Intifada of the Culture Wars: On the Censorship of the National Portrait Gallery

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You can’t say you weren’t warned.

Explicitly and often during 2009 and 2010, I warned here at the CFR that the culture wars would return. And they are.

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On Feb. 7, 2009, I wrote a post called The Coming Backlash Against Artists and Arts Funding. In it, I asked if arts advocates understood, near-term, that the $50 million in extra stimulus funding requested by the Obama Administration for the National Endowment for the Arts was an aberration — that stewards of the creative economy must have a better vision. No, much easier for certain executive directors to keep a dossier on me.

On March 31, 2009, I wrote a post called Has the Backlash Against the Arts Arrived in the Form of Gov. Bobby Jindal? That, at least so far, turns out not to be the case, but I did go through the cuts in public arts appropriations up until that point, and concluded three things:

  1. We need new solutions to funding the arts that go beyond the belief that public arts funding is the key to everything.
  2. We need new solutions to the politicization of the arts by those who just don’t get it.
  3. We need to plan for the backlash now.

I stuck to that and I’m not ashamed of it.

A few months passed.

On Sept. 11, 2009, I wrote a post called New NEA Chair Rocco Landesman Produces Paroxysms and Purrs. I wanted to weigh in on interview Landesman gave to Robin Pogrebin of the New York Times, including one quote that the arts “are a little bit of a target.” And at least one early indication that the culture wars would be back.

Also on Sept. 11, 2009, in a separate post called Glenn Beck Stirs Pot; Sen. Cornyn Warns Obama Over Misusing NEA, I developed additional reasons for why I believed the culture wars would be back, why censorship might once more rise as an issue among American creative artists. Yeah, I just rouse rabble.

On Oct. 7, 2009, I wrote a post covering the rather acrimonious exchange between Landesman and 10 sitting GOP senators. The title of the post: NEA Chairman Landesman Tells 10 GOP Senators, Nicely, to Shut the Hell Up. You could almost feel the radical right itching for a fight.

On Jan. 28, 2010, I wrote a post called Helping Hayhurst: Radical-Right Bias Against the Arts, reacting to a post written by Zack Hayhurst on the blog Artistic Discourse, reacting to reading Bill Ivey’s book Art’s Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights. I wrote that the right-wing has a hunger for a “fiery, devil-may-care re-arming of the culture wars of the early ’90s.”

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On June 1, 2010, I wrote a post called The NEA Might Fund Individual Artists Again. But Should It? To his immense credit, Landesman has been publicly talking about this. I really do mean that he deserves immense credit for raising the issue. But I cautioned about the midterm elections and what might happen after them:

Who believes, if the midterm elections go well for the Republicans, a pro-arts…sentiment will grow across the nation? Who believes, if the midterm elections don’t go well for the Republicans, that any move to reinstate individual funding would not be met with a reigniting of the culture wars?

And now we have the upset, the hysteria, the fury, the volcano, the miasma of the Republican-led, Republican-driven censorship of part of an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. What a shock. How utterly without warning, precedent or prediction. Who could have seen this coming? No, no, no, no — the creative community could never have planned for such a thing. This is the Pearl Harbor of culture! We were caught unawares.

Such hogwash.

The coverage has been very good and it’s about time that the communityacross disciplines — got itself together in a serious way and opened its collective mouth.

And I don’t mean petitions. Petitions? Really? Online petitions? Really? That’s sufficient? That makes you feel like you’re standing up and doing something while you go back to The Big Bang Theory? (No offense to The Big Bang Theory.)

I guess it’ll have to be. We’re Americans.

We haven’t the guts to strike like the Italians. Nope, we might lose business.

We haven’t the guts to rail like the Irish or the Brits — although we have a tradition of nonviolence in this country that gets results, and that is something also we should take pride in.

Still, we sign digital petitions. How lame. No wonder we get the arts we deserve.

And of that, my friends, I am ashamed.

At least, Jonathan Katz, co-curator of the censored exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery has some inner strength:

This is a culture war we did not seek out, nor start. But appeasing tyranny has never worked and can never work, for tyranny wants only obedience, and blind obedience is antithetical to what this nation stands for; we were, as a people, born in protest to tyranny. Were the men and women whose portraits grace the National Portrait Gallery able to take a stand, I have little doubt they would line up behind the separation of Church and State, enshrined in our Constitution, that this incident calls so painfully into question. Furthermore, they would readily agree that America’s core value, also enshrined in our Constitution, is our freedom of speech. With this as our defining principle, it stands to reason we will disagree, but our disagreements are healthy, even necessary to achieving a genuine democracy. We should be promoting this national conversation, not killing it. Art in general, and this kind of art in particular, is precisely a spur to conversation and to thought–something all civil society should support and celebrate. But when the Smithsonian, under pressure to be sure, starts bowing to its censors, it abrogates its charge as our National museum.

So I will indeed sign a petition against censorship at the National Portrait Gallery.

Here is some copy about the John Boehner and Eric Cantor assault on the Constitution even before the GOP takes full control of the House of Representatives:

…an exhibition called ‘Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture’ came under attack by Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League, incoming House Speaker John Boehner, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, because of a video piece by famous American artist David Wojnarowicz that they declared a form of “hate speech.”

Featuring an image of a cross with ants crawling on it (about 4 seconds in a much larger work), these conservative politicians have grasped onto a tiny aspect of a controversial exhibition and threatened the National Portrait Gallery with intense review of their federal funding. Eric Cantor said in an interview with Fox that it was an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.” (The museum is federally funded, but the exhibition was privately funded).

While this is a shallow and inaccurate analysis of the exhibition (as far as I know, not one of the objectors has seen the exhibition or even the full video work entitled “A Fire in My Belly”), what is most shocking is that the National Portrait Gallery removed the video from the exhibition.

This is blatant censorship.

And it happened 21 years ago when the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition, set to go up at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1989, was canceled due to a similar threat by Senator Jesse Helms to pull Federal funding because of the show’s homoerotic content.

History is repeating itself.

It certainly is.