Another view on the National Portrait Gallery Imbroglio

By now, many of you may have heard of the outcries of censorship for the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video, “A Fire in My Belly,” which was part of the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” a celebration of gay and lesbian portraiture.  Protests were heard round the globe, and an impromptu march upon the National Portrait Gallery for removing the piece was held late last week. Exortations of “It’s Mapplethorpe all over again!” referring to another outcry by the public funders of art over a proposed and then subsequently withdrawn Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which ultimately forced the resignation of the museum’s director in 1989. (I won’t go into the popular theory that Mapplethorpe would have been nothing without the support and influence of his rich patrician lover Sam Wagstaff, but do direct you to the excellent film, Black, White, and Gray, about Wagstaff and Mapplethorpe so that you might draw your own conclusions.)

I viewed the “Fire in my Belly” piece, and have to admit was pretty non-plussed with it all.  Transformer Gallery in Washington immediately took the work and put it on display.  It’s freedom of speech was actually not suppressed at all, just removed from one publicly funded gallery, to an independently funded one (though probably still funded by government funds through DC Commission on the arts and humanities, but I digress).  And A LOT more people heard and viewed the work, people like myself who never would have sat through it in the National Portrait Gallery.  Thus I would argue that this is probably the best thing that could have happened to Mr. Wojnarowicz, who made the video in response to a friend’s death from aids.  Making art from tragedy and injustice is a worthwhile response, and indeed the best art mediates the personal for me.  That said, making art from tragedy and injustice does not automatically make art worthwhile.  Though I humbly admit that this is my subjective response to the piece. The video did do one thing for me, and that is get me thinking about shock and awe in the art world.

See, I’ve been having conservations with artists lately about newness in art, how if it is new, it often is perceived as great regardless if all we are left with is an empty urinal, proverbially speaking and with apologies to Marcel, who I admire.  The same holds true with art meant to shock.  In our post-Duchamp world, we have become more inured to the shock which calls for greater and greater lengths taken to achieve the same effect (this best exemplified by the economic theory: the law of diminishing returns, but it applies to other modern cultural entities as well, the Dallas Cheerleaders uniforms come to mind).

I remember vividly a performance art piece here in DC a few years back in which a local artist circumcised himself in a “performance piece,” which for me was just meta-reality television sans screen, yes, even the curator was shocked, but to what end.  The dangling bit of foreskin remained on the wall post-performance, a tangible post-mortem of the fete.

So, while going over last week’s paper pile this AM, I was intrigued to discover Eric Felten’s remarkably cogent essay, “After the Shock is Gone,” which articulated for me, some of the befuddlement going in my head.  You can read the complete text here, and I’ll highlight some favorite lines:

Perhaps the museum capitulated for reasons of pure politics—why, they may well have reasoned, make it too easy for the new GOP House majority to find a place to cut the federal budget? (One can imagine NPR was hoping the Portrait Gallery would hold its ground, if only to divert fire from Capitol Hill.) But maybe just as salient in the curators’ calculations was a sense that the art in question was hardly worth going to the mattresses over.

Salman Rushdie—whose credentials at discomfiting theocrats are unimpeachable—has lamented how lame and predictable transgressive art has become: “Once the new was shocking, not because it set out to shock, but because it set out to be new. Now, all too often, the shock is the new. And shock, in our jaded culture, wears off easily.”

Where does that leave the artist or curator who wants to shake things up? According to Mr. Rushdie, he “must try harder and harder, go further and further, and this escalation may now have become the worst kind of artistic self-indulgence.”

Who knows how long it will take for the one-trick transgressives to realize that they don’t have the impact they imagine, and soon may have no impact at all. I look forward to the day when—like the Grinch, straining to hear the boo-hoos from Whoville only to hear singing—the artists who fancied they could shock with their trite antics discover their targets are unperturbed, unfazed and uninterested.

Which is why I don’t plan to contribute to stifling anyone’s freedom of outré expression. I’ll be too busy stifling a yawn.

It all also brings to mind a conversation I was having with my uncle over Thanksgiving.  He was complaining that Sen. Harry Reid (D/NV) supports the NRA.  I devil’s advocated that shouldn’t a lawmaker reflect the desires of his/her constituents and that the good people of Nevada were certainly pro-NRA.  Uncle countered that a lawmaker should be a leader.  Agreed, I responded, but if this particular leader didn’t support the NRA, he most certainly would not be in a position to be a leader, in fact, I believe he was re-elected by a thin margin as it was, without his support of the NRA, he certainly would have been trounced. So sometimes leadership is about compromise.

My point? We must pick our battles. Accept compromise sometimes.  The outcry against the Hide/Seek video only amplified it’s voice, so who really won here?  I applaud the National Portrait Gallery for hosting a depiction of gay and lesbian portraiture in the first place, rather than decry a conciliatory gesture that ultimately did no harm.  You want to know about the curtailing of free speech? Go to Russia, where if you speak the pravda you end up underground.

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