Fred Bernstein: Why Patti Smith and I Like the Smithsonian

12.14.2010

By Fred Bernstein

The Smithsonian isn't on my shit list.

The museum, funded by Congress, has mounted a brave and beautiful show on sexual identity. Hide/Seek, in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery through February 13, is eye-opening in all the ways a museum show should be: It is full of both gorgeous images and bold ideas. I didn't know, for example, that one of the most important early abstract paintings, by Marsden Hartley, was abstract precisely because Hartley needed to disguise its subject matter: his adoration of a man named Karl von Freyburg. And despite the fact that I have written for Out about Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, I had no idea of the extent to which coded messages to and about each other informed their early, seminal paintings.

The show makes a strong case that queerness has been a powerful influence on American art. It would be a shame if all that were to be forgotten in the uproar about censorship.

Yes, the Smithsonian made a big mistake by pulling a video by David Wojnarowicz. I have nothing but contempt for the officials responsible for that decision.

But, in the resulting controversy, too much has been overlooked.

1) The 'censored' video is all over the Internet. Yes, it shouldn't have been removed from the show, but no one has been deprived of the chance to see Wojnarowicz's work. (Check it out, for example, at the Washington Post website.)

2) The Smithsonian had the guts to mount the show after dozens of other major museums refused. The curator, Jonathan Katz, first proposed Hide/Seek in 1989. It took 15 years to find a home for it. As he points out, some of the same museums now clucking about the Smithsonian philistines were scared off by the subject matter. And some of them wouldn't even lend pieces to the Smithsonian show, according to Katz (who, so far, refuses to name names).

3) The show contains many images pertaining to sex and sexual desire. Critics of the Wojnarowicz video cited an image -- ants crawling on a crucifix -- that they consider sacrilegious. That doesn't make the Smithsonian's decision to remove the video right -- but it does complicate the "homophobia" narrative. (So does the fact that other Wojnarowicz pieces remain in the show.)

4) The museum depends on Congress for its support. (Yes, the show had some private funding, but that doesn't change the basic equation.)

It would have been nice if the Smithsonian had stood up to the pressure from its funder. But that may be expecting the impossible. Organizations with far less to lose have responded far less courageously to congressional bullying. (Think Amazon, which appears to have pulled the plug on WikiLeaks in reaction to a single statement by Sen. Joe Lieberman.)

I'm not alone in thinking the Smithsonian is getting a bum rap. During a talk at the Portrait Gallery on Saturday, Patti Smith took the same view, noting that, if the Smithsonian had lost its funding, 'hundreds of people would be out of work.'

It's not that Smith agrees with the officials who removed the Wojnarowicz video. As she put it pithily: "I imagine Jesus coming back and embracing the ants and being appalled by the crucifix."

But Smith, whose best friend, Robert Mapplethorpe, is represented in the show, said, she was "moved to tears" by what she saw and was afraid that Hide/Seek would be overshadowed by the 'snafu.' The Smithsonian, she said, "has done a wonderful job."

If you don't believe me, listen to Patti Smith. And if you don't believe Patti Smith, see for yourself. The show remains on view -- with one notable omission -- until Valentine's Day eve.

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