The Tyranny of Images
[Culture Wars Redux at the National Portrait Gallery]
December 01, 2010
I look to the day when Everyone is at last Offended by Everything and we all can live in unity, agreement and harmony.
— Wallace's Doctrine of Universal Affront
A few evenings ago, I finished reading Patti Smith's National Book Award-winning Just Kids, her memoir of her abiding bond with the late Robert Mapplethorpe. Those who do not already know of or care about Smith or Mapplethorpe or both are not likely to be converted simply by reading Just Kids, but for those of us who do already know and care, and particularly for those who lived though their own respective personal versions of the late 1970s and the 1980s, it is assuredly worthwhile.
Patti and Robert—the intimacy of the book feels like an invitation to speak of them on a first-name basis—had a remarkable personal and artistic relationship, and they lived with, worked with, crossed paths with a seemingly endless parade of the famous, the brilliant, the talented, and the notorious in the cultural fermenting vat that was pre-Giuliani/Bloomberg New York City. Robert's own death from complications of AIDS in 1989 is the inevitable terminus of the story, but Just Kids as a whole is something of a Catalog of the Honored Dead. Name after name passes by, perhaps mentioned only once, with the unspoken realization that he or she once blazed brightly but now is gone.
Within a few months of his death, Robert Mapplethorpe achieved a certain political infamy—and undoubtedly, through no fault/effort of his own, achieved a more lasting fame—when an exhibition of his photographs, "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment," was singled out by the late then-Sen. Jesse Helms as an example of the horrors of public funding of the arts through the National Endowment for the Arts. The exhibition's principal "crime," and the catalyst for Helms's righteous horror, was its inclusion of photographs from Mapplethorpe's self-styled "X Portfolio" of vivid photos of hard-core, violent gay sex acts. (Two exemplars of those photographs are reproduced in one of the best explications of Mapplethorpe I know, which is Dave Hickey's essay "Nothing Like the Son - on Robert Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio" [caution: the exemplars in question are included at that link and are not, in truth, for the squeamish], included in Hickey's splendid and indispensible short collection, The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty.) Helms's agita over Mapplethorpe, among others, was the "Culture War" equivalent of the firing on Fort Sumter.
Twenty-plus years later . . . .
Mapplethorpe himself is not the target, but several of his photos—although none, I believe, from the X Portfolio—are included in "HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," an exhibition that opened a month ago and runs through mid-February 2011 at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, and that has now drawn the ire of religious conservatives and of the leadership of the incoming Republican Congress.
Hide/Seek, per the Gallery's description,
considers such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art—especially abstraction—were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society’s evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment.
Which is to say that it traces the history of implicit and explicit depictions of gay love in art in the United States.
The critical response to the exhibition has been very enthusiastic—see, e.g., Blake Gopnik for the Washington Post and Stanley Meisler for the Los Angeles Times—and it is a pity that what seems to be such a smart and thoughtful show will not travel outside the Beltway. Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes provided an extended three-part view of Hide/Seek and how it presents its themes here, here, and here, and he asserts that it
effectively argues that queerness — or 'difference' to use their word — has been a part of American art history almost since our art matured into something distinctly American. 'Hide/Seek' demonstrates that to segregate ‘gay’ from ‘American’ is to willfully obscure a thorough understanding of our nation and its art.
The politikerfuffle over Hide/Seek launched a few days ago via an article posted to CNSNews.com featuring the loaded accusation that
Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibit Features Ant-Covered Jesus . . .
"Ant-covered Jesus," beyond being a pretty good name for a punk band, somewhat describes an image—lovingly reproduced in three grainy, copyright-infringing phonecam shots, so that you may fully share the writer's voluptuously righteous shock at the thing—that appears for some eleven seconds in the course of a four-minute excerpt from "A Fire in My Belly," a longer 1987 video work by David Wojnarowicz, created as a response to the AIDS pandemic.
The Washington Post has helpfully included a video excerpt from the video excerpt with a Nov. 30 story, here. While the material is confrontational and intentionally unpleasant to view—the piece is one colossal howl of rage, after all—it is really no more outrageous than any number of other works. The obvious comparison, particularly given those ants, is Buñuel's and Dalí's Un Chien Andalou.
The CNSNews piece loathes Hide/Seek in its entirety, but "ant-covered Jesus" is its particular chosen lightning rod. The Catholic League launched its own tirade, declaring the video "hate speech." The noise peaked yesterday when Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the two principal leaders of the incoming Republican House majority, raised the prospect that a failure on the part of the Smithsonian to "acknowledge the mistake" may result in "tough scrutiny" and other unpleasantness come budget review time. Although a Boehner spokesman stated a desire to see the entirety of Hide/Seek shuttered, nothing that drastic seems to be in the offing. The National Portrait Gallery did, however, permit its resolve to crumble to the extent of removing "A Fire in My Belly" from display, with the traditional feeble protestation that "It was not the museum's intention to offend."
[It is now being reported by Tyler Green that the decision to pull the video was made at the top, by Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, whose role should more properly be to defend the inclusion of the work as a legitimate exercise of curatorial discretion. For shame, Mr. Secretary.]
The spectacle is a baffling one. Consider: what is now constantly referred to as "ant-covered Jesus"—or, in the Catholic League's overheated version, "large ants eating away at Jesus on a crucifix"—is nothing of the kind. It is a video image of a mass-produced porcelain or plastic depiction of the accepted visual version of a bloodied man hanging from a cross. It is an image of an image of an image, a moving picture of ants wandering about on the surface of a piece of crockery that is lying on the ground, at least triply removed from the actual crucifixion of the actual Jesus of Nazareth—an event that was almost certainly accompanied by ants, flies and worse. The belief that feels itself threatened by such an object, to such an extent that it feels compelled to lash out at it and to call for its destruction, is not so much Faith as it is a form of Idolatry, exalting the image of a thing above the thing itself.
While their chosen weapon is the budget pen rather than the gun, the bomb, or the sledgehammer, the Congressmen's reaction to a picture is essentially indistinguishable from the reaction of certain radicalized fringes of the Muslim faith to the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, and is no more rational or defensible. Their offense neither privileges nor ennobles them.
Of course, there are those who would suggest that these protests are driven not by sincere piety but by cynical political calculation, ginning up a "scandal" in which the real target is not museums or artists but the very idea that the existence of gay Americans might be acknowledged or condoned. I leave the penetration of complainants' true motivations as an exercise for my readers, who are always right.
In the end, this may be no more than a 48-hour wonder, driven by opportunism and the news cycle and then as quickly forgotten. Perhaps "A Fire in My Belly" will be quietly, or not so quietly, slipped back in to the exhibition, possibly accompanied by a warning lest the delicate might inadvertently look upon it. Whatever, between the self-righteous thuggery on the one side and the craven bowing and scraping on the other, a few fleeting seconds of ant-ridden holy tchotchkes may ultimately prove the least offensive element in this story.
Photo: Mapplethorpe exhibition, Ljubljana, 2009, by Flickr user Robert Marin, used under Creative Commons license.