By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; C05
NEW YORK - The Catholic League's William Donohue, the man who scared the Smithsonian into pulling a David Wojnarowicz video from a highly acclaimed exhibition of gay and lesbian portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery, takes a pragmatic view of the culture wars.
"You have to know when to step on the gas and when to step on the brakes," Donohue said Wednesday afternoon from his 34th-floor office in midtown Manhattan. Which is one reason that he was going for a beer that night, and not planning on attending a conversation at the New York Public Library featuring the exhibition's curators, Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward.
"There was a fast remedy, and if I overreact, I run the risk of becoming a fool," said Donohue. In other words: With the 1987 video by the gay artist, who died of AIDS, deleted from the exhibition, his work is done.
At the standing-room-only Public Library event - which was scheduled long before the Smithsonian controversy erupted into what many fear is a new and volatile chapter in the museum culture wars after a decade-long hiatus - it was clear that Ward and Katz's work is just beginning. The challenge was to talk about art when everybody else wanted to talk about controversy, and yet not duck the controversy, when the Smithsonian is being accused of caving quickly, cravenly and foolishly to political pressure.
The stakes for the two scholars, who have put on perhaps the highest-profile and most canonically scholarly exhibition of gay and lesbian art ever mounted in a major museum, are high. If controversy pushes art off the agenda, then the critics of the show have won. The deep and surprisingly rich history of gay imagery that has been hidden in plain sight over more than a century of American art would disappear once again, and the title of the exhibition, "Hide/Seek," would take on yet more layers of irony.
Which is why Katz and Ward tried to give an art history lecture, working their way through the show, slide by slide, starting with 19th-century icon Walt Whitman and a racy painting of boxers by Thomas Eakins. They barely made it to the Abstract Expressionists, many of whom were homosexual and coded their work with complex references to desire for each other, before the clock ticked toward question-and-answer time. And then the controversy was unavoidable.
Katz lamented that gays and lesbians were "once again being offered as raw meat" to political activists and the Catholic League, which he accused of being a hate group and anti-Semitic. "We have an American Taliban that we have not called as such," he said.
Ward decried the lack of deliberation and the speed of the decision by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough to censor the video. Ward said that there should have been at least "a fighting retreat."
But it was clear that neither Ward nor Katz wants the Portrait Gallery to suffer the weight of the controversy, which is looking more and more like a referendum on Clough's tenure.
It's also becoming an increasingly internecine debate within the museum world. While the Association of Art Museum Directors has denounced the Smithsonian's decision as "extremely regrettable," members of the audience criticized another group, the American Association of Museums (and its leader, Ford Bell), for taking a weak stand on the subject.
The Andy Warhol Foundation has also threatened to stop giving money to Smithsonian programs, and a prominent museum leader, Olga Viso, director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and former director of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, has suggested that her former employer "has perhaps lost touch with some of the core principles and spirit of its establishment."
Katz and Ward said they now worry about the lasting effect on the Portrait Gallery and on other institutions that might think twice about shows depicting gay subject matter, as well as on the dispiriting effect of criticism from the left at a time when the museum and cultural world should be mounting a concerted resistance to the right.
"People from the left side of the aisle are enforcing ideological purity on us," said Ward, who added that he is "now concerned with the existential threat to the museum." He compared the situation to the cultural politics of Weimar Germany, when the right was radical and zealous, the left fratricidal and the center exhausted and cynical.
But not everyone in the audience wanted to accept the nuanced message of the curators, which was: See the show, give the National Portrait Gallery its due for mounting it and regret a stupid decision without nuking the Smithsonian.
One man asked whether the Portrait Gallery's director, Martin Sullivan, was in the audience. He was.
"I'd like to send a direct message to you to put the video back," said Bill Dobbs, who was organizing a protest march for Sunday that is scheduled to begin at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and end at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, a Manhattan outpost of the Smithsonian.
There was loud applause and a brief effort at chanting.
"Yeah, I know," said Sullivan, responding directly to Dobbs. "And I know a lot of people are angry." He said the decision was complicated by the architecture of the exhibition. If the curators had a separate video theater, they might have been able to segregate the video for viewers squeamish about Wojnarowicz's imagery, which included an 11-second scene of ants crawling on a crucifix.
"The specific decision was the secretary's," he said. "We have a parent institution."
Sullivan looked exhausted, and despite Ward and Katz's efforts to praise the Portrait Gallery, it wasn't a friendly room. "Sometimes you don't get what you want," Sullivan said.
"He's talking out of both sides of his mouth," Dobbs said of Sullivan after the event.
Clough, who used his annual Christmas message to Smithsonian employees to defend his decision to remove the video, wasn't in the audience. And somewhere in New York, Donohue, who helped fan the flames of the controversy, was having a brew.