World AIDS Day, as celebrated by the National Portrait Gallery

It’s bad enough that the National Portrait Gallery chose to remove A Fire in My Belly by artist David Wojnarowicz from its Hide/Seek exhibition. That this censorship happened right before World AIDS Day makes the act disgusting.

World AIDS Day marks the continuing struggle against this horrible disease and says to our communities that we will not forget those who have been taken. Wojnarowicz’s piece explores the loss and death and pain of the AIDS epidemic, and was made in honor of his partner who had died of the disease a few years prior. The angry mob who caused the NPG to take down the piece is offended that their tax dollars* are supporting the exhibit that they feel advocates for homosexuality and anti-Christian “hate speech.” Well, I am offended that my tax dollars – dollars that think the Smithsonian must exhibit pieces like this one – are less important than those of the Catholic League. (*Tax dollars support the general Smithsonian, but special exhibitions, including this one, are privately funded.)

The Catholic League has claimed the exhibit is “designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians.” Out of a 30-minute video, the “hate speech” is 11 seconds of ants crawling across the crucifixion. However, it is far more hateful for the millions of LGBT Christians (or anyone of faith) to see their religion used one more time as an excuse to attack a minority, exploiting a piece meant to bring light to AIDS suffering. What would Jesus do, indeed.

How dare these people at try to make this exhibition something dirty? They list various elements of the exhibition they find objectionable, including, “a painting the Smithsonian itself describes in the show’s catalog as “homoerotic.” As if they’ve “caught” the gallery saying something it shouldn’t have. As if “homoerotic” is its own indictment. They try to put shame upon the museum, the exhibition, and everyone who goes to see it.

I reject their shame. No such shame exists.

Except that when the Gallery decided to remove the video, they are agreeing that there is something implicitly shameful about the lives of the LGBT Americans depicted, and specifically, that a gay artist’s representation of the devastating effect of AIDS on our society is something that shouldn’t be seen if it offends a loud, conservative faction who was never coming to see the exhibition anyway.

Instead of that shame, I choose pride. I am proud of work that brings light. This exhibition is groundbreaking because it is the first time such a collection on constructions of gender and sexuality has been assembled in this kind of venue. As we begin Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, we celebrate overcoming odds like that, against forces that would have us conform to their narrow version of propriety. The exhibition was that kind of light. Until it wasn’t.

The NPG said that they took down the work because it was distracting attention from the rest of the show. On the afternoon I was there, frankly, no one seemed distracted by the video, if they watched the videos at all. In fact, the Gallery reports that until the article, there had been no complaints at all about the exhibition.

But if you went and were distracted, great! And if you hate it, great! Art should sometimes make you angry! Art should be able to make you uncomfortable or anxious or ready for an argument. I want my art to provoke me at times, and not just sooth some vague notion of “appealing” or “calm” or “sweet.” If you want that, take a bubble bath. When we dislike a piece of art, our first response shouldn’t be “take it down!” or “cut their funding!”

No one is denying anyone paintings of a field of soporific flowers. The obvious lost opportunity here is the conversation that could’ve started. Instead of talking about censorship, we could’ve been discussing what the piece and the entire exhibition wanted us to discuss – the ways that we view and represent gender and sexuality in our society, why certain expressions are deemed taboo or beautiful or frightening.

One of my favorite values in Jewish culture is the right to disagree with one another. Loudly, if we choose. To argue about how we see something. That value makes us engaged with the thing; it doesn’t shield it from our eyes. In February, GLOE, here at the 16th Street J, is touring the exhibit, focusing on its many Jewish artists and subjects. Each one of those artists and subjects had a position toward their Jewish identity (or lack thereof), and that’s something we can talk about. It doesn’t create a tool for deciding which artists we’ll see and whom we won’t.

The word “Chanukah” means rededication. Let us take these eight days (and beyond) to rededicate ourselves to remembering when our authorities did nothing to stop AIDS, for looking at the struggles for civil rights today, and the society we create for our youth (LGBT and non) when we say only certain expressions of love and loss are valuable.

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