Prejudice, Iconography, and the Absurd Hide/Seek Controversy

12 Dec

As is typical of American media cycles, an important story that speaks to our national identity slipped off the radar once it was deemed unworthy of the choicest advertising demographics. True, the removal of an excerpt of A Fire In My Belly from the Smithsonian isn’t as immediately significant as an atrocious tax deal or the reprehensible Senate maneuvering that blocked Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal. But, as Frank Rich points out in his brilliant column, it speaks volumes about how decisions are made in this country and what issues merit the attention of the lamestream media. Art, prejudice, religion, and the abuse of power: what could be more compelling news? Apparently the fact that Barbara Walters made Oprah cry. (But not Justin Bieber!)

Fitting into President Obama’s theme of the week (can you say capitulation, boys and girls?), the Smithsonian Institution removed one piece of a long-overdue exhibit on sexual identity and art based on the rantings of a single over-influential nutjob. William Donohue earned the Bigot of the Week Award for intruding on the integrity of the exhibit with his “please don’t pick on the Christians” whining. Predictably, the rightwing machine in Congress grabbed Donohue’s words and the Smithsonian buckled. The media ran the story briefly (with their typical let-an-extremist-rant-for-hypothecial-balance approach), then turned away.

The usual suspects lined up to condemn a cultural institution that receives some public money while they pushed a barely disguised anti-gay agenda. The purpose of the exhibit is, in part, to explore “how major themes in modern art…were influenced by social marginalization.” A video from the 1980’s about the AIDS epidemic reasonably responds to the religious persecution of the gay community. The Catholic church (and the Reagan administration) played a significant role in the use of AIDS to demonize gay men. Imagery, deemed by the curators to have artistic merit, that supports the historical and cultural themes of the exhibit has validity and integrity.

That some are offended by images in an exhibit is not just cause for retreat. Art should provoke. The Smithsonian should be proud that people are thinking and speaking as a result of their exhibit. Frankly, the public “outcry” was pretty minimal until the piece was withdrawn. The loud voices were the Christocrats and the homophobes. Certainly every voice has a place in a democratic society that protects free speech. That includes William Donohue, however vile I find his rhetoric. It also includes the art that was chosen intending to provoke a response from the viewers.

Display of a piece in an exhibit does not inherently say that the gallery fully endorses the message of the work. The piece is selected to evoke a response in a greater context. A clip from a Leni Riefenstahl film to prove a point about the power of propaganda does not imply an approval of the Nazi message. A painting glorifying the theme of Manifest Destiny is an important tool in our understanding of historical actions, not an endorsement of greed or genocide. Showing a somewhat disturbing reaction to suffering that emphasizes the role of religion in oppressing the LGBT community does not oppress any religion or its adherents.

Many of the comments posted online to Rich’s piece trot out the old “gays always get to pick on Christians” canard. Such statements not only miss the point of the exhibit, they also absurdly overlook the power dynamics in this country. Every day in this country voices of authority, both religious and secular, establish the rights of the LGBT community from positions of prejudice and fear. Simple statements of identity are routinely attacked as obscene displays. The Smithsonian, largely using private funding, rightly used art to raise awareness and build on our national dialogue. Once that dialogue got animated, they veered from their mission and gave in to the traditional power structures. And, sadly, by and large, America decided that this surrender didn’t really matter much.

P.S. – thanks also to the Huffington Post for providing more thorough and ongoing coverage of this story, including a piece that shows the clip in question.

P.P.S – for the record: Smithsonian censorship 23,000; Oprah crying 265,000.

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