Wednesday, December 08, 2010


An important exhibition of gay art, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," is currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. I have not seen the exhibition, but have acquired the fine Smithsonian Press book reproducing most of the exhibited works.

The event has garnered considerable attention owing to the fact that the Catholic League (seconded by Reps. Boehner and Cantor) demanded the removal of one work; caving in, the Gallery complied. The banned work is an excerpt from the late David Wojnarowicz's video "A Fire in My Belly" (1986-87), a poetic meditation on humanity, life, death, faith, and suffering made in part as a response to the AIDS-related death of his close friend, artist Peter Hujar. The offending segment shows ants crawling over a crucifix. In response, other museums around the country are stepping forward to post the video. The New Museum in New York is now showing the film in its lobby, as is the CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles.

Such censorship on the part of the Gallery, recalling the earlier Mapplethorpe controversy, is deplorable.

Yet consider this thought exercise. Supposing the curators had decided to include a photograph of ants crawling over the face of the Prophet Muhammad. Of course such a work would never been exhibited in the first place. Exclusion, which happens behind closed doors, is the most insidious form of censorship.

Is my example fantastic? I think not, for the New York Times and other newspapers refused to print the Danish Muhammad cartoons in their stories about the issue. Yale University Press published a book on the cartoon controversy--again without reproducing the cartoons.

Clearly a double standard is operating here. When Christianists and their allies succeed in suppressing visual expression, the art world is up in arms--as it should be. But when Muslim censorship is operative the same people are strangely silent.

Some would say that the intention of the Muhammad cartoons, satire, is different from the intention of the Wojnarowicz image. And so it is. However, the perception of offense--by Muslims and Christians, respectively--is the same. Also, satire has a long and honorable tradition, serving the vital function of exposing the faults of the rich and powerful. Should we carve out an exception for religion, so that it is forbidden to satirize Scientology, for example? The answer is clearly no.

However, the objection of the Islamists to the Muhammad cartoons goes far beyond the perception of disrespect towards the founder of their religion, for sometimes they assert that all depictions of Muhammad are forbidden. This claim is clearly false, for there are many of these in Islamic illuminated manuscripts. Even today, in several cities in Iran one can buy idealized oleographs of the Prophet--icons if you will.

What the Islamist castigators of the Muhammad cartoons seem to be saying is this. It is acceptable for Muslims to create and purchase images of the Prophet. Yet nonbelievers must be prevented from doing so. Such distinctions are clearly inappropriate. They should be addressed directly, and decisively rejected.



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