. She’s meeting with the director of the NGC today and hopefully they’ll then request that the piece be removed. I’m in a peculiar position: I’m a third party even though I’m the artist who made the piece.

MAN: One of the things I think the show is really successful at is presenting how gay art history is American art history is gay art history. It makes the argument for a single history. In your letter to Martin Sullivan, you complained about the Smithsonian’s “editing of queer history.” Could you talk about whether it’s useful for that history to be considered in a broader dialogue or whether there’s still a need for gays and lesbians to maintain a separate history?

Bronson: Well, I think that they’re both needed. The separate history has been kind of edited out of art history but in fact art history is very much interwoven with gay or queer history. In a way the two can’t be separated.

America doesn’t like anything uncomfortable. I find in my dealings with museums that if I ask a question and the answer is ‘no,’ they don’t answer. If the answer is ‘yes,’ I get these amazingly enthusiastic responses. I find it sort of strange sometimes, not being American myself.

In a way what they’re doing is editing out the uncomfortable. David Wojnarowicz’s work can make you uncomfortable — and they’ve edited out that possibility in the show.

I’ve just looked at the little YouTube video of Martin Sullivan speaking at the New York Public Library last night. He’s calling for more positive energy in relation to the show. What’s left of the show, anyway. But frankly, that’s the whole problem, editing out the negative energy. That part of the voice, that part of the very agonized voice, is being edited out.

MAN: It seems to me Sullivan has been put in an odd position. He didn’t remove the work, Clough did. Yet Sullivan has to go out in public and talk about Clough’s removal of it.

Bronson: Yes,  [Sullivan] is in a very weird position. There’s another aspect I’m trying to to mention too much which is that it was a clip. It was not a full video. You’d never show 10 percent of a painting, why a clip from a video? To some degree it had already been severely edited.

MAN: One response to what you’re doing is that part of the right-wing project is to make gays and lesbians invisible, to exclude them from American history and from American art history. I’m sure you thought about that. Could you address how this isn’t, well, playing into that?

Bronson: I did think about that. Frankly, since the Wojnarowicz was pulled from the show, many, many, many, thousands of people have seen the video who wouldn’t otherwise. Since I announced I was pulling the piece, many reproductions have turned up on various Facebook pages. The image is proliferating very rapidly out there. It’s quite startling. If anything in this digital era the effect is quite the opposite.

I’ve also been approached by someone who wants to show the piece in Washington. It’s incredible how quickly the response has come. We’ll actually get the image out into the world much faster than leaving it in would have.

MAN: So if, say, the National Gallery of Art — which is in no way affiliated with the Smithsonian — wanted to show it tomorrow, you’d be OK with that?

Bronson: Oh sure yes. Of course I would.

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  1. Yes, let’s hear it for the visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and heterosexual history!! You have a right to a past. And that past challenges our basic preconceptions about what’s natural and inevitable. It opens up the world to new, future possibilities. The history of sexuality and gender is subversive, it challenges the authority of the status quo.–Jonathan Ned Katz, Co-Director, OutHistory.org

  2. Bernard Welt says:

    There’s an aspect of this that’s really central, hasn’t even been brought up by mass media accounts, and has come up only rarely in the art-world discussions. Maybe it’s because it’s less dramatic than focusing on why Bill Donohue and the House Republican leadership singled out the video for this cynical exploitation.

    It’s simply that the National Portrait Gallery has a specific mission, which this exhibition fulfilled admirably. It isn’t a private gallery, and it isn’t the Hirshhorn. It’s supposed to be educating the American public on the history and theory of the representation of Americans, in their social and cultural contexts. As far as I’ve been able to tell, no one’s ever challenged that mission before, or insisted that an exhibition that showed or said something uncomfortable about American life should be censored. It also isn’t public school or a courthouse; no one is forced to go to the NPG, and no one’s finger is forcibly held to the button that initiated play of David Wojnarowicz’s video, “Fire in My Belly.” (Making the work selectively accessible, and letting the public know that some people might find it distressing, might have offended some people in itself–but it was obviously not only a responsible, but a reasonable context for showing the work.) Well-respected experts in history and art selected the work for inclusion, and obviously they had considered the history of its reception and interpretation.

    So up to the point of removing the work, the Smithsonian served its mission. On announcing the removal of the work, the institution decided peremptorily to censor a presentation of ideas–without consultation with the originators, and without even a pro-forma discussion of how effectively the exhibition as it stood served its stated purpose. In this respect, it doesn’t actually matter who saw the work or didn’t, or how they reacted to it; the exhibition is itself the development of a thesis, which has been altered, not so as to correct an error, but to misrepresent an easily established reality, and certainly a consensus opinion among art historians. So the decision to remove the work, which has been represented as taking down a distressing image, is actually much more like the Stalinist strategy of removing any inconvenient truths from historical accounts. It was less like taking a painting from a gallery than removing a reference work from the shelves of a library–and to make it worse, one that had already been marked as “Special Collection–Proceed at your own risk.”
    As an institution of learning and research (or really, why do they get that .edu on their URL?), the Smithsonian’s obvious duty was to prepare a cordial and informative response explaining why display of the work served its mission.

    And this is where the Smithsonian’s response was so tragically and brutally arrogant, because instead of serving the inspiring mission of providing vital images of American life–celebrating American genius, diversity, tolerance, and openness–to a tax-paying public that has every right to expect its institutions to serve the public good, the Smithsonian pretty much announced that it’s playing a card game with other insider institutions that cynically exploit the *idea* of “the people.”
    As a lot of people have noted, the Smithsonian promulgated an very disturbing falsehood by representing the decision as a response to concerns among the public, when in fact the objection was lodged by professional agitators. Again, this seems more like Stalinism than simple hysteria over an objectionable image–it used the occasion of a manufactured controversy to covertly argue that public institutions should recognize powerful, partisan institutions as representing “the people.” The huge problems this can create are varied and obvious, but just for starters, in and of itself, it means that no matter how many people support the idea of the Smithsonian fulfilling its stated mission and showing the work, it can always strike a deal with any well-funded or well-organized attack group that claims to represent “the people.” And once these groups have removed a few artworks from the walls of museums, they can get to work on removing books from libraries, educational components from curricula, birth control from health coverage, and scientific research projects from government grant programs. I’m pretty sure this isn’t a misplaced slippery-slope metaphor. They kind of have to move in this direction because they have to keep churning up rage–it’s all they’ve got. Once they have purged museums and libraries and schools of offensive ideas, they’ll have to search out new occasions for offense at the government’s subsidization of libertinism and blasphemy. Eventually, they’ll be reduced to removing pornographic images from soldiers’ foot-lockers.

    I was at the Corcoran during the Mapplethorpe controversy, by the way, and got a taste then of just how dumb and cynical insider discussions at institutions of art and learning can be. (And it’s not easy to be both at once, stupid and conniving; one comes across as a kind of cartoon character, like Wile E. Coyote.) So in some respects, I’m sorry to hear folks in the artworld take the bait and respond as if the decision to remove “Fire in My Belly” were about grand abstractions like freedom and intolerance, which must be defended or combated. Anything you say about intolerance or hate speech, Bill Donohue will throw back at you; he’s not the first inexplicably powerful man to portray himself successfully as a martyr. The Smithsonian can always say they’re just exercising liberty rather than license. What it’s really about is how and why extremists get power in democracies, and the lessons of history–which, it is to be hoped, we will still have an opportunity to study within a few years’ time–are pretty bleak on this matter.

    That is why it’s important that other artists and institutions pay attention to what the Warhol Foundation and AA Bronson are doing. It’s not because they represent a principled stand in favor of an abstract conception of artistic freedom, or are delivering a warning. It’s because they’re responding to an accomplished fact that the Smithsonian, the news media, and the public so far don’t seem to be willing to face: the situation they might deliver a warning about has already come to pass. I don’t understand how any living artists associated with the “Hide/Seek” exhibition can tolerate this monstrous betrayal of a dead artist, and I understand that that’s reason enough alone for AA to remove his work. But more importantly, he’s saying to the Smithsonian, as is the Warhol Foundation, you can tell me anything you like, but you’ve made it obvious that you cannot be trusted to stick to your mission–to promote discussion of art, history and culture rather than warp it to suit someone’s agenda.
    It’s particularly depressing that it’s taken a Canadian artist to recognize how serious this problem is. Are Americans so used to spin that they take it for granted that everything’s just a rhetorical ploy, and it’ll all be settled by insider deals?

  3. Tom Firehat says:

    Could the Wojnarowicz video be projected on the outside of the building (a la Mapplethorpe)?TF

  4. curator999 says:

    As the person who originated the projections of the Mapplethorpe images against the walls of the Corcoran in June of 1989, I would heartily endorse this. But I and my cohorts were threatened by the attorneys of the Robert Miller Gallery when they heard the images were going to be projected (without the gallery about to gain any monetary benefit) and asked us not to proceed. Weird, since the gallery did provide the slides – remember those?

    Since we were young anarchic pups, we ignored the threatening legal letter and did it anyway. The rest is history. It was VERY expensive for us to raise the funds to project those images. The greater art and gay communities were surprisingly unsupportive of our fundraising efforts. (This was pre-digital age.) We went into debt and did it anyway.

  5. […] February 13, others in the art world weren’t sure they should do the same. As the artist AA Bronson tried, unsuccessfully, to remove a portrait of his late lover from “Hide/Seek,” the cultural […]

  6. […] ‘Hide/Seek’ made a strong impression on many visitors, such as those who focused on the larger-than-life image of an emaciated AIDS victim, Felix, a few hours after his death. Some commented on how works in ‘Hide/Seek’ led them to a […]

  7. […] the links to see the photograph, to read a bit about the history of the image, and to read what Bronson had to say about his decision. (warning, image might be a bit graphic for some viewers). Posted In: Mission, News, […]

  8. […] February 13, others in the art world weren’t sure they should do the same. As the artist AA Bronson tried, unsuccessfully, to remove a portrait of his late lover from “Hide/Seek,” the cultural […]

  9. […] He told Modern Art Notes: Then when the Warhol Foundation announced their position, and when the [Smithsonian] responded to Warhol… My piece in the show, the Felix portrait, is built around the same subject matter as the Wojnarowicz. I realized that just from a position of solidarity with an artist who’s not here to defend himself I had no choice but to withdraw the piece from the show. […]

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