UPDATE: SAM decided to show the video! Here are the details on when it's screening.
"There's nothing to be afraid of in this video," Seattle Art Museum director Derrick Cartwright said after watching David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly, the video that the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery removed from view on December 1, after threats by two Republican congressmen who hadn't seen the art they called anti-Catholic. "We've shown things far more difficult than this." The follow-up question asked itself: Will SAM join the museums and galleries across the country that have risen up to show A Fire in My Belly, then? SAM still hasn't decided.
Copies of the video, which includes images of ants crawling over a crucifix, are being offered for free by the gallery that represents the artist's estate, and Seattle institutions to take them up on it include the Henry Art Gallery, where the video is set to go on display within the next few weeks (with a discussion to follow), and Greg Kucera Gallery, where two versions of the video are playing aside prints by Wojnarowicz (two made with AIDS activist group ACT UP, whose motto is "Silence Equals Death").
SAM director Cartwright was watching the video at a public screening Friday at the Hedreen Gallery of Seattle University, a Jesuit institution where a dozen artists, musicians, and writers gathered for the first local viewing and discussion about what's going on. While the group was disappointed not to see anyone from the university—any "collared" Catholics—at the gathering, the fact that SAM's director showed up was deeply inspiring. He wore a suit, as he always does, and symbolized institutional power in support of Wojnarowicz. He was, for those minutes, a proxy vigilante to the rescue in the aftermath of a sanctioned act of bullying.
In comparison to censorship fights past, this one is a clear-cut travesty, nothing but a bare display of power over the powerless. The two Republicans were not responding to the outcry of a constituency, only to one goading e-mail that later surfaced, written by a professional right-wing activist named Penny Starr. Then, after shutting down the video on the objections of people who had never seen it—coincidentally, on World AIDS Day; Wojnarowicz died in 1992 of AIDS-related causes—the Smithsonian added insult to injury by forcibly removing protesters wearing iPads playing the video around their necks (and banning them from the museum for a year) while at the same time denying that any censorship had taken place (merely the removal of a "distracting" artwork).
The double suppression, silencing of the silencing, is especially painful in the context of the exhibition, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. "It is the intention of Hide/Seek to follow Walt Whitman in lifting the veil on what has been hidden in the discussion of American art history"—gayness. Hide/Seek is an outing, the announcement of a new safeness. Or it was supposed to be.
"When I think of why I go to museums, it's because I get to feel safe there," Seattle artist and Stranger Genius Wynne Greenwood said in the discussion at Seattle U. Greenwood struggles to be openly queer in her life and work. Now she was addressing Cartwright: "I'm thinking it is totally critical for an institution to invite certain communities to feel safe inside them. That [SAM showing A Fire in My Belly] would be an institutional nod to a queer person, to a person of color, to a woman, to anyone who has felt threatened, that this is safe space, emotionally, psychologically, and physically."
"And what does it mean that someone wants to take that away?" followed Jim Demetre, a longtime local writer and editor of the online magazine Artdish.
"I don't think it's a work we could not show—we could show it very easily, and I'd like to see the response," Cartwright said.
Greenwood's plea for safety is literal, not just metaphorical, which makes Cartwright's hedge that the museum wants to be sure to "talk about what the real stakes are" sound hollow and abstract. Cartwright, now thoroughly on the spot, told the group at Seattle U that he was most interested in "including different perspectives" in a public discussion, rather than putting the video in the galleries alongside, say, the Picasso blockbuster that's currently at the museum. "We"—on the side of supporting this video—"are intolerant in our own way, too," Cartwright claimed. He then said the museum is trying to take its time, to respond with care rather than a knee-jerk reaction.
Cartwright's broad promotion of free speech and thoughtfulness sounds fundamentally democratic. And it would be, if equality reigned in the first place. The taking of sides that occurs during fights like this one is understandably distasteful to progressives (since it's a classic with-us-or-with-them Bush tactic). But not taking a side in a case as clear-cut as this one is akin to a reporter presenting two sides of a story as having equal value while knowing that one is false and ultimately harmful. It generates nothing but (more) phony debate, which already is our national degenerative disease. Often we're debating about nothing, and this becomes a form of control. That's what's going on here.
SAM is the most powerful art institution in Seattle, and the only one that has not responded publicly or officially to the Wojnarowicz censorship—the exception of course being Cartwright's moving, if limited, presence at Seattle U. (The Frye posted a link to the video on its website with a note about the Nazi-era censorship of an artist in its collection, and a mention of an upcoming exhibition of Seattle's Degenerate Art Ensemble, named after the Nazi classification for "degenerate" art by "degenerate" people—Jews, gays, "Negroes," modernists.)
I e-mailed Cartwright later on Friday night. "In your opinion, is there any reason not to show the video at SAM?" I wrote.
"No reason," Cartwright responded, "except perhaps that it sounds like several other local institutions are making plans to show it already. If this wasn't happening, I'd feel a greater urgency to do so here. Sylvia [Wolf, director of the Henry Art Gallery] and I have exchanged e-mails today about convening a panel of local directors to talk about the work and the issues behind this controversy. Will keep you posted. I am also checking to see if SAM owns work by Wojnarowicz." Just before press time, Cartwright e-mailed to add that the directors of SAM, the Henry, and Tacoma Art Museum are working on a joint statement about the controversy.
Statements and discussions are good acts. But I believe SAM should also feel urgency about showing A Fire in My Belly, and it should put it on display posthaste. It's not just because, like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., SAM has symbolic power as the largest museum in the city of Seattle. It's also that SAM is currently drawing people through its doors by the thousands to see Picasso, whose commitment to politics the museum applauds. What Cartwright did at Seattle U—show up and take a side—SAM needs to do in the public eye. SAM has unmatched power to spread the message that, as Cartwright said, there's nothing to be afraid of in this video.
This article has been updated since its original publication.