“Hide/Seek,” the exhibition focused on sexual difference in American portraiture that aroused anger from some (mostly right-wing) politicians when it debuted at the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C. last year, does not open at the Brooklyn Museum until Nov. 18. The Daily News, however, is not wasting any time in trying to stir up controversy over the inclusion of the late New York artist David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in the Belly (1986-87) video.
The Daily News headlines an article in today’s paper, “Another unholy controversy at Brooklyn museum,” and compares the apparently imminent firestorm to the infamous debacle that Mayor Rudy Giuliani created, when he criticized Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1996, as “sick,” citing the work’s use of pornographic images and elephant dung.
When Wojnarowicz’s work, which features a roughly 11-second clip of ants walking over a sculpture of Christ’s crucifixion, was shown in D.C. last year, Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough yanked it from the exhibition, following complaints from some pundits and politicians. (House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called it an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”)
To his credit, Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman is out in front of the fight again, telling The Daily News, “For a city that prides itself on diversity and creativity, there couldn’t be a better exhibition.” Of course, the paper cannot even get its basic facts right, stating that the “video is part of a larger collection of gender identity-themed artworks that were displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington last year.” Actually, that was an exhibition about sexual orientation and difference, not “gender identity.”
A Brooklyn pastor tells the paper, “What is the point? … I think this is the piece in the Hide/Seek collection they really need to hide,” and a representative of the Catholic Diocese plays the old Islam card, saying, “Certainly we don’t think this would be tolerated if this was the image of the Prophet Muhammed or any other religious symbol.” The Diocese has sent a letter to the museum, asking for the video to be removed.
As scores of commentators pointed out last year, Wojnarowicz’s work is squarely within a lengthy, multi-century tradition of works that show Christ’s suffering with a sometimes brutal level of detail. Religious Dispatches, for instance, cited works by Matthias Grünewald and Hans Holbein the Younger, each about half a millennium old, as precedents for the video.
Interestingly, in making this comparison between Wojnarowicz and the 1996 Ofili embarrassment, the paper leaves out the part of the story in which Mr. Lehman sued Mayor Giuliani, alleging the threats that the politician made about the funding and existence of the Brooklyn Museum violated the First Amendment, and won. The mayor’s response: “There’s nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects!”
When the Smithsonian censored the work last year, a number of institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art and the New Museum, displayed the work, so it is worth remembering, if any politicians decide to get excited this time, that the work has been shown plenty of times in New York, to only minor protest.
On the plus side, this may generate some much-needed publicity for the Brooklyn Museum, which has struggled to grow its audience in recent years. An Associated Press article about the upcoming show described the museum as “edgy.”