Dan Cameron was the curator of the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s 1999 David Wojnarowicz retrospective, titled “Fever.” We spoke earlier today via telephone.
MAN: When you did “Fever” in 1999, why did you do it? Why that show and why then?
Dan Cameron: I think at that point the New Museum was in between directors, between Marcia Tucker and Lisa Phillips, so one of the things that was very important to us at the time was this feeling that the New Museum’s identity or mission was to a degree determined by what the other major museums were not doing. So we thought that if we sat down and made a list of all the shows that needed to be done in New York at that time but that were not getting done, that would sort of point our way toward what our future was.
It became clear to me that you had an artist like David Wojnarowicz whose reputation was growing nationally and internationally, but when you looked around at the Whitney, the Guggenheim and MoMA, you realized they’d never do that show. Well, maybe not never, maybe someday, but if somebody else didn’t do the exhibition soon there was this possibility that David Wojnarowicz would wind up being kind of swept under the rug. In the last years of his life, the art world had written him off as an activist an not an artist. There was this sense that there was no longer a convenient slot in art history to fit him into. Then he up and dies. There was just no activity from the time of his death to the time of our exhibition. None at all. No museum acquisitions, no shows. There was simply zero movement in New York museums. It was a little bit like the Martin Wong show we did at that time. Time seemed to be running out and no one else was doing this and someone needed to do it.
MAN: It seems to me like since that show I’ve seen much more Wojnarowicz at New York museums. So far as I know, he’s still not in any Washington art museum collections. He’s still only barely in California collections. But certainly the Museum of Modern Art, for one, has had him up more in permanent collection installations.
Cameron: Both the Whitney and MoMA acquired major works from the New Museum show. I don’t know what other museums had, but both those museums decided to really beef up their Wojnarowicz holdings based on the New Museum exhibition. That kind of thing happened a lot at that time with other shows and artists, such as Paul McCarthy [whom the New Museum featured in 2001].
David Wojnarowicz doesn’t have that ‘blue-chip status’ and it’s possible he never will. If it happens it will probably be because eventually there won’t be much left in the estate and museums will feel like they have to get something.
I think this is one of the things that’s wrong with the U.S. art market overall: We don’t value things that are meaningful and important. We value things that are going up in price rapidly, so we can get in on them before another zero is added to the price. [Image: Wojnarowicz, Untitled, 1988. Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.]
MAN: When you launched your show, did you expect manufactured, motivated-by-biogtry flare-ups like this one?
Cameron: Yeah. Honestly, David is a couple years older than me. He was a little bit more of a rabble-rouser and more politically motivated, but I felt in a way that he was an older brother in that he paved the way in his work and in his actions and in his words for things I would then take on myself a couple years later. So when we finally got all the work out there and I finally had this opportunity to immerse myself in everything that David had done, yeah, it became really clear to me that he was taking a position a battle-position for a war, that we had seen the first skirmish or two with Andres Serrano. Even at the time of the retrospective, there was no active controversy brewing, but it was really a short period of time between our opening and the Chris Ofili brouhaha that Rudy Giuliani and [the Catholic League's] William Donohue had a hand in.
By that time it was painfully evident that these forces of repression and censorship will always be around. They will never back off and they will never back down. They will simply hide in the shadows until they see an opportune moment to strike. They hope they will be able to take advantage of people’s limited memories and people’s not understanding that this is part of a pattern where every decade or so another opportunistic attack on contemporary art happens. It’s almost always – well, Serrano’s case and Ofili’s case had nothing to do with gay identity or the politics of AIDS, but with David Wojnarowicz’s work there’s clearly a vendetta. There are right-wing extremists who’ve had a target on him for a very long time, ever since his dustups with then Archbishop O’Connor. So yes, I felt very worried, regularly worried in the last 12 years that it wasn’t a question of if, but of when they would shoot the next shot across our bow. And here it is. [Image: Wojnarowicz, Untitled (face in dirt), c. 1990. Courtesy PPOW Gallery.]
MAN: It’s funny that you use the word opportunistic. Last week on MAN I noted that the top two House Republicans, John Boehner and Eric Cantor, seized on this story just as the Pentagon released a report saying that the only justification for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was bigotry. The Wojnarowicz gave them an opportunity to throw some anti-gay red meat to the Republican Party’s gay-hating base.
Cameron: Exactly. And clearly an aide had already prepped them because the exhibition had been up for a while. It had generated exactly zero controversy up until last week. It seems very strategic in terms of its timing. I think you’re correct in noting that the repeal of ‘DADT,’ which seems unstoppable at this point, that they needed something else to go after. Ripping David’s work out of the National Portrait Gallery on World AIDS Day – I think they were unaware of that by the way – this really drives this point home. This is ‘Chapter Three’ of the culture wars.
Cameron: I think that David was pretty agonized a lot of the time, to be honest with you. He just didn’t understand why someone who wants to actualize their life, their consciousness, in the broadest and richest possible way, why they’d become targets for people who want to shut that down. There was an essential confusion with him, he’d ask it over and over again: What is the source of homophobia in our society, and why do we not look at homophobia as a disease the same way we understand racism and sexism are bad and negative, and that they harm and even kill people? We’ve never had that national conversation, and David insisted that it be in the forefront of discussion of his work.
When the forces of religious-driven bigotry rose up, when he became the victim, he really suffered. It was really horrible for him to live with this reality. He was surrounded by people at the time who said, ‘It’s a bitter cup, but you’re going to have to take it.’ In that sense, this idea that people are saying that David’s work is hate speech against Christians during the Christian season… it’s fascinating how passionately [the religious right has] used anti-bigotry and anti-hate language and that they have turned the same language and weapons to beat us up with.
I even heard Rep. Cantor go off on the class dimensions, saying it’s only elitist East Coast liberals who believe this stuff is art.! To think of David, who was a Polish-American from a working-class background, and to hear these accusations of elitism, it’s frightening. [Image: Wojnarowicz, Fire, 1987. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.]
MAN: Did Wojnarowicz expect that this silliness would continue after his death, or did he expect the persecution to pass?
Cameron: I don’t really know. I think he had a pretty pessimistic and borderline fatalistic viewpoint on the need for American society to need to invest in homophobia. He thought it performed a dynamic function in American society, and that unless we look at why fear and hatred of gay people is part of our culture we’ll never get to the bottom of it.
I think that he thought that in the early 1990s that there was no one willing to do the heavy lifting. That’s changed now: You have the Log Cabin Republicans and a broad non-partisan consensus about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But I don’t think that the roots of homophobia have been explored. I don’t think we’ve begun to look into the ‘why’ of all this, why people like Boehner and Cantor seem to continually believe that gay-baiting and using this broad, blunt instrument to attack contemporary art through its exposed gay flank, why they think they can get away with it, why they think they can get mileage out of the fear and loathing of gay people.
Of course, maybe they do. The Association of Art Museum Directors basically, in a very, very bland, kind of almost anti-confrontational statement in which the sexual identity of David was non-issue, didn’t really stand up. [Image: Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar Dreaming/Yukio Mishima: St. Sebastian, 1982. Courtesy PPOW Gallery.]
MAN: I’ve been struggling with whether this kind of dust-up is ‘good’ for the artist’s legacy in that it brings attention to his work or ‘bad’ because it reduces him to cartoonish public flare-ups. Have you thought of that this past week and if so have you come to any conclusions?
Cameron: A friend of mine here in New Orleans reported to me a very heated elevator conversation he overheard wherein a couple of right-wingers were speaking with great approval of the censorship and how dare they call this art and so on. Of course, this person didn’t intervene.
I think when people talk about contemporary art I think it’s always good for contemporary art. I would even say that when bigoted people talk about this, it’s good for contemporary art because in exposing their bigotry or narrow-mindedness, it’s good for other people and that’s really important.
I think more important than these suit-and-ties who are having a knee-jerk reaction are young people, who have an intrinsic resistance to censorship. They want to know why it’s being done and they want to get to the bottom of it. I bet there are thousands or millions of young people hearing about this and looking at David Wojnarowicz’s work for the first time. The museums who are presenting David Wojnarowicz’s work in response to this controversy will only add to the appreciation and understanding of his work. It’s just unfortunate that it has to happen in this way.