Here's the question: are we returning to the repressive days of Joe McCarthy? I read today in Nicholas D. Kristof's column in the New York Times of the Republican plan for a congressional committee to investigate American Muslims. Like the Reds back in the 1950s, "they" are everywhere, spying on us and infiltrating our government in their effort to sabotage the American way of life. We must protect ourselves against our internal enemies at all costs...
Artists, of course, are thrust unwillingly into the front line of today's cultural battle, prime targets for the kind of philistine paranoia that characterized the shameful McCarthy era. Two current headline stories remind us that the Constitution--with its protection of freedom of speech--is wielded as a weapon by the righteous right only when it suits their purposes. In Washington, DC, the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute has capitulated to conservative religious and political pressure, removing from its current exhibition a videotape by David Wojnarowicz entitled "A Fire in My Belly" (see it here.) The video includes a sequence with ants crawling over the image of a crucified Christ...
Less frequently mentioned is the video's brief but explicit glimpse of male masturbation, which must surely be equally offensive to the censorially-inclined. The Smithsonian yielded to threats from newly influential Republicans to withdraw its federal funds.
Meanwhile on the left coast, the Museum of Contemporary Art saw fit to white-out a mural by the Italian artist Blu, commissioned as a part of their current "Art in the Street" exhibit. The piece, painted on the north wall of the museum's Geffen Contemporary building, depicted rows of coffins, draped not with the American flag but with dollar bills.
Jeffrey Deitch, recently recruited from the commercial gallery world as MOCA's Director, defended the removal on the grounds of the mural's "insensitivity" to a neighborhood the includes a Veterans Affairs hospital and a war memorial to Japanese American soldiers. The museum seems to have conveniently forgotten that what happens "in the street" is usually not of comfort to those who wish to be reassured that all is well with the world.
It was always my own understanding that art was supposed to challenge my assumptions, not to confirm them. My own defection, back in the early 1970s, from writing poetry to writing about art was sparked by an exhibition which totally offended my sense of propriety and my understanding of what art was supposed to look like. So much so that I was unable to get it out of my mind, and I resorted to my usual way of dealing with those things that upset me: I wrote about it. Artists--especially those who choose to address issue of urgent social relevance--may prod uncomfortably at our collective conscience, and ask us to contemplate those things we would much rather avoid. Such is the case with both Wojnarowizc, working at the height of the AIDS epidemic; and Blu, at a time when this country is engaged in the tragedy of yet another futile war.
But the sad truth, I think--as Blu suggests in his mural--is that money is king. What is true of wars is true also of the art world. Out for survival and dependent in part on government support, in part on the charitable donations of the very wealthy to assure it, museums these days recognize on which side their bread is buttered. Museum boards and directors bow to masters whose interests are generally economic rather than aesthetic; they need the next blockbuster show and the sponsorship that makes it possible, and since controversy is the enemy of monied interests, it must also be the enemy of the museum.
Money--and power. The Republican agenda, it seems to me, is primarily about getting power and holding on to it at all costs. If that involves cow-towing to the Catholic church's objection to a ten-second sequence in an artist's video in a museum exhibition, so be it. If it comes down to a choice between pandering to prudes and bigots and defending the Constitution to which they loudly proclaim their unswerving allegiance... sorry, no choice. If it's a matter of promoting xenophobia or targeting a currently unpopular minority in order to prove their patriotic credentials, bring it on. It's all money in the bank--whether real or metaphorical.
I'm wondering, now that the Warhol Foundation has also threatened with withdraw financial support, which threat will prove more persuasive to the Smithsonian authorities? But I guess, sadly, that it's no contest. The threat from our government carries with it, also, the dread prospect of... investigative hearings. Back to old Joe.