Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture opened quietly at Washington, DC's National Portrait Gallery on Oct 30. Composed of 105 works by gay and lesbian artists like Andy Warhol, Annie Leibowitz, Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe, the exhibit explores the emergence of gay art in 20th-century America, from its hidden and coded beginnings to the present -- all this in a museum known primarily for stuffy 18th- and 19th-century oil paintings of America's founding fathers.
For nearly a month, the exhibit was viewed by tens of thousands of patrons without a single complaint. Then, on Nov 29, the Gallery abruptly announced it was removing the four-minute video installation A Fire in My Belly by artist David Wojnarowicz.
The artist's response to his impending death from AIDS, the video includes an 11-second clip of ants crawling on a crucifix. A screen shot of the footage had been featured earlier that morning on rightwing news source cns.com and was picked up later in the day by influential conservative blogs like The Drudge Report. By day's end, the museum had received thousands of emailed complaints about the exhibit in general, and the sacrilegious, "anti-Catholic" nature of Wojnarowicz's piece in particular.
In a prepared statement from museum director Martin Sullivan, the Portrait Gallery seemingly defended Wojnarowicz's piece from its critics, but also announced that it was being removed from the exhibit:
"I regret that some reports about the exhibit have created an impression that the video is intentionally sacrilegious. In fact, the artist's intention was to depict the suffering of an AIDS victim. It was not the museum's intention to offend. We are removing the video today."
Reaction in Washington's close-knit arts community was swift.
"My initial response was, 'This is wrong!'" says Victoria Reis, longtime arts activist and co-founder of Washington's Transformer Gallery.
"And it was over a piece by an artist who saw his body deteriorating from a terrible disease -- and they go and pull it right before World AIDS Day."
"This is a major gallery cowering to pressure by an extreme anti-gay agenda," Reis continues. "It's a shame that such a large organization couldn't show more bravery."
In response to the Portrait Gallery's self-censorship, Reis organized a candlelight protest on its front steps on Dec 2. Then, in what she terms an "artistic action," she secured the rights to A Fire in My Belly from the artist's estate and began screening it in the front window of her street-level gallery. Within hours of mounting the installation, she was inundated with "ignorant, twisted, angry emails."
This isn't the first time gay art has been censored in the US capital. In 1988, an exhibit of homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe at the Corcoran Gallery of Art was cancelled prior to its opening when conservative members of Congress objected to its use of federal funds (from the National Endowment for the Arts).
Despite the Portrait Gallery's quick acquiescence, Republicans in both the Senate and Congress have called for the closure of the rest of the exhibit and are threatening to "review" the Gallery's funding when their party takes over the House in January.
While the Gallery receives operating costs from the federal government, the estimated $750,000 cost of the Hide/Seek exhibit was completely underwritten through private donations.
Meanwhile, artists, critics, The New York Times and even the op-ed page of the rightwing Washington Post have decried this latest act of censorship in a country that obstinately considers itself "the land of the free."