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 but 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 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 to discuss the aftermath of the two incidents decades apart.
“The culture wars are back,” Storr said, speaking to 100 people. Critics are insatiable and clever, he said. “We have to be cleverer.”
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,” Barrie said.
Now opponents on Capitol 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 canceled the Mapplethorpe show because of political pressure in 1989.
The Wojnarowicz video was removed in November from the show “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” It included a brief image 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 outside the museum. Bill Dobbs, director of Art +, agreed that the reaction from the art world, despite dozens of panel discussions and protests, was muted. “The outcome of the conflict was very mixed. The video was not returned. The Smithsonian regents supported the secretary, Wayne Clough,” Dobbs said.
Victoria Reis, executive and artistic director of Transformer Gallery, called for better strategy among those protecting free speech. “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 every day?”
After the Smithsonian removed the video, Transformer immediately screened the work. The gallery was one of Saturday’s sponsors, along with the Corcoran and the National Coalition Against Censorship.