National Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan’s acquiescence, apparently against his better wishes and at the instruction of Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, to remove David Wonjarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly” highlights the challenges faced by institutions and their reticence to actually engage in complex discourses. This reminds me of an exhibition curated by the artist Joseph Kosuth, for the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1990.
Well before the museum became a repository for solo exhibitions by popular reality show contestants, it was actually a site of some complex critical discourse. For “The Play of the Unmentionable,” Kosuth was allowed to delve into the museum’s storage, extracting and exposing, if you will, pieces that would have possibly been deemed offensive in many contexts.
Strangely, the cover of the book is blurred on both Amazon’s and Barnes and Noble’s websites. Strange because the subject of the book is precisely this type of occlusion, obstruction, tendency towards the hidden.
Museums and galleries are trapped between an assertion of freedom and a commitment to its visual expression. In many instances, their response is to purchase challenging works, simply to bury them in their archives never to be seen again.
Consider, for example, the Larry Clark exhibition “Kiss the Past Hello”, currently on view in Paris. This exhibition has so enraged some viewers that not only has it actually received a ‘rating’, but there are ongoing and continuous calls for its closure. Minors under the age of 18 are forbidden from viewing the exhibition’s contents. In all likelihood they could find similar material in any number of accessible popular publications on newsstands all over Paris, but allow them to view this material in a gallery? Non!
Clearly, the forces of censorship continue to triumph over the assertions of artists’ rights. Museum professionals have both the capacity and the responsibility to protect these rights, but often they, like Martin Sullivan, simply fold like a house of cards.
This type of passive censorship is no more dangerous, no more insidious, and no less threatening than censorship that is active, assertive and continuous. It is time for arts professionals to take a stand – in the US, they may do so under the protections of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is on display at the National Archives and Records Administration, which, I would note, is not a member of the Smithsonian Institution’s group of museums. Perhaps Mr. Sullivan might want take Mr. Clough on a walk over, and they could spend a few moments considering the document's contents. My understanding is that a trip from one location to the other is under half a mile, and could be driven in one minute.