When “Hide/Seek,” the National Portrait Gallery’s groundbreaking exhibition of gay themes in American portraiture, became the subject of right-wing Catholic ire a year ago, it looked as if the culture wars might be starting up again after a decade of relative calm. The Catholic League accused the Smithsonian of bigotry, some members of Congress began to take notice, and there was a threat the newly elected Republican House of Representatives might take budget knives to the institution if it didn’t censor the show.
The campaign against the exhibition was focused on a video by artist David Wojnarowicz, which included a brief scene of ants crawling on crucifix. Secretary G. Wayne Clough was so addled by the controversy that he immediately capitulated, overruled his own curators and forced the video’s removal from the critically acclaimed exhibition. It was a dark day for the Smithsonian, a successful, coordinated attack on free speech that had the larger cultural world wondering if Clough, who had been the longtime president of Georgia Tech, understood the basic values of humanist scholarship on which the Smithsonian was founded.
What a difference a year, and 230 miles, makes. On Nov. 18, “Hide/Seek” reopened at the Brooklyn Museum, with the Wojnarowicz video reinstated. When it closes in February, it will travel to the Tacoma Art Museum. Clough’s blunder not only helped make “Hide/Seek” one of the most popular show ever mounted at the National Portrait Gallery, it continues to bring it new audiences from around the country.
The usual people made the usual noises before the Brooklyn opening, but the drama played out very differently. A back-channel effort to censor the show by Brooklyn Catholic Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who wrote a private letter to the museum’s board president asking that the video be removed, failed to gain traction. The Catholic League issued increasingly vitriolic statements about the show, saying that Wojnarowicz, who succumbed to AIDS in 1992, “died of self-inflicted wounds.” But unlike Clough, the Brooklyn Museum’s director, Arnold Lehman, refused to take the bait.
“There have been thousands and thousands of pre-programmed e-mails, and what we thought was originally a private correspondence was released to the press, asking that the Wojnarowicz video be pulled,” Lehman says of DiMarzio’s letter. But the video will stay.
“We are very conscious that we have a long and committed reputation for freedom of expression and against censorship,” says Lehman.
The difference between the leadership styles of Clough and Lehman doesn’t alone account for the successful reprise of the uncensored show in Brooklyn. The cultural politics of Washington and New York are very different. The Brooklyn Museum has long experience serving a uniquely diverse audience and, as “Hide/Seek” co-curator David Ward points out, it isn’t federally funded and doesn’t sit in the center of the nation’s capital.
But more than anything else, the pace of cultural change on gay and lesbian issues is so rapid that even a year may have transformed the dynamics.