Say NO to Museum Censorship

  • by: Sky Pape
  • recipient: The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution
As individuals who value artistic creation and freedom of speech, we want the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution to know that we are revolted at the cowardly decision to bow to political pressure from various conservative and right-wing factions to censor the exhibition "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" by removing the video by the late artist David Wojnarowicz titled "A Fire in My Belly."

As Blake Gopnik notes in his excellent article on the subject, "National Portrait Gallery Bows to Censors, Withdraws Wojnarowicz Video on Gay Love," published November 30th in the Washington Post, if museums were to remove every piece of art that upset some person or group, our museums would be pretty empty.  Can you imagine this kind of censorship applied to our libraries?  Because that's the kind of logic being used, and if we don't speak out against this, book censorship is not far down the line.

This is not a small, isolated, unimportant incident.  Many people will remember the late Senator Jesse Helms, and how he was able to escalate conservative outrage over Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ" in order to effectively eviscerate the NEA.

Wojnarowicz, a major American artist who died of AIDS in 1992, sadly cannot add his own voice to our outry of disgust about this act of censorship.  Please take action today, and pass this along.
We, the undersigned, are writing to express great distress and sadness at the decision by the National Portrait Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, to remove the video by the late artist David Wojnarowicz titled, "A Fire in My Belly," from the exhibition "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," acquiescing to pressure from the Catholic League and conservative politicians and groups.

Before pressure came to bear from these groups, the museum's curatorial staff, under Director Martin E. Sullivan, determined this video, by a highly recognized American artist, was an interesting, valid work of art, salient to the theme of the exhibition. To label the video, 11 seconds of which are in question where ants are shown on a crucifix, as "hate speech" is to vastly misinterpret the intent of the artist.  Given historical examples of what happened with Chris Ofili's work and the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Andres Serrano's work followed by Sen. Jesse Helms' attack on the NEA, it is our hope that you will understand our tremendous concern about the repercussions of this concession and censorship, and the potential impact on freedom of expression, especially in the visual arts.

Our museums (and our libraries) would be empty places if every work of art or artifact  (or book) that upset some person or group were to be removed.  The public is not collectively qualified or in charge of making curatorial decisions.  We would like to see the curators continue to have the freedom to do their jobs, and the public reserve the freedom to decide to see the show or not.

We respectfully ask that you reconsider your decision to remove Wojnarowicz's video from the exhibition.
We appreciate your taking the time to read this letter and consider our plea for action.
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