When The New York Times reported on December 1, 2010 that the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. “removed [David Wojnarowicz's video A Fire in My Belly] from an exhibition and apologized for its content after the video was criticized by the Catholic League and members of the House of Representatives for being offensive to Christians” (emphasis added), I was less surprised than I was in disbelief. After all, I am fully aware that the moral-cultural gatekeepers have not disappeared since Jesse Helms’s heydays during the 1990s where he paraded Robert Mapplethorpe photographs as the poisoned outcomes funded by taxpayers’ dollars through the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It soon became clear that Helms’ appeal to the perversion of taxpayer moneys was merely a red herring that disguised his and America’s trenchant homophobia (and racism as the excerpt from my book points out). It is worth noting that in this current state of affairs, taxpayer dollars are not at issue. According to Christopher Knight of The Los Angeles Times, the Portrait Gallery is privately funded. If the anxiety of losing institutional funding is no longer the reason that one censors, one can only assume that those put in charge of consecrating America’s “Art” must fully subscribe to the moral doctrine dictated by Christians and their congressional lackeys.
My disbelief—and thus not my surprise—came about because this egregious act of censorship against A Fire in My Belly occurred on World AIDS Day, an event that once brought the art world to a standstill so that it might recognize the devastating losses AIDS wreaked on the creative worlds. The magnitude of these losses affected both artists and, as Fran Lebowtiz recently points out, the audience who, in myriad ways, gave life to the works of art. Moreover, World AIDS Day intended to remind the public about the aesthetic-political energies at work in AIDS activism, from large-scale protests at the National Institutes of Health to staged ‘die-ins’ that blocked New-York traffic. In other words, the political performances, the work of art, successfully raised consciousness about governmental inaction and apathy. Today, World AIDS Day is marked by Lady Gaga forfeiting Twitter so that she can ‘digitally die’ and raise money for AIDS organizations and research. Apparently Lady Gaga remained dead until a pharmaceutical businessman resurrected her on December 8, 2010.
My disbelief also took hold because on the day when the art world is meant to defend queer art and artists, to scream out against censorship, and to stand firm for the historical and contemporary artists who consistently and with fury announce the hypocrisy of Christian ‘love they neighbor’ as AIDS ravages the globe, the National Portrait Gallery administration acquiesced to those who wish to erase not only the histories left in Wojnarowicz’s wake; more terrifyingly, they seek to erase the histories that are yet to come.
Fortunately, protests have taken place across the country (albeit with very mediocre media coverage) and several very smart essays have been penned that clearly spell out the insidious decisions played out in Washington. Art historian and curator Jonathan Katz is speaking in several public forums about this spectacle and a new generation of protestors, Mike Blasenstein and Michael Dax, creatively and strategically ‘screened’ A Fire in My Belly on their iPad outside the exhibit’s doorway. Perhaps, and most importantly, Transformer—a Washington, D. C. gallery—refused to bow to conservative venom and calls for censorship. Brilliantly, Transformer is screening Wojnarowicz’s video in their storefront window on P Street. How gorgeous is that!
As such, the National Portrait Gallery’s title for their exhibit—”Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture”—is no longer a bon-mot riddle. Difference and [Sexual] Desire is on full display at Transformer and across the world via the Internet. Digital leaks are a wonderful thing. And while we have Wojnarowicz’s portraits, such as A Fire in My Belly, to thank for electrifying a movement as well as history’s remains, we must remember the black queers who so importantly gave face to the range of sexual desire and political aesthetics that in no way can be understood only as white. Before, during, and after the NEH showdown in the later 20th century, Richard Bruce Nugent, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Marlon Riggs (among others) offered portraits of themselves that challenged homophobia and racism. When AIDS entered the scene, Riggs forcefully drove home the cultural linkages Americans made between homophobia and racism when his queer black body with AIDS was (quite literally) put on display by Helms and Robertson as the ultimate abject body for conservative Christians’ agenda. As Queer Pollen shows, Riggs looked his inquisitors directly in the eye and challenged the greed and hate that left blood on their hands. It is time to revisit the lessons learned from Tongues Untied.
It is my hope that Queer Pollen awakens the queer histories—across race, sexual difference, and desire—that have taken shape before, during, and (hopefully someday) after the era of AIDS.
David A. Gerstner is a professor of cinema studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island and author of the forthcoming book Queer Pollen: White Seduction, Black Male Homosexuality, and the Cinematic.
Itzkoff, Dave. “Video Deemed Offensive Pulled by Portrait Gallery.” The New York Times (December 1, 2010) (accessed December 6, 2010).
Knight, Christopher. “Critic’s Notebook: Smithsonian Institution Fails to Stand Up to Anti-Gay Bullies.” The Los Angeles Times (December 6, 2010) (accessed December 6, 2010).
The following is excerpted from Chapter 3 of Queer Pollen:
Irresponsible Queers! “This Summer’s Version of the Mapplethorpe Controversy”
The criticisms of representation and funding battles over Ethnic Notions waged by both blacks and whites were a stroll through the proverbial park compared with what Riggs and the art world in the United States confronted during the late 1980s and into the 1990s. The queer artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Tim Miller (a.k.a. the “NEA Four”) took the spotlight as a result of the religious right and the U.S. government’s outrage over the funding of homosexual, or simply sexual, art. In his comprehensive coverage of the struggle between artists and government-funded art agencies during this period, Steven C. Dubin points to two politically charged energies driving this seemingly insurmountable culture battle. “A significant number of artists,” Dubin argues,
began to incorporate political and social topics into their work in the 1980s, a discernable trend unmatched in magnitude since their mobilization against the Vietnam War. This tendency burgeoned in two main directions. The first surveyed the landscape for signposts of racism, sexism, and homophobia. The immediate intention of the practitioners: to dismantle antiquated, derogatory expressions and erect more satisfactory depictions of diverse groups in their place. The ultimate goal: to redress past symbolic assaults and thereby contribute to a more just society. The second, related course was set by the devastating impact of AIDS. Artists targeted governmental mismanagement and inattention to the problem, channeled grief and resignation into action, and put a human face on a frightening pandemic.
Dubin’s book goes to great lengths in laying out the multiple venues across the United Stated in which this energized “political and social” art played out. Not all controversial art of the period, of course, met at the electrified intersection where the “signposts of racism, sexism, and homophobia” collided with the AIDS pandemic and “governmental mismanagement.” Flag burning, rap music, the Catholic church were often the recipients of discrete, creative political action. And, yet, even in cases where AIDS was not the specific target, its specter coincided with these highly politicized institutions. Two of the most polarizing artists who found themselves at the center of this intersection were Marlon Riggs and Robert Mapplethorpe. The Mapplethorpe controversy is well rehearsed on the matters of censorship—the (unsuccessful) indictment of obscenity brought against the Contemporary Art Center’s museum director, Dennis Barrie, in Cincinnati, and the artist’s defiant form and content that constitute his photography. And while Mapplethorpe stands in as the historical icon for America’s art putsch of the late twentieth century, the photographer maudit often upstages Riggs’s not dissimilar entanglement in this national furor.
What is it that was recorded in this art? What images shattered the moral compass for the likes of Jesse Helms, Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson, and Donald Wildmon (of the American Family Association [AFA])? When Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network’s “700 Club” news hour broadcast the headline, “This Summer’s Version of the Mapplethorpe Controversy”—a here-we-go-again moment—hit served to reconfirm conservatives’ anxiety over the audacious and defiant display of unapologetic homosexuality as art. The cultural storm that brewed, with Riggs and Mapplethorpe’s work situated front and center, circulated around culturally tender and complex issues that included (homo)eroticizing aesthetics, homosexuality as practice, and (in a number of instances) interracial desire.
Patricia A. Turner rightly reminds us that the conservative ire over Riggs and Mapplethorpe’s art occurs over what they have “in common.” “Both contain,” she writes, “a number of sexually provocative images of virile black men. Crafted to celebrate the erotic beauty one man can find in another’s body, the photographs and film offered the public representations of African American maleness unlike any that had been allowed near the mainstream before.” It is certainly true that both artists produced “provocative images of virile black men” that irked not only “mainstream” audiences. The images on which the conservatives seized do have something “in common,” although they “celebrate” something quite different than what Turner suggests. This commonality, however, is not entirely reserved for matters of representation per se. Both artists, for example, directly participated within the cultural milieus they included in their artwork. The erotic core of male-to-male desire we see in the films and photographs draws upon lived experiences that intermingled race, sexuality, gender, and politics, though Mapplethorpe was less political—or perhaps it is better to say differently political—than Riggs.
But it is their work in the self-portrait genre on which I wish to concentrate; it is here that their “commonality” takes a significant turn. Riggs and Mapplethorpe convene through the genre’s form, since their work hinged on their anticipation of death that AIDS made imminent. This use of content and the generic form associated with the self-portrait proves to be a pivotal common denominator, particularly with their impending death at hand and, aesthetically, in their hands. The images generated through this specific form (re)turned the governing look of the moralists with urgency and political import. For Riggs, the stakes for the responsibility of the look were yet again raised. Facing death, looking outward and straight back at those who sought their elimination, queer artists rehearsed and celebrated their desire in ways unimaginable and beyond the limitations of what was deemed responsible representation.