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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

D.C. Police Ban Activists From Smithsonian For Supporting Gay Art

By Michael A. Jones -

What's it take to get banned from the Smithsonian? Just ask Mike Blasenstein and Michael Dax Iacovone, two activists in the D.C. area who took the Smithsonian to task for censoring a piece of artwork from an LGBT-themed exhibit, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture."
The piece of artwork canned was a video portrait by David Wojnarowicz, "A Fire in the Belly," which documented the suffering of an AIDS victim in the 1980s. Buckling to pressure by right wing websites like CNSNews and conservative politicians like Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, the National Portrait Gallery removed Wojnarowicz's piece, which included an image of ants crawling on a crucifix. Clearly, Rep. Kingston and the Smithsonian don't get metaphors for persecution.
Upon hearing that the National Portrait Gallery was going to hide Wojnarowicz's work, Blasenstein and Iacovone decided to take action into their own hands. They grabbed an iPad, and walked into the National Portrait Gallery. Blasenstein fixed the iPad around his neck, stood at the entrance to the exhibit, and brought up Wojnarowicz's video portrait. There he stood, and there the video portrait played while Iacovone caught it all on camera. (Video below)
That is, until security guards clamped down on Blasenstein and Iacovone, closing down their impromptu exhibit. Then the matter went over to the D.C. police, who barred the two from Smithsonian property. Iacovone? He's apparently barred for a year. Blasenstein? Indefinitely, which means the DC police might have just given him the boot for life.
To hear the two talk about this, they're concern is less about being barred from the Smithsonian, and more about the Smithsonian censoring important artwork about HIV/AIDS.
"This isn't about what the police did or didn't do, because neither of us really cares. It's about the censorship of an artist who was hounded in life and continues to be hounded in death. That's the real story here, and that's what we're still focused on," the two wrote on their new Web site, Silence (still) = Death.
And the two aren't going to let a silly ban and bar letter from the D.C. police curb their activism (though it should be noted, however, that even a spokesperson for the Smithsonian admitted that banning someone from the Smithsonian is kind of like banning someone from walking down the street -- "Clearly we won't enforce it -- we couldn't ... our security is just looking at bags at the door. It's not up to our security to screen visitors," the spokesperson said).
So now Iacovone and Blasenstein are looking to get creative. Their next plan? To launch the "David Wojnarowicz Memorial Gallery for Censored Art" on public property right outside the National Portrait Gallery. If the National Portrait Gallery won't show Wojnarowicz's important piece, visitors to the Gallery will get to see it outside, in a public space.
"Our hope is to make this ‘gallery of censored art’ a living protest against invisibility. The Wojnarowicz Gallery will not only keep works censored by our government available to the public, but by being physically present at the National Portrait Gallery itself, it will also serve as a visible rebuke of the Smithsonian’s new policy of censorship," said Iacovone.
The two are now reaching out to national and local LGBT advocates, as well as arts supporters, to figure out how to get this impromptu gallery put in place. Want to help offer advice? Check them out over here, and drop them a line.
And click here if you want to write the Smithsonian and the National Portrait Gallery, letting them know their decision to kowtow to people who would rather silence the voices and perspectives of HIV-positive artists, is not only offensive, but totally contradictory to the mission of good art, which should challenge our worldviews and push us to think in new and creative ways.

petition text -

Don't censor LGBT exhibit

Dear Ms. Bentley,

I recently became aware that the National Portrait Gallery removed a four-minute video portrait from an exhibit, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, which addresses LGBT identity in the arts. The piece removed, A Fire in My Belly by David Wojnarowicz, told the story of an AIDS victim, reflecting the suffering and persecution that many AIDS patients faced in the 1980s.
What troubles me about this move is that it comes in the wake of a news article by a right-wing Web site, CNSNews, which is an un-objective, socially conservative publication that promotes a certain religious agenda. Moreover, it comes in the wake of two prominent social conservatives -- Rep. John Boehner and Rep. Eric Cantor -- threatening to review the National Portrait Gallery's funding because of this exhibit. They want the show pulled completely.
But there's nothing wrong with the Hide/Seek exhibit, and the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian should stand by its decision to highlight the work of LGBT and straight artists in this show.
I urge you to stand up for this show, and not cave in to this agenda by the religious right. Art is meant to challenge us, and make us think. That's the purpose of this show, and removing pieces of art from it, or caving in to demands to cancel it, is an abdication of the Smithsonian's and the National Portrait Gallery's duty as an epicenter of the art world.
Thanks for your time.
[Your name here] 


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