DECEMBER 9, 2010 Warhol Foundation Responds to Censorship at National Portrait Gallery
The Warhol Foundation is proud to have been a lead supporter of Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. The result of ground-breaking curatorial scholarship by co-curators David Ward and Jonathan Katz, it is the first exhibition at a national museum to take on the question of homosexual representation in visual art. While the National Portrait Gallery is to be commended for presenting a major exhibition that addresses a politically sensitive subject so directly, the Foundation strongly condemns the museum’s decision to remove David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly from the exhibition, which it did on November 30th in response to threats from the Catholic League and several Washington politicians. These attacks, based on ignorance, hatred and fear, have no place in America’s civil society and should certainly not dictate the actions taken by its cultural leaders.
The NPG’s decision to censor an art work because it offended the sensibilities of some of its visitors stands in stark opposition to the Warhol Foundation’s longstanding commitment to supporting freedom of artistic expression. Indeed, the Foundation has contributed significant funds to organizations such as the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Brennan Center for Justice’s Free Expression Policy Project to fight against exactly this kind of violation of First Amendment rights.
Cultural institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery are ideal platforms for stimulating and hosting the discussions and debates that politically, culturally and socially engaged artwork can generate. It is disappointing that the museum chose to bow to political pressure and cut off any meaningful discourse before it could begin. On the other hand, it is heartening to witness the ways in which the artistic community around the country has responded to the museum’s egregious behavior. We are particularly impressed by the immediate and passionate response of Transformer a Warhol-funded organization in Washington DC that decried the museum’s actions and began screening A Fire in My Belly in its gallery just days after it was pulled from the exhibition. In the week since, leading cultural institutions throughout the nation have spoken out against this act of censorship and many, such as the New Museum in New York and the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, have programmed screenings of A Fire in My Belly. (For a full list of institutions, please see www.hideseek.org.)
It is sadly ironic that attempts to suppress Wojnarowicz’s work have led to its unprecedented exposure. We hope this unfortunate event will serve as inspiration to arts institutions everywhere to pro-actively seek out and support artists whose work challenges the status quo and brings important issues to public attention, however unpopular or controversial they might be. It is the Foundation’s firm belief that exhibitions like Hide/Seek bravely expose the ideas, opinions, and creative work of artists who are less visible, oppressed or otherwise marginalized in our society and play a critical role in ensuring the health of our nation’s participatory democracy. The exhibition should not be overshadowed by the controversy it has generated, but neither should the importance of defending the First Amendment rights of artists be underplayed; it is necessary both to protect and to encourage the incisive, intelligent and innovative art of our time.