Let's start with common ground

Before I start disagreeing with Frank Rich's latest column in the Times, let me begin by agreeing with him on a major point.

William Donohue, of the Catholic League, is a despicable anti-Semite and all-around horrible human being. Quotes like this make it obvious:
Who really cares what Hollywood thinks? All these hacks come out there. Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. It‘s not a secret, OK? And I‘m not afraid to say it. That‘s why they hate ["The Passion of the Christ"]. It‘s about Jesus Christ, and it‘s about truth. It‘s about the messiah.
And there you have it.

However, Donohue isn't really the focus of Rich's piece. Rather, he writes about a kerfuffle at the National Portrait Gallery and its "Hide/Seek" exhibition. The exhibition, you see, is about The Gays.
...When his mentor and former lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, fell ill with AIDS in 1987, Wojnarowicz created a video titled “A Fire in My Belly” to express both his grief and his fury. As in Haring’s altarpiece, Christ figures in Wojnarowicz’s response to the plague — albeit in a cryptic, 11-second cameo. A crucifix is besieged by ants that evoke frantic souls scurrying in panic as a seemingly impassive God looked on.

Hujar died in 1987, and Wojnarowicz would die at age 37, also of AIDS, in 1992. This is now ancient, half-forgotten history. When a four-minute excerpt from “A Fire in My Belly” was included in an exhibit that opened six weeks ago at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, it received no attention. That’s hardly a surprise, given the entirety of this very large show — a survey of same-sex themes in American portraiture titled “Hide/Seek.” The works of Wojnarowicz, Hujar and other lesser known figures are surrounded by such lofty (and often unlikely) bedfellows (many gay, some not) as Robert Mapplethorpe, John Singer Sargent, Grant Wood, Thomas Eakins, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Andrew Wyeth and Haring. It’s an exhibit that would have been unimaginable in a mainstream institution in Wojnarowicz’s lifetime.

The story might end there — like Haring’s altarpiece, a bittersweet yet uplifting postscript to a time of plague. But it doesn’t because “Fire in My Belly” was removed from the exhibit by the National Portrait Gallery some 10 days ago with the full approval, if not instigation, of its parent institution, the Smithsonian. (The censored version of “Hide/Seek” is still scheduled to run through Feb. 13.) The incident is chilling because it suggests that even in a time of huge progress in gay civil rights, homophobia remains among the last permissible bigotries in America. “Think anti-gay bullying is just for kids? Ask the Smithsonian,” wrote The Los Angeles Times’s art critic, Christopher Knight, last week. One might add: Think anti-gay bullying is just for small-town America? Look at the nation’s capital. [emphasis mine]

As to whether anti-gay bullying is going on in the nation's capital, I would say "yes." The bully is, of course, John McCain, and the venue isn't the National Portrait Gallery but the Senate, where he has managed to preserve an unjust, discriminatory and unpopular military policy.

It's also not worth arguing that Donohue and his fellow travelers are targeting the exhibition because of its focus on gays. (One wonders what motivates Eric Cantor to throw in his lot with the likes of such an unrepentant Jew-hater, but politics makes for strange bedfellows.) To pretend otherwise is preposterous.

However, the waters we're looking through seem pretty muddy to me. Beyond the obvious homophobia, there is the problem of depicting religious iconography in art. When such imagery is used in controversial (or, some might sight, confrontational) art, it has the potential to raise the hackles of religious people, homophobic or otherwise. Remember "Piss Christ"? How about Chris Ofili's "The Holy Virgin Mary"? Both controversies had to do with religious imagery absent any connection to homosexuality. (I happen to like the latter, but think Andres Serrano is a hack.) While combining religious themes and homosexuality is likely to generate controversy, anger at artistic impiety doesn't necessarily signal homophobia.

Furthermore, let's clear away some of the rhetoric and be honest. I've not seen "Fire in the Belly," so I'm in no position to comment. However, I've seen plenty of Robert Mapplethorpe's work.

Writes Rich:
The incident is also a throwback to the culture wars we thought we were getting past now — most eerily the mother of them all, the cancellation of a Mapplethorpe exhibit (after he died of AIDS) at another Washington museum, the Corcoran, in 1989.
From the Times, in an article about the controversy in 1989:
''Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment,'' an exhibition of more than 150 works, many of them explicit homoerotic and violent images, was partly financed with a grant of $30,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, an agency already under fire from Congress for its grant policies. The exhibition was to have opened on July 1.
I know I'm supposed to fall all over myself defending Robert Mapplethorpe. He's considered a brave AIDS martyr, and it's in the fine print of my Gay Person in Good Standing membership card that I'm always to take the side of his art when the subject comes up. And yet, I won't. While much of his work is quite beautiful, plenty of it is sufficiently sexual, graphic and confrontational to make me understand why people would neither want to see it nor wish to subsidize its exhibition with public funds. I would rather crazy glue my nostrils together than agree with the likes of William Donohue about anything, but I refuse to go to bat for a picture of someone with a whip sticking out of his wazoo. I'm sure there are gay-friendly people aplenty who'd just as soon avoid seeing those images, too.

My last little bit of spleen goes to the National Portrait Gallery itself, and could just as easily apply to the Corcoran in 1989. Say what you will about the merit of the works in question, once you decide to display them then you should expect controversy. Either defend your decision and offer people the option of seeing the exhibition and making up their own minds, or defer displaying the controversial pieces to begin with. Both seem like reasonable choices to me. Folding under pressure from the likes of Donohue and Cantor just makes you look like incredible weenies.

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