Remember that crazy-ass homophobe who spearheaded the successful campaign to censor Hide/Seek at the Smithsonian? That same conservative sensationalist, Penny Starr, is now trying to censor a National Portrait Gallery exhibition on Gertrude Stein. Just so it’s clear who we’re dealing with, recent Starr highlights include dismay over health food in schools, an offering of thanks for Skype and Christ, and a story urging Barack Obama act more like a slave owner persecuting a gay.
In an article titled Tax-Funded Smithsonian Christmas-Season Exhibition Again Focused on Homosexuality, she takes issue simply with the fact that the independently-funded exhibition acknowledges homosexuality’s existence. The piece is little more than two thousand words of quotes and in-depth, fascinated detail about the work, the placards, the wall text, and the corresponding exhibition book. As Ed Winkleman noted on this blog yesterday morning, “I’ll submit that it reveals much more about Starr than it does NPG that she’s counting.” Starr’s only shred of an argument against this show is the fact that it’s up during the same four months as Christmas, and the building and personnel are tax-funded. As one CNS News commenter aptly indicates, “gay people pay taxes too.”
The current exhibition Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, on view through January 22nd, offers even less excuse for outrage than Hide/Seek – it’s simply a collection of ephemera and photographs telling a biographical story. Fortunately, this time, the Smithsonian is standing its ground. From its statement:
Gertrude Stein, as our exhibition texts state, was one of America's most widely known 20th century writers. She experimented radically with language and reached across the arts in a transatlantic community befriending young writers like Ernest Hemingway and artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The fact that Stein was a lesbian did not influence why this exhibition was selected.
Though it’s better than the initial “didn’t mean to offend anyone” apology offered by the Smithsonian, this still sounds like the statement ”[w]e’re not doing ‘Up with gay people.’ This is not a political exhibition,” made by co-curator David C. Ward in 2010, intending to note that Hide/Seek was an academically-rooted show. Stein was a lesbian at a time when homosexuality was virtually invisible, and this is a biographical exhibition. So what if that had influenced why this exhibition was selected? Wasn’t that the point of Hide/Seek? It’s a better excuse than that Gertrude Stein is totally trending right now.
Starr issued the same taxpayer complaint in her first round of muckraking against Hide/Seek, and particularly David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly. The Catholic League (a.k.a Bill Donohue) picked up Starr’s story and lobbied Congress until House Speaker John Boehner threatened to slash the Smithsonian’s funding. Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough immediately pulled the video, doing little to cool conservative outrage and a lot to alienate the institution from its base.
Blogger outrage aside, The Warhol Foundation, which had granted the Smithsonian $375,000 in the three years prior, went so far as to vote unanimously to withdraw its funding; this means that it received yes votes from Yale dean Robert Storr, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, Walker Art Center director Olga Viso, Yale University Art Gallery director Jock Reynolds, and artists Shirin Neshat and Cindy Sherman. The LA Times and New York Times also came out with affronted editorials; one December 2010 NY Times piece called the Smithsonian’s motion “an appalling act of political cowardice.”
The behavior of Hide/Seek‘s detractors since the Smithsonian’s censorship has proven the scale of their malevolence. In a particularly acerbic article on the occasion of Hide/Seek‘s opening at the Brooklyn Museum, Andrea Peyser seethed that there is no possible explanation for such work, referring to artist Wojnarowicz only as “former prostitute”:
Whatever the intention behind the hideous display, the video's creator, former prostitute David Wojnarowicz, took it to his grave. He died of complications from AIDS in 1992 at age 37.
Even a glance back at Penny Starr‘s original piece solves that mystery. Just a brief quote is testament to Wojnarowicz’s ability to silence this asshole from beyond the grave:
The description speaks of the video artist’s ”poetic, yet furious, condemnation of the way greed, religion, and selfishness conspire to label certain people as outside the scope of our caring.” It also quotes Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS, as saying, “When I was told I'd contracted the virus, it didn't take long for me to realize that I'd contracted a diseased society as well.”
Most disturbing about the new attack is its laziness. While Starr and the Catholic League protested Hide/Seek under the premise of anti-Catholic “hate speech,” the attack on Stein drops any pretense of justification. A portrait of Gertrude Stein — her relationship, her friendships, and her domestic life — is posed as a wrong that is self-evident. The Wojnarowicz protest, it’s now clear, wasn’t about a plastic cross; it was, point-blank, about the decision that gays should not be seen in public, even using our own money.
[UPDATE: The original text of this piece did not qualify the intent of David C. Ward's remark "We're not doing 'Up with gay people'" as was quoted by NPR. It also did not include "This is not a political exhibition." 1/31]