Culture  Getting fired up

Curator of controversial exhibition "Hide/Seek" speaks on censorship and funding risks

Jonathan D. Katz was already renowned in the academic community for his scholarship in visual art and queer studies when he skyrocketed to public attention last fall as co-curator of the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery, an affiliate of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. In a lecture at Concordia on March 4, he discussed the controversial removal of Fire in My Belly (1987), a film by artist and gay activist David Wojnarowicz, from the exhibition as an act of censorship and part of the widespread “aggressive policing of queer representation” – as Katz called it during his lecture – in the museum system.

“Hide/Seek” is described on the National Portrait Gallery’s website as the first major museum exhibition to focus on themes of sexual difference in the representation of modern America. Katz explained that until this landmark exhibition, the museum system has been willing to acknowledge sexual difference as a biographical fact, but not as a significant influence on artistic production. The exhibit thus sought to consider the works of queer artists as active producers of meaning within the culture of sexual difference of their time. “Hide/Seek” included paintings, photography, and films from the late 19th century to the present, by such artists as Thomas Eakins, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Keith Haring.

The exhibition was open to the public for one month before Fire in My Belly became the source of outcry. Wojnarowicz’s film consists primarily of raw footage of corpses and religious icons that accompany the rituals of Day of the Dead ceremonies in Mexico.  He combines these striking extant images with footage of himself of sewing together a loaf of broken bread and stitching his lips shut to create a profound meditation upon the disturbing omnipresence of death in the world around him. With permission from the artist’s estate (Wojnarowicz died of an AIDS related illness in 1992), Katz added a score of chanting from a protest held by AIDS activist group ACT UP in order to emphasize Wojnarowicz’s powerful imagery as emblematic of the experience of living with AIDS under Reaganism.

The Catholic League – whom Katz described as “widely known as a hate group” – raised objections to Fire in My Belly, specifically to an 11 second image of ants crawling across a crucifix that had been dropped on the ground, calling it a deliberate act of “hate speech” against Catholics. Katz, however, rejects the claim that their objections had anything to do with art or religion: “it’s about raw meat politics…an ascendant Tea Party flexing its muscles,” he said in his lecture.  Indeed, the Catholic League’s objections were rapidly taken up by numerous Republican representatives who criticized the display as a misuse of tax payer money and called for a reconsideration of the Smithsonian’s budget. The film was removed from the exhibition within three days of the Catholic League’s protest.

Katz discussed the censorship at his Concordia lecture, referencing both the exhibition itself, and the overall trend of policing content in museums.  While Katz, who was not consulted in the removal of Wojnarowicz’s work, condemns the decision as an act of “cowardice,” he still praises the museum for “breaking the blacklist” on queer representation in major museums by mounting the exhibition in the first place: “they knew they were doing something dangerous and did it anyway.” He claims that this is even more remarkable due to the National Portrait Gallery’s status as a public institution that relies on government funding. As was demonstrated, by choosing to exhibit progressive material, public institutions are exposed to the very real threat of losing their financial livelihood.

In Katz’s experience, privately funded institutions are even more unwilling to mount potentially controversial material, even though they face fewer potential consequences. He described the numerous rejections he faced from prominent private institutions when proposing “Hide/Seek,” blaming the fact that museums are “increasingly an extension of private capital.” The operations of major art institutions are increasingly dominated by the dictates of the market, rather than a mandate of public service and social progress.

According to Katz, “Where queer scholarship meets the public [is] the museum world, and that is foreclosed.” While the exhibition of “Hide/Seek” in a major public institution is indeed an important and progressive move, the National Portrait Gallery’s willingness to submit to a blatantly intolerant and misguided criticism of Wojnarowicz’s work indicates that the fight for queer representation is far from over.