Hide/Seek' pushes boundaries: Art lecture centers around recent exhibition controversy

Posted by Sandy Zhang

Censorship in art has always been a controversial issue in the U.S., a country that prides itself in the freedom of speech and the liberty of expression.

In an effort to bring this controversial issue onto the college campus, Jonathan Katz, co-curator of the "Hide/Seek" exhibit, spoke on Friday Feb. 18 in the Payne Room at the Tang Museum.

The issue of censorship recently surfaced last December with the opening of the "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" exhibit of the National Portrait Gallery, an art gallery administered by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

"Hide/Seek" is the first major exhibit in an American museum to pioneer and explore visual representations of queerness and differences in sexuality, gender and sexual desire.

On Dec. 1, secretary of the Smithsonian, Wayne Clough, succumbed to political pressures from the right and pulled a four-minute excerpt of David Wojnarowicz's film "A Fire In My Belly" from the exhibit.

The Catholic League, a Catholic civil rights organization, along with congressional Representatives John Boehner and Eric Cantor, condemned a scene in the video that showed ants crawling on a crucifix and asked that the House and Senate Appropriations Committees reconsider the federal funding of the museum if it was going to house what they considered to be an anti-Christian fare. 

John Weber, director of the Tang, introduced Katz and opened the lecture saying, "We think it's an issue for the whole country, obviously it should be an issue for Skidmore as well. It's an issue that has to do with accepting differing points of view and understandings of artworks, and public discourse."

He stressed the importance of holding such lectures and drawing attention to the issue. "We felt very strongly that Wojnarowiz's video should not have been removed from the exhibition. We wanted to add our voices to the many art and museum communities around the country that are protesting and lamenting that decision," he said

"What we're trying to do here is try to learn more about what happened and the context for it, and then we can decide what it means for the future," said Ian Berry, chief curator of the Tang.

Katz started the event with a presentation of the other selected pieces that were a part of the "Hide/Seek" exhibition.

The presentation featured works by George Belloys, Jasper Johns, Romaine Brooks, Andy Warhol and other 20th century artists. Katz discussed the historical contexts of the works, the backgrounds of the artists and the different representations of queerness, gender and sexual desire.

The highlight and focus of the event, however, was the screening of both Wojnarowicz's unedited 13-minute "A Fire in My Belly" and the condensed four-minute version edited by Katz.

Both versions include graphic portrayals of fire, blood, flesh and the controversial crucifix. Katz was forced to cut down the film to meet the gallery's screen-time standard.

A discussion between Katz and Berry followed the presentation and screening. Katz claimed that the Catholic League used the crucifix scene in the video as a red herring to attack the exhibit as a whole.

Katz also shared that Clough immediately made the decision to remove the video without consulting the curators of the exhibit or considering the alternative options offered by the museum.

Additionally, congressional Republicans threatened to cut $100 million from the budget of the Smithsonian if Wojnarowicz's film was not removed.

The conversation also took on a tone of regret at the general unwillingness of American museums to openly explore and discuss the role of sexual desire that is clearly present in the artists and the works they produce.

Katz stated that even if larger American museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art display works by queer artists and works about queerness, they refuse to talk about these themes.

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