The Corcoran Gallery of Art is presenting a day-long panel on the reemergence of the Culture Wars. The event was organized to discuss the aftermath of the Smithsonian Institution’s decision to pull a video from the recent “Hide/Seek” exhibition.
Interestingly, the Corcoran is beating the Smithsonian to its own discussion. The Corcoran event is scheduled for March 26, and was announced Tuesday to its subscribers. The Smithsonian previously announced it would hold a public forum on April 26 and 27 to review the decision to pull David Wojnarowicz’s video from the show on gender and sexuality in art after objections were raised by conservatives.
What is also noteworthy is how appropriate the Corcoran is for a history lesson on how the Culture Wars of the 1980s and 1990s got started. In 1989 the Corcoran cancelled a show by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The Corcoran wanted to avoid the debates on Capitol Hill about funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, which then gave grants to individual artists. The flashpoint was a 1987 photograph by Andres Serrano, who produced a work of a crucifix floating in his own urine. He had received funding from the NEA.
Influential lawmakers decried Serrano’s work and threatened to kill the arts endowment. The Corcoran’s decision only added to the debate among artists, supporters of arts funding, and freedom of speech groups. The Mapplethorpe show was eventually shown at the Washington Project for the Arts.
The renewed fight over censorship and political pressure began in late November. After receiving complaints from Capitol Hill about the Wojnarowicz video, which had a few seconds of a picture of ants crawling on a crucifix, Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough removed the video. That caused an uproar among artists and advocates for freedom of expression. Clough stood by his decision saying the controversial video distracted from the rest of the show but admitted the decision has been made too quickly and without much consultation.
“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” was a groundbreaking show for an American museum, especially the publicly funded National Portrait Gallery. It was the first at a national institution to focus on images of gay identity and sexuality and was the largest show the gallery had organized. It closed Feb. 13. Clough is planning to lead the April discussions on how to present controversial topics at a museum, the role of a national museum and other issues.
Also on the agenda at the Corcoran will be a discussion of the pledges by some Republican leaders on Capitol Hill to eliminate or decrease funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Smithsonian and other public cultural offices.
“Culture Wars: Then and Now,” the Corcoran program will be free and open to the public on March 26 from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.