In the aftermath of the hysteria around the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition 22 years ago, the museum world has become timid and predictable, veterans of that battle argue.
“I do think the museum world has became very safe,” said Dennis Barrie, the former director of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. The center featured Mapplethorpe in 1990 and the center and Barrie paid a price. The local sheriff staged a raid, setting off a round of national news stories and protests and Barrie was charged with obscenity. He was acquitted and left the museum.
So when the National Portrait Gallery opened a show last October on same-sex art and identity, the art world hoped it would reverse that trend of self-censorship. Instead, the artistic merits of the show were almost overshadowed by the Smithsonian’s decision to remove a video by gay artist David Wojnarowicz after complaints from conservative pundits and politicians.
The action was called “shameful,” by artist and Yale School of Art dean Robert Storr, who opened a meeting Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on the aftermath of the two incidents decades apart.
“The culture wars are back,” said Storr, speaking to 100 people. The critics are insatiable and clever, he said. “We have to be cleverer.”
After Storr, the veterans of the political and cultural frenzy over Mapplethorpe spoke of lessons learned. “You think you are through with politics, you are never through with politics,” said Barrie.
Everyone agreed the times were different. It took a few hours for everyone to find out what the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) was up to that day. The fight to save the National Endowment for the Arts was long and its budget was severly cut. Now the news, on both sides, is instantaneous. Opponents on Capital Hill are again calling for reduced arts funding. “The enemy is right in front of us,” said Jane Livingston, former associate director at the Corcoran who quit when the museum cancelled the Mapplethorpe show because of political pressure in 1989.
The exhibit was then shown by the Washington Project for the Arts, attracting thousands of visitors a day. “This was a moment when the art community in Washington came together,” said Philip Brookman, then WPA curator and now chief curator at the Corcoran.
Then those drawn into the current debate discussed the results. Weeks of protest were prompted by the removal last November of the Wojnarowicz video from the groundbreaking show, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” It contained a few seconds of ants crawling on a crucifix.
“I was shocked at the lack of outrage,” said Michael Dax Iacovone, an artist who organized protests inside and out the museum. Bill Dobbs, director of Art +, said the reaction from the art world, despite dozens of panel discussions and protests, needed better coordination. “The outcome of the conflict was very mixed. The video was not returned. The Smithsonian regents supported the Secretary Wayne Clough,” said Dobbs.
Not only do those protecting free speech and artistic freedom need to be clever, they need to be better organized and bring in more allies, such as libraries. “We have to get better at discourse and have discourse that can be at a level that is honest and in layman’s terms. Why do we become bureaucratic when we are challenged by people and they attack issues we work on everyday,” said Victoria Reis, the executive and artistic director of Transformer Gallery.
After the Smithsonian removed the video, Transformer immediately screened the work. The gallery was one of Saturday’s sponsors, along with the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Corcoran. Mike Blasenstein, with Iacovone, tried to show the video inside the Portrait Gallery but were detained by security police. They rented a trailer, coined it the Museum of Censored Art, and parked it outside the museum for a month, showing the banned video. “We had 6400 visitors,” Blasenstein announced to a burst of applause.
Jason Tucker and Armando Lopez, both sophomores at the Corcoran art college, said they got involved with the protests at “Hide/Seek” and the discussions energized a plan they were developing. Lopez said the critics were hiding what they really meant. “The real attack was anti-gay and that was a hate crime,” said Lopez. What is needed, they said, is a more complete representation of the diversity of gay art. “We are going to start an art collective of gay artists. And then do pop-ups in various galleries,” said Tucker.
The young organizers got a message from Svetlana Mintcheva, director of programs for the censorship coalition. “It is important to stop being afraid to be controversial. Controversy is not a bad thing,” she said.