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.