The New War on the Arts: Wojnarowicz at the National Portrait Gallery

David WojnarowiczOn the heels of the recently mid-term elections, the reinvigorated extreme right wing has re-ignited the war on culture–this time with the complicity of the U.S. National Portrait Gallery.  The Gallery, a component of the Smithsonian institution, is removing a video work by renown artist David Wojnarowicz after criticism from Republican Congressional Representatives and the Catholic League.

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition, “Hide and Seek,” opened on October 30th and runs through February 13, 2011.  The exhibition features several artists and is described as, “… the first major museum exhibition showing how questions of gender and sexual identity have dramatically shaped the creation of modern American portraiture.”  Along with Wojnarowicz, the exhibition includes works by Thomas Eakins, Georgia O’Keefe, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Keith Haring, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others.

David Wojnarowicz is well known for his visual art concerning AIDS and sexuality.  In 1990 he successfully sued the American Family Association for improper use of his images under the New York Artist’s Authorship Rights Act, winning nominal damages.  The artist died of AIDS in 1992.

Martin E. Sullivan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, apparently tried to defend the Wojnarowicz video, but the artwork was still removed.  He described the video, “A Fire in My Belly,” as concerning the effects of AIDS in Latin American culture.

According to the New York Times, Representatives Eric Kantor (Virginia) and Jack Kingston (Georgia) were critical of the display of Wojnarowicz’ artwork.  In an eccho of the 1990’s GOP attacks on the arts, Rep. Kingston referred to Wojnarowicz’ video  as “in-your-face perversion paid for by tax dollars.”  Rep. Cantor claimed that it was an “obvious attempt” to offend Christians, also citing the use of tax dollars.

Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, an organization that is not officially affiliated with the Church, in the Times interview, disputed the significance of the artist’s perspective, and apparently the human catastrophe of AIDS altogether saying, “I’m not going to buy the argument that this is some statement about some poor guy dying of AIDS.”

The National Portrait Gallery belongs to all the people, and AIDS has had a profound effect on this country and all Americans.  That this artwork was removed in this way, due to political pressure particularly, is shameful, despite the contrition of Mr. Sullivan.  Artists and anyone else concerned with First Amendment rights, the sanctioning of homophobia in our public institutions, or the reality of AIDS–historically or presently–should be appalled by this action and the NPG’s complicity Smithsonian leadership’s willing participation in it.

Update 12/12/2010: Frank Rich, in the NY Times, clarified that Donohue’s Catholic League has no official or financial connection to the Catholic Church.  Rich also writes about the creation of “Fire in My Belly,” artists responses to the AIDS crisis, the blatant homophobic decision to censor the NPG exhibition, the ruse of a religious offence, and the underlying right-wing politics underlying it all.

Recommended reading:  Frank Rich, Gay Bashing at the Smithsonian


Wojnarowicz v. American Family Association and case summary on

Summary of New York Artists Authorship Act on

Smithsonian/National Portrait Gallery press release announcing the “Hide and Seek” exhibition.

Above is a well-known image of David Wojnarowicz, frequently associated with the “Silence = Death” slogan used to promote activism in the fight against AIDS.

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