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Sacrilege Or Censorship? Christians Enraged by Art with Gay, Religious Images

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Minor White (American, 1908–1976). Tom Murphy, 1948. Gelatin silver print, 4 5/8 x 3 5/8 in. (11.7 x 9.2 cm). The Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum. Bequest of Minor White, MWA 48-136. © Trustees of Princeton University Photo courtesy Tacoma Art Museum

On November 18, HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture will open to the public at the Brooklyn Museum (BM). After it closes on February 12, the exhibition will travel to the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) where it can be viewed from March 17 through June 10, 2012.

It wasn’t until the controversy surrounding it went viral more than a month after it opened, that I first heard about HIDE/SEEK , then showing at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). I considered traveling to Washington, D.C. to see it, but the holidays were coming; a blizzard was predicted for D.C. and I was familiar with the work of many of the artists. When I owned a gallery, I had even shown some of the same pictures being exhibited at the NPG. And I had experienced the same issues as Jonathan Katz and co-curator David Ward when they were assembling the show.

Like them, I had been refused loans of art, often by closeted gay curators who were afraid of drawing attention to themselves. In fact my gallery, In a Plain Brown Wrapper, which I opened in Chicago less than a decade after Stonewall, had been visited by police in 1980 and threatened with closure when I held the first Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition outside of New York and San Francisco.

This was not the first time that an exhibition that included LGBT or religious imagery had been censored and undoubtedly not the last. So thinking I had been there, done that, I decided to stay home with my partner in more temperate Seattle.

But I changed my mind over a post-Christmas brunch with our neighbors down the street. Pamm had given Pam a copy of the splendid catalogue, a stunning coffee-table size book which included images I had never seen before. Wow! After flipping through its pages, really just a quick perusal, I was ready
to pack my bag. And I’m really glad I decided to make the trip.

It was only after I had booked my flight that I learned my stay coincided with an organized protest by Art Positive at the annual meeting of The Smithsonian’s Board of Directors.

 

Stuart Wilber and Lt. Dan Choi. Photo by Shannon Cuttle

In case you missed the uproar, I’ll explain. A four minute excerpt from the film A Fire in My Belly by David Wojnarowicz was on display when this landmark show first opened on October 30, 2010. It was removed December 1.

As Holland Cotter reported, NYT, 12-10-2010 this was not the first time Wojnarowicz’s work had created a stir. “In 1989, Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association, mailed a pamphlet reproducing details from collages by the New York artist David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) to every member of Congress, to various news media outlets and to religious leaders across the country. Mr. Wildmon, a Methodist minister, had prepared the pamphlet himself; he considered the images pornographic or blasphemous. He had copied them from the catalog for an exhibition partly supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the real object of his protest. Wojnarowicz (pronounced voy-nah-ROH-vitch), furious at having his work selectively edited, sued Mr. Wildmon for misrepresenting his art and won the case.”

 

A Fire In My Belly (still), 1986-87. Super 8mm film, black and white and color. Silent. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York and The Fales Library and Special Collections/New York University

Twenty-one years later history repeated itself. Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, one of the icons of the Religious Right, took offence at an excerpt from A Fire in My Belly which included an image of ants crawling over a crucifix and Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor suggested the entire exhibit be canceled and threatened the federal funding of the Gallery unless the Smithsonian pulled the Wojnarowicz piece. Feeling pressured, G. Wayne Clough, the director of the gallery unilaterally removed the video excerpt of the film, a commentary on AIDS and spirituality.

The Smithsonian was petitioned to restore the video to the exhibit  and the film was projected on the side of the building, but it wasn’t until Mike Blasenstein and Michael Dax Iacovone brought the film back into the NPG that the story of its removal and copies of the video went viral; the ensuing kerfuffle prompted institutions worldwide to protest the censorship and show the video.

Blasenstein strapped an iPad around his neck and stood in the gallery with the video playing on the screen. He offered flyers about the Smithsonian’s censorship to visitors. In less than 10 minutes security guards removed him from the exhibit and he and Iacovone, who filmed the encounter, were barred for life from returning to any of the Smithsonian museums. Prohibited from displaying the film inside, Blasenstein and Iacovone parked a trailer around the corner, called it the Museum of Censored Art and showed the film for the duration of the exhibition.

Last April when I learned the Brooklyn and Tacoma Art Museums were exploring the feasibility of re-mounting Hide/Seek, I asked Lisa McKeown, the Communications Coordinator, at the Tacoma Art Museum if any objections had been made to mounting the exhibition. She responded, “Just to clarify… There hasn’t been an organized movement that we’ve had to deal with (yet) as far as people objecting to bringing the exhibition to Tacoma. We have received some letters, emails, and phone calls from individuals who do not want us to bring the exhibition, for various reasons. On the flip side… we have had many more letters and emails in support of our bringing the exhibition here.”

And in May, when I began a letter-writing campaign to lend the two museums additional support for mounting the exhibition, Charles Desmarais, then Deputy Director for Art at the Brooklyn Museum responded that unlike the NPG or TAM, “we have received nothing but support and encouragement.”

Not anymore! An article in yesterday’s New York Daily News was headlined, “Another unholy controversy at Brooklyn museum: Video of ants skittering over crucified Jesus is enraging Christians.”

Erin Durkin, Mark Morales and Katie Nelson wrote, “An avant-garde video of ants skittering over the crucified Jesus is enraging Christians who say an upcoming Brooklyn Museum art exhibit is sacrilegious. ‘Ants were crawling on the image of the crucified Christ,’ said Msgr. Kieran Harrington, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, which sent a letter asking for the video to get yanked from the exhibit. ‘Certainly we don’t think this would be tolerated if this was the image of the Prophet Muhammed [sic] or any other religious symbol.’ ‘What is the point?’’ said Pastor A. R. Bernard, who leads Brooklyn’s Christian Cultural Center. ‘I think this is the piece in the Hide/seek collection they really need to hide.’

It’s far from the first time the art museum has stirred the pot: The museum drew ire from then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1999 for an exhibit featuring a painting of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung and images of female genitalia.

Giuliani tried to cut the museums funding because of the painting, part of a provocative exhibit called Sensation.  Giuliani and Catholic advocates also slammed the museum for featuring [Renee Cox’s “] Yo Mamas Last Supper” which depicts Christ as a nude woman in 2001. “A Fire in My Belly” is creating a similar stir. But Brooklyn Museum Director Arnold Lehman defended the entire exhibit. ‘For a city that prides itself on diversity and creativity, there couldn’t be a better exhibition,’ Lehman told the Daily News.”

There are more than a hundred good reasons to travel to Brooklyn this winter or to Tacoma
this spring; viewing the 10 second segment of
 a 4 minute excerpt from the 30 minute A Fire in My
Belly is only one of them.

The website of the Brooklyn Museum, puts the exhibition in perspective. “Hide/Seek is the first major museum exhibition to focus on themes of gender and sexuality in modern American portraiture bringing together “more than one hundred works in a wide range of media, including paintings, photographs, works on paper, film, and installation art. The exhibition charts the underdocumented role that sexual identity has played in the making of modern art, and highlights the contributions of gay and lesbian artists to American art. Beginning in the late nineteenth century with Thomas Eakins’ Realist paintings, HIDE/SEEK traces the often coded narrative of sexual desire in art produced throughout the early modern period and up to the present. The exhibition features pieces by canonical figures in American art—including George Bellows, Marsden Hartley, Alice Neel, and
Berenice Abbott—along with works that openly assert gay and lesbian subjects in modern and contemporary art, by artists such as Jess Collins and Tee Corinne.”

 

 

Berenice Abbott, 'Janet Flanner,' 1927 Photo courtesy Tacoma Art Museum

“In addition to revealing connections between sexual identity and formal developments in modern art, HIDE/SEEK presents artists’ responses to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the AIDS epidemic, and postmodern themes of identity, highlighted with major pieces by artists such as AA Bronson, Félix González-Torres, and Annie Leibovitz.”

Yes, there are more than a hundred good reasons to go to Brooklyn between November 18 and February 12. And if you manage to get there before January 29 you can also catch the exhibition, Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties  which includes this splendid painting of gay icon, Paul Cadmus.

 

Luigi Lucioni (American, 1900–1988). Paul Cadmus, 1928. Oil on canvas, 16 x 12 1/8 in. (40.6 x 30.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Dick S. Ramsay Fund, 2007.28 Photo courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Another not-to-be-missed exhibition, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories is presently at the NPG, through January 22, 2012. It was originally shown at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum where ironically a lesbian couple was asked to leave the exhibition because they were holding hands.

 

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

From the day they met, September 8, 1907, Stein and Toklas lived as an openly Lesbian couple. Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories features more than 25 artifacts and 100 works by artists from across Europe and the U.S., detailing Stein’s life and work as an artist, collector and distinctive style-maker.  The NPG website informs us that the exhibition “shares an in-depth portrait of Stein that knits together her many identities: literary celebrity; life-long partner of Alice B. Toklas; arts networker whose famous friendships included some of the most prominent artists of her time (Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Hemingway); Jewish-American expatriate; and muse to artists of several generations. Stein is considered by many to be an inventor of Modernism whose reach across the arts was extraordinary. She wrote novels, poems, essays, literary and art theory, opera libretti, ballets, memoirs and children’s books and was also an arts networker, bringing creative people together in legendary salons and gatherings in her homes. Her originality as a thinker, along with her interdisciplinary approach to projects in dance, music and theater, continue to inspire artists today.”

Despite today’s political climate with its resurgence of intolerance and incivility; the directors and curators in Brooklyn and Tacoma have defied attempts at censorship and instead defended freedom of expression. At a time when funding for the arts is problematical at best they have risked the disapprobation of patrons, donors and politicians. These institutions deserve our support – the easiest and best way to demonstrate it is to simply go see these shows.

You won’t regret the time you take or the effort you make to journey to these museums. Each of these exhibitions offers the opportunity to understand the human experience from an historical LGBT perspective. The pictures are as moving and as relevant today as when they were first made.

And if you want to try your hand at a little subversive activism while you are enjoying the art, how about holding hands with a person of the same sex as you stroll through the museum?

Stuart Wilber. Photo by Mathew Ryan Williams

 

Stuart Wilber believes that living life openly as a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender or Allied person is the most powerful kind of activism. Shortly after meeting his partner in Chicago in 1977, he opened a gallery named In a Plain Brown Wrapper, where he exhibited cutting edge work by leading artists; art that dealt with sexuality and gender identification. In the late 1980’s when they moved to San Clemente, CA in Orange County, life as an openly gay couple became a political act. They moved to Seattle 16 years ago and married in Canada a few weeks after British Columbia legalized same-sex marriage. Although legally married in some countries, they are only considered domestic partners in Washington State.  Equality continues to elude him.

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RIGHT WING EXTREMISM

‘Heist’: Ginni Thomas Tells J6 Committee Election Was Stolen, Says She Never Discussed Efforts to Overturn With Spouse

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Appearing behind closed doors in person for four hours with investigators from the House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack, far right wing activist and lobbyist Ginni Thomas reiterated her false claims the 2020 presidential election was stolen, calling it a “heist.” Thomas also insisted she has never discussed her work to overturn the election results with her husband, the person she publicly refers to as her “best friend,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who has resisted calls to recuse himself from any cases surround the January 6 insurrection.

The 2020 president election was not stolen, there has never been any proof to support that false contention, more than 60 court cases claiming fraud brought by the Trump team or their supporters have been thrown out or lost, and even Donald Trump’s own Attorney General and Dept. of Homeland Security officials have said there was no significant fraud, with the later issuing a statement that reads: “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history.”

And yet, despite mountains of evidence President Joe Biden won the election, despite the election being certified with him winning 81,268,924 votes against Trump’s 74,216,154 votes  a margin of more than 7 million, and despite him winning the Electoral College 306 to 232, Ginni Thomas for hours on Thursday insisted Donald Trump was the rightful president.

READ MORE: ‘No Shame’: Trump Judge Overrules Special Master – Stuns Legal Experts

“During her interview, Ms. Thomas, who goes by Ginni, repeated her assertion that the 2020 election was stolen from President Donald J. Trump,” The New York Times reports, citing remarks made by the Committee’s chairman, Bennie Thompson.  The Times called it “a belief she insisted upon in late 2020 as she pressured state legislators and the White House chief of staff to do more to try to invalidate the results.”

And yet to reporters Thomas’ attorney called her actions merely “minimal and mainstream activity focused on ensuring that reports of fraud and irregularities were investigated.”

“Beyond that, she played no role in any events after the 2020 election results,” he added, despite press reports that Thomas held a months-long text message exchange with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, urging him to find a way to overture the election.

“As she wrote in a text to Mark Meadows at the time, she also condemned the violence on Jan. 6, as she abhors violence on any side of the aisle.”

READ MORE: ‘Tarnished Image’: Gallup Releases Devastating SCOTUS Poll – as Conservative Justices Snipe at Kagan’s Warning

“Ms. Thomas,” The Times adds, “exchanged text messages with Mr. Meadows, the White House chief of staff, in which she urged him to challenge Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory in the 2020 election, which she called a ‘heist,’ and indicated that she had reached out to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, about Mr. Trump’s efforts to use the courts to keep himself in power. She even suggested the lawyer who should be put in charge of that effort.”

Despite earlier reports Thomas did appear in person, but refused to answer reporters’ questions.

 

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BREAKING NEWS

‘No Shame’: Trump Judge Overrules Special Master – Stuns Legal Experts

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U.S. District Judge Aileen Cannon on Thursday overruled the special master Donald Trump’s legal team chose and she installed, deciding to change the deadlines he set, delaying the case and DOJ’s work for months, and overruling his decisions.

Specifically, Judge Cannon ruled Trump and his attorneys do not have to make any statements to support the former president’s baseless claims that the FBI “planted” documents or other evidence.

“Judge Cannon overrules the order by her special master that would have forced Trump’s lawyers to lodge objections to the accuracy of the DOJ’s inventory, effectively forcing him to prove his ‘planting claims,'” Law & Crime managing editor Adam Klasfeld reports. “Trump doesn’t need to do that any more, she rules.”

READ MORE: ‘Pure Essence of Judicial Corruption’: Morning Joe Panelists ‘Stunned’ by Cannon’s Ruling on Classified Docs

“Upon review of the matter,” Cannon writes in her order Thursday, “the Court determines as follows. There shall be no separate requirement on Plaintiff [Trump] at this stage, prior to the review of any of the Seized Materials, to lodge ex ante final objections to the accuracy of Defendant’s Inventory, its descriptions, or its contents. The Court’s Appointment Order did not contemplate that obligation.”

Legal experts are stunned by Cannon’s latest move.

The Nation’s justice correspondent Elie Mystal writes: “Trump Judge Cannon trying to preserve the white wing talking point without forcing Trump to prove it. She’s in too deep now. She has to ride Trump all the way and hope he wins and promotes her.”

Civil liberties and national security journalist Marcy Wheeler says, “Judge Cannon unilaterally rewrites HER OWN deadlines to make sure that her Trumpy doesn’t have to commit until after the election. Holy hell this woman has no shame.”

READ MORE: In Scathing Rebuke DOJ Wins Stay of Trump Judge’s Ruling in National Security Appeal Over Classified Documents

Over at her site, Wheeler expands her thoughts.

“Aileen Cannon, without explaining why she was intervening, just rewrote Judge Raymond Dearie’s work plans regarding the Special Master review,” Wheeler says, calling it “an obvious power grab to ensure her own intervention doesn’t backfire on Trump.”

“With no justification (particularly given the way Dearie has ceded to multiple issues Trump has raised), and after having been scolded by the 11th Circuit for her improper claims of jurisdiction, she effectively just eliminated any claim that the Special Master Trump picked and she appointed is a neutral observer.”

“Cannon is shamelessly acting as Trump’s defense attorney. If you are a reporter, that’s what your story is. If you’re not a reporter, that’s also what your story is,” she warns. “At the very least fact check this woman.”

READ MORE: ‘Tarnished Image’: Gallup Releases Devastating SCOTUS Poll – as Conservative Justices Snipe at Kagan’s Warning

Slate senior writer Mark Joseph Stern, who has authored a book on the Supreme Court, says, “Cannon was shameless enough to overrule the special master, because she is not a real judge.

Former General Counsel of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and well-known MSNBC legal analyst Andrew Weissmann calls Cannon “a disgrace.”

“Oy- Judge Cannon tinkers badly with (and with typos) Judge Dearie’s scheduling order, relieving Trump of obligation to say whether docs were planted, even though she had wanted a clear inventory of what was found. She is such a disgrace.”

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COMMENTARY

‘Tarnished Image’: Gallup Releases Devastating SCOTUS Poll – as Conservative Justices Snipe at Kagan’s Warning

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Ever since December of 2021, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case that six months later would overturn Roe v. Wade, a 49-year old precedent – “settled law,” Americans were assured by the Court’s Justices in their confirmation hearings – ensuring women have the constitutional right to abortion, Chief Justice John Roberts has been accused of losing control of his justices.

On Thursday, just days before the high court begins its new term, as one of the Justices’ spouses delivers testimony on her role in the coordinated efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, amid sniping by the Chief Justice and a conservative justice at their liberal colleague, and anger across the nation so virulent the midterm elections appear to be rapidly swinging back to Democrats, the right-leaning Gallup organization has released a new poll that’s absolutely devastating for the Chief Justice and the Court he was entrusted to lead – not to mention American democracy itself.

Supreme Court Trust, Job Approval at Historical Lows,” Gallup’s damning headline reads.

READ MORE: Justice Alito’s Secret Speech ‘Spiking the Ball’ on Revoking Abortion Seen as Worsening Court’s ‘Credibility Crisis’

The highlights:

“47% trust the judicial branch; previous low was 53%,” “40% job approval of U.S. Supreme Court is tied for record low,” and “Record-high 42% say Supreme Court is too conservative.”

Translated, that means the legitimacy of the court is in question, despite entreaties from Justice Samuel Alito, who authored the Dobbs opinion that discarded nearly five decades of settled law to achieve a desired goal: rescinding the constitutional right to abortion, and with it, quite possibly not far down the road, the constitutional right to contraception, same-sex intimacy, and same-sex marriage.

“‘Less than half of Americans say they have ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’ of trust in the judicial branch of the federal government, representing a 20-percentage-point drop from two years ago, including seven points since last year,'” Politico reports, quoting an advanced copy of Gallup’s findings.

READ MORE: Texas Attorney General Says He’s ‘Willing and Able’ to Defend Law Banning Sodomy if Supreme Court Reverses Ruling

“This represents a 20-percentage-point drop from two years ago,” Gallup’s own report reveals, “including seven points since last year, and is now the lowest in Gallup’s trend by six points. The judicial branch’s current tarnished image contrasts with trust levels exceeding two-thirds in most years in Gallup’s trend that began in 1972.”

Respect for the Supreme Court was such a non-question that from 1976, when Americans’ “trust and confidence” in the nation’s highest court stood at 63%, Gallup, it appears, did not even ask the question again in polls again until 1997, when the answer came back at 71%.

Today, under Chief Justice Roberts, it is a mere 47%.

READ MORE: Ginni Thomas ‘Intertwined’ With ‘Vast’ Campaign Pressuring Supreme Court to Overturn Roe: Report

Also today, Ginni Thomas, the far right wing activist spouse of one of the Court’s most right-wing jurists, Clarence Thomas, is testifying before the U.S. House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack regarding her role in efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.

This week Justice Alito, also a far-right conservative, delivered a thinly-veiled attack against Justice Elena Kagan, a liberal, in a rare public forum.

So did the Chief Justice, just weeks earlier.

“The very worst moments [in the court’s history] have been times when judges have even essentially reflected one party’s or one ideology’s set of views in their legal decisions,” Justice Kagan said recently, sparking anger from the right. “The thing that builds up reservoirs of public confidence is the court acting like a court and not acting like an extension of the political process.”

“Judges create legitimacy problems for themselves when they don’t act like courts,” she also said, and “when they instead stray into places that looks like they are an extension of the political process or where they are imposing their own personal preferences.”

“If, over time, the court loses all connection with the public and with public sentiment, that is a dangerous thing for democracy,” Kagan warned.

READ MORE: An Angry Biden Blasts ‘Raw Political Power’ of Supreme Court as He Signs Order Aiming to Protect Abortion Access (Video

Chief Justice Roberts later delivered a terse retort.

“Simply because people disagree with an opinion is not a basis for questioning the legitimacy of the court.”

Bloomberg Law columnist Vivia Chen, citing the well-respected constitutional scholar and retired Harvard Law professor of law, Laurence Tribe, recently wrote: “Chief Justice Roberts Is Officially Irrelevant.”

“Having had both John Roberts and Elena Kagan as my brilliant students in constitutional law, and having watched each of their careers unfold, I can’t help thinking that one of them, Justice Kagan, has grown into her role as a wise jurist,” Tribe told Chen in response to the Roberts-Kagan flap.

“Chief Justice Roberts has dwindled in stature as his cliches have lost their power and even their relevance,” Tribe added.

Justice Alito entered the sparring match this week, telling The Wall Street Journal: “It goes without saying that everyone is free to express disagreement with our decisions and to criticize our reasoning as they see fit. But saying or implying that the court is becoming an illegitimate institution or questioning our integrity crosses an important line.”

It was a clear swipe at Justice Kagan.

“It’s embarrassingly obvious that recent decisions rendered by the conservative supermajority hew to a certain political agenda,” Bloomberg’s Chen noted, asking: “where does one start? I guess Dobbs was a biggie because it destroyed almost 50 years of reproductive rights for women.”

“Then,” she added, “there’s the decision that crippled New York’s gun-control law and the one that severely cut back climate change regulations. And let’s not forget how the court keeps siding with religion, as if the separation of church and state is an optional part of the Constitution.”

“That the Supreme Court lurched so far to the right in less than a year is breathtaking,” Chen observes. “It’s like we’re suddenly transported to a country where Wayne LaPierre, Christian fundamentalists, corporate polluters, and the ghost of Phyllis Schlafly are calling the shots.”

(For those looking fore even more justification of how the Supreme Court is undermining its own legitimacy, this video clip offers an additional answer.)

All this turmoil, turbulence, and trouble comes days before the Court begins its new term.

READ MORE: Supreme Court Conservatives Say Taxpayers Must Fund Anti-LGBTQ Religious Private Schools

“The Supreme Court will return to work on the first Monday of October, after a three-month summer break, with all the determination of a Renaissance-era explorer looking for new lands to conquer,” snarked – or warned – The Nation‘s Elie Mystal. “Last term, the court’s conservative supermajority showed it was willing to ignore precedent (overturning Roe v. Wade), reality (issuing rulings that will lead to more gun violence and climate pollution), and facts (making up evidence in the praying-football-coach case) to arrive at its preferred judicial outcomes.”

“This term, the high court will cement its grip on political life in America, overturning affirmative action and other critical protections along the way,” he says.

“The conservative Supreme Court has been willing to suppress the vote or let Republican-controlled state legislatures gerrymander district maps to the point where the popular vote is all but meaningless, but so far, the court has been unwilling to throw away enough votes after the fact to change the outcome of an election. We’ll see if there’s a first time for everything.”

How bad could it be?

A picture’s worth a thousand words.

 

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