Today I spoke with Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward, the two curators of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” The show has been in the news ever since right-wing activists threatened the Smithsonian over the exhibition and especially since Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough removed David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly (1987) from the show.
In our conversation — the curators’ first joint interview since the fiasco exploded — Katz and Ward reveal that there is a chance that A Fire in My Belly could possibly return to the show. They also discuss how the Smithsonian and Secretary G. Wayne Clough can repair the damage done by Clough’s removal of the piece.
Katz is an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, where he chairs the visual studies doctoral program. Ward is a historian at the National Portrait Gallery. MAN’s complete posts on “Hide/Seek” are available here. [Image: Andy Warhol, Camouflage Self-Portrait, 1986. Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.]
MAN: Yesterday I published a Q&A with Dan Cameron, who curated the New Museum’s 1999 David Wojnarowicz retrospective. Let me start with a version of the last question I asked him: Is it good for the exhibition or bad for the exhibition that this brouhaha is going on?
Jonathan Katz: Can I re-frame your question a bit? Ultimately as concerned as I am about the show, I’m even more concerned about the atmosphere for finally doing the kind of LGBT-themed exhibitions that have been foreclosed in the American art world for the last 21 years. I’m worried, deeply worried, that this conflict is going to chill the prospects so substantially that we may have to wait decades before another museum does this again.
David C. Ward: I agree totally with that. My feeling of the last week has been sort of on a knife’s edge. We’re sort of in a kind of tautology here, where if everything works out as I hope, the controversy will have been helpful.
There’s an actual political debate going on that has material consequences. If that struggle is lost by the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian, this will chill [scholarship and exhibitions] for another 20 years. I’m very happy we raised this issue. I think the fact that the controversy has developed shows the exhibition’s salience and explosiveness. It shows that our framing of the issue is correct — except that the issues that were issues in 1890 or 1920 or 1950 or 1980 are still alive and this is still a show that is perceived as a threat. That threat is not just academic, it is existential. [Image: Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-Portrait, 1988.]
Katz: There is something positive about all of this. When all of this started to go down, I was a little bit worried about the prospects of the next exhibit I’m doing, which is Art/AIDS/America at the Tacoma Art Museum. A lot of other museums are considering participating in 2014 or 2015. The director of the Tacoma Art Museum sent me an email saying, ‘Clearly, lest there be any doubt, we’re in no way shaken in our commitment to your exhibition.’”
Ward: I think that regarding the whole A Fire in My Belly element… we don’t want to continually focus on David Wojnarowicz. I think that element of raising in an even kind of retrospective way the last 20 years of cultural struggles, I think that there will be a renewed sense of activism on the part of people who want to be activisitic. I fear the larger context, but this may be a new era with a new paradigm inaugurated by “Hide/Seek.” We broke the ice as we intended to do, and hopefully people follow on and we welcome their support.
MAN: What’s been the biggest positive to come out of the show?
Katz: For me there are two key benefits. The first is that by design, over 25 years of scholarship on American art has been withheld from public museums. Museums, public display, is where the rubber meets the road and where art meets an interested populace. By definition, museums have refused scholarship — and even edited it out of bibliographies. We’ve had an opportunity to bring that to the public.
What’s been remarkable is how the public has responded. With the exception of this minor incident, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. The other key benefit is the opportunity it has posed for a generation younger than me to discover, or in some instances re-discover, activism. I am sorry that an exhibition that should in no way be controversial has proven to be, but I am happy that it has provided the occasion for young people who have never before organized a protest to rediscover the prospect of participatory democracy.
Ward: I just find the artwork — from Eakins’ Salutat (1898, at right, Addison Gallery of American Art) through to the Glenn Ligon or the Warhol — I think it’s aesthetically thrilling. I think it’s the best of America, the best of American culture.
I also totally agree with what Jonathan said. One of the things I found thrilling was that the National Portrait Gallery agreed to do it and saw it through. Having this at the Smithsonian and at the place of what is nominally the normative site for American citizenship and its display: I think that’s crucially important.
MAN: Why isn’t A Fire in My Belly in the exhibition catalogue?
Ward: Yeah. To be blunt, it’s an inadvertent exclusion. We didn’t put any videos in the catalogue. We should have.
Katz: It should have been in the catalogue and I think it was a mistake that it wasn’t. Indeed, as David suggests, there was an issue raised about how one represents in a catalogue a video in which time and movement are significant. Can you, in the format of the catalogue with one page dedicated to one image… is it fair to represent something in a single capture?
Ward: The Warhol screen tests aren’t in there either. It’s an error on my part.
Ward: There is ongoing discussion about that. I don’t want to say anything more about that because it is delicate. We are also looking for other ways to present it. [Image: A still from A Fire in My Belly.]
Katz: It is also, as you know, being show across the country. This is critical.
Ward: I also want to again point out the irony. We are being denied the right to show it, but the people who are criticizing it are showing it or linking to it. It gets back to agency: Who has the right to display art or your own body? As long as you condemn, you can display works of art in order to condemn them and, in an echo of the 1930s, ultimately to burn them. If you show them, even in a cool and even way as an artwork of its time, it’s illegitimate. I think it’s comical that Fox News can display this and we can’t. We know what the agenda is there.
Katz: I think another key issue here is that we have to resist the framing of this as a religious issue. It’s naked politics. It’s power politics. It’s not even really in some sense a homophobia issue. It’s about consolidation of conservative power in many instances. It’s attempting to dictate a new American polity.
Ward: It confirms a theme of the show, which is that social and economic crises are frequently gendered. The 1890s start with resurgent masculinity, which Eakins’ took and subverted with Salutat. I would also say in response to our critics: The one thing I’ve found infuriating about how this was framed was that this is a Christmas show. That’s a distortion of simple logistical slotting of shows into a fall/winter slot instead of a spring/summer slot. This is not tied to any season not Halloween, not the NFL and so on.
Also, we want to emphasize that there are two Wojnarowicz pieces still in the exhibition, and Peter Hujar’s portrait of David Wojnarowicz is still in the exhibition. We’d be interested in acquiring especially the Hujar, especially those. That’s just off the top of my head. Those are the kind of works of his we would acquire.
MAN:When I saw the show there were a couple of pieces I thought might provoke flashpoints. The Wojnarowicz was not one of them. Were there pieces you thought would be contentious, about which you were prepared for culture-war-style controversy?
DW: [Laughing.] Yes, but we’re not going to tell you what it is.
Let me make a more general point. Jonathan and I have evolved this show over the course of two-and-a-half or three-and-a-half years and we have — again, contrary to our image now in the conservative press — we were very careful about what we showed and how we showed it. We were not going to make a provocation for the sake of making a provocation. We wanted to get this show done. We wanted the show to speak to modernism. Even in our editing of A Fire in My Belly, which we had the permission of the estate to do, we were very careful. We edited for length and content. We were caereful about what we selected for the show.
Katz: Well, we edited in terms of length, not to remove content. We felt the imperative to represent David Wojnarowicz’s work as he designed it. We included every scene that’s in the video, we just truncated the length.
I think it’s an interesting cultural moment when the homophobes — and that’s what they are are — are actually trying to redirect the dialogue toward religion because clearly that suggests in my reading that the old homophobic line isn’t working as well anymore. Paradoxically I read that as progress.
Ward: I agree with that to a point. I think the salience here of the Christianity-plus-perversion created the firestorm. I have been gobsmacked that the Annie Leibovitz pic of Ellen DeGeneres (above, 1997) is described as obscene and filth. What is clearly going on there is that you can’t display the lesbian body. She is wearing a basketball sized bra! It clearly is a joke! To label that as obscene and prurient is a mischaracterization. It’s based on heterosexual panic and it’s tied into a Christian issue. This is a recapitulation of the 1950s, with the notion of American exceptionalism, with our purity at stake.
MAN: What can the Castle do to fix the mess it created? Given that one of you works at the Smithsonian and one of you co-curated the show as an independent historian and curator, I wonder if you might have different answers.
Katz: I think there are two things. I think the first thing the Castle should do is reinstall the work. They should ideally do that in the exhibition, if not on the web page. [Image: Romaine Brooks, Una, Lady Troubridge, 1924. Collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum]
I also think that the Smithsonian, to pull itself out of the crosshairs of the culture war, should not and cannot be seen as engaging in political expediency, especially with people who foam rabidly at the mouth. What we need to do is to say this is a museum exhibition. It examines a history. You may or not like that history, but it’s a job of a museum to examine that history.
The Smithsonian has a terrible inferiority complex. It’s America’s beloved. Everyone loves it. If the right goes after it and guts it as it has threatened to do, I hope and believe that most Americans would say the Smithsonian is far too important to what it is to be an American to let it die.
I think it would be extremely useful at this point that one of the Smithsonian museums set up an exhibition on the lesbian and gay civil rights movement. I think one has to now aggressively battle any construction that this museum has cowered.
Ward: Let me agree with that and extend it briefly. The crisis of confidence in the humanities and liberal arts needs to be overcome. The Smithsonian can play an important role in moving that forward. I agree with Jonathan on the Smithsonian. Inside the Smithsonian, we’ll be watching the Secretary’s actions very closely.
MAN: Going back to the conception of the exhibition, can you give me an idea of what kind of institutional support you did or did not receive, both from the Castle and the National Portrait Gallery?
Ward: The support was 100 percent positive. The exhibition was initially approved under the previous director, Marc Pachter. When Martin Sullivan came on as director he reviewed it and approved it and carried on. We went through the whole process of vetting and approval through the Castle with the undersecretary and with other people involved. The whole thing was seen as a worthwhile thing to do and as an exciting show that broke new ground at the Portrait Gallery because of both the thematics and the depth and extent of its portraiture. [Image: Jasper Johns, Souvenir, 1964, collection of the artist on long-term loan to SFMOMA.]
Katz: One of the things I found quite remarkable about this is that the NPG finally agreed to take on an exhibition that many other institutions have long had the opportunity to do and for reasons that are all too clear elected not to do. What was striking in my conversations with David and with other individuals at the NPG, was that this exhibition was understood as the further evolution of a long-standing interest in the extension of Amer democracy to disenfranchised populations as part of a heritage that included the examination of African-American civil rights, the women’s rights movement and so on, and that it was therefore not just something that they were willing to do, but that it was central to their portfolio.
Katz: It’s hard to say two thing at once, but I’m going to. I’m going to say that I could not disagree more with the stupidity of the removal of the video. At the same time, I’m also absolutely convinced that the Smithsonian has been heroic in breaking this blacklist. In fact, what I’m finding very troubling about some of the reaction to what happened is that it tends to demonize the Smithsonian to the delectation of the very right-wing fringe that inaugurated this conflict in the first place. [Image: AA Bronson, Felix, June 5, 1994. Collection of the National Gallery of Canada.]
What I think we need to remember is that the Smithsonian is courageous and that other museums were not. I’m increasingly getting concerned that the activist response targeting the Smithsonian loses the bigger picture, which is that it’s been 21 years since Mapplethorpe and no one has done a damn thing in that time, that museums have been sitting on their hands and that this incident confirms the wisdom of so doing.
It’s probably a vain hope, but I still want to express the hope that 11 seconds of video do not overshadow an exhibition that is historic.