Last year, the National Portrait Gallery hosted an exhibition called, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” that ended up causing quite a stir. The show examines how gender and sexual identity informed and was a key component to modernism in America, and contributed a perspective about modern painting that has not yet been fully explored. While there were some risqué aspects of the show (nudity, playing with gender and gender roles), there was one piece that caused a particular outcry among the religious right. David Wojnarowicz’s video, called “A Fire in My Belly,” that contained a scene of ants crawling over a crucifix, was taken down, as it was seen by some (namely William Donohue of the Catholic League) as anti-Catholic. There was a huge outcry against this decision, and a series of protests and panels were held across the country to discuss the Smithsonian Secretary’s decision. Funding was pulled from the exhibition, and some of the artists in the exhibition took down their artwork. This was a controversy on the scale of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Corcorcan Gallery in 1989, and many people were not pleased.
Fast forward one year, and “Hide/Seek” is now opening at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. But the Brooklyn Museum Director, Arnold Lehman, has made it quite clear that Woknarowicz’s work will be a part of the exhibition: “Lehman says there is a long history of gruesome depictions of the crucifix in art history and says the piece shows the anguish and anger of an artist dying of AIDS. ‘He himself was brought up as Catholic. I don’t think he would have ever thought if this as anti-Christian or anti-Catholic,’ says Lehman. ‘I think he thought of this as a cry for someone to look at the suffering going on in the world and try to help.'”
The Brooklyn Museum is using a video to try and put that specific work of art into a context that visitors will understand, therefore diminishing the chances of pissing people off: “The Brooklyn exhibit also has a timeline about the “A Fire In My Belly” video that was not in the D.C. show, as perhaps another way to create context about a controversial work of art.” I definitely understand the need to make the work as accessible as possible (the museum should be doing that for every work it shows), but I think that they are making a mistake by singling out this work again. Yes it has proven to be controversial and perhaps misunderstood, but every new audience brings the potential for new controversy, especially in a show like “Hide/Seek.” If the museum is going to take the time to contextualize “A Fire in My Belly,” why not do it for the whole show?
I respect the Brooklyn Museum for keeping the exhibition intact and I understand why they added the extra element for “A Fire in My Belly,” but something about that decision rubs me the wrong way. I went to the show while it was in DC, and there are so many incredible paintings that awed me, made me question (or honestly grossed me out a little), BUT the point is that there are so many other works in that show worth talking about. It would be a shame if people got caught up in the controversy again and missed some of the other elements that makes “Hide/Seek” such a powerful exhibition.