They always knew the controversy was coming—it was just a matter of when. Jonathan Katz, the queer art historian, had been shopping exhibition ideas focusing on same-sex desire to museums for 15 years, with no luck. When he finally convinced the National Portrait Gallery to accept one, it was because the museum, a sleepy wing of the Smithsonian, was widely perceived to be the Dead White Men Gallery. It needed something fresh.
In order to demonstrate the history of homoeroticism lying dormant in a century of famous American portraiture, Katz and co-curator David Ward would need loans, and lots of them. They sent letters to the museums that held the needed artworks—among others, Warhol's 1986 self-portrait in pink and red camouflage, Thomas Eakins's 1898 portrait of a bantam-weight boxer showing bare ass, Andrew Wyeth's full-frontal Aryan male nude in penis-high weeds, Romaine Brooks wearing a fierce stare and a top hat.
The list of requests that went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art was long; the curators hoped for at least a few. The letter they got back brought tears to their eyes.
"We're giving you everything on your list," Philadelphia wrote, "because we know that other museums will not."
The letter was right. Other museums, Katz said in a talk last week at Tacoma Art Museum, refused to lend their masterpieces to a gay show.
"The American museum world is now more conservative than international banking," Katz said. "It is one of the most conservative spaces in our country."
He points to the Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the museum gives "gay tours" to gay audiences but excludes information about ancient homosexuality in its wall labels. Or to the widely traveled Thomas Eakins retrospective that excised decades of queer scholarship about the artist, making no mention of it even in the catalog, even in the bibliography. According to a recent study, he says, the New York Historical Society—right there at the home of Stonewall—has never so much as used the word gay or lesbian in any wall text or catalog.
Katz's show at the National Portrait Gallery, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, was baldly censored in December. He says the episode was just the outward face of what's rampant in museum boardrooms. When right-wing nutjobs at the Catholic League denounced as anti-Catholic a video by David Wojnarowicz, with its imagery of ants crawling over a crucifix—a patently ridiculous claim—Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough yanked the video out of the galleries suddenly and without discussion. The art world erupted in protest and debate, and many museums (locally, the Henry Art Gallery and Seattle Art Museum) screened the censored video in solidarity. Before the show had opened, the NPG had trained Katz, in preparation for controversy, to respond to homophobic attacks without moving a single facial muscle, keeping calm, not taking the bait, etc. They had even role-played the scenarios. But the censorship came so abruptly, Katz never had a chance to defend the art. Half a year later, Katz takes "a jaundiced view" toward those museums that screened the video in solidarity but had never lifted a finger to highlight gay art history before. "And many museums will use the excuse of having shown the video as a reason never to do a gay show again," he said.
But that's not the case in one unlikely little corner of the American museum world: Tacoma Art Museum, which did not, in fact, screen the censored video back in December, but which has scheduled a far more powerful—and far more risky—one-two punch to museums' silence on gay life.
Next March, the censored NPG show, Hide/Seek, comes to TAM (including the censored video). Its only other tour stop is the Brooklyn Museum. Then, around 2014, TAM will present another Katz production, co-curated by TAM's own Rock Hushka: Art, AIDS, America. It will exhume another canon that was buried alive—art that pertains to AIDS, mostly not seen before in museums, "mostly made by women, people of color, and queers." Katz has described it as "the first large-scale presentation of art from the plague years; the first examination of the ways AIDS shifted post-modernist premises... once the 'death of the author' became sadly, repeatedly, literalized."
In his talk last week, Katz said TAM "is a progressive bastion that has the potential to revolutionize museology in America." And it's not just about queerness, though queerness is indicative of everything that museums would prefer to keep outside their doors. "Museums have fossilized, as of about 1989," he said. "The shows are predictable. Real politics and real social life are almost impossible to find there. The whole idea of public service is endangered. The whole idea of a space for the exchange of conflicting opinions—the basis of our democracy—is endangered. And there's a distinct wing of the American polity"—the right wing—"that's trying to kill it. Meanwhile, museums are extensions of the market, with shows on the walls from trustees' own collections. This museum is taking a stand against that."
It's notable, he added, that "this is not happening in California, where a number of attempts were made to make it happen. This is happening in Tacoma."
Jonathan Katz, in floppy bangs and pinstripes and full of energy, never quite comes across as the "pissed-off old queen" he says he is. His visit was part of a weeklong colloquium of AIDS scholars sponsored by TAM. At his talk, the audience was rapt. It made you want to cry at times, when he described the signs of heartbreak in the paintings of Jasper Johns and Marsden Hartley. Or it made you furious. He told the stories of the slides he showed as though each artwork was a crime of passion more, not less, interesting for his having solved it. He gave the impression of the minority figure—a woman executive in the 1950s, say, or the first black family in a neighborhood—whose extra brilliance is part of his armor in a hostile world. (His bona fides are insane, involving Ivy League institutions, several firsts and foundings, and an arrest record for activism as long as his academic CV.)
Katz says the catalog for Art, AIDS, America will be the size of a telephone book, and he hopes it will inspire courses in universities. "Because AIDS, hideously, became the metaphor for homosexuality in general," he said. "It revived and revivified those ancient homophobic categories that were finally being shown the door in the late '70s and early '80s. It ushered in a new culture of shame, new forms of discrimination, new calls for concentration camps."
He has address books three-quarters full of the names of dead people. He wonders, "What would the texture of queer life have been had AIDS not given these vile haters a platform on which to stand and, once again, revive a connection between homosexuality and death?"
Museums, dealing with high-value commodities, may be inherently conservative, but Katz is a living, breathing checks-and-balances machine, a crusader in a distinctly American tradition who sees his work as central to the functioning of the nation, and convincingly so. The art in Art, AIDS, America will date from 1981 to the present, its display intended as an act of cultural reconciliation, the start of a cure for the festering social disease that AIDS uncovered in those who didn't have the virus.
Katz's Jewish grandmother used to tell him: "The real anti-Semite is a Yiddish anti-Semite." Later, he'd be told by scores of gay curators, "You know how it goes. You can't ask me to do this [gay] show." Hushka at TAM is gay, and out, and the rest of the staff and board at TAM are fully supporting both Hide/Seek and Art, AIDS, America.
"I have it easy," Katz said. "I fly in... I leave. These museums stay in these communities, have to raise money in these communities. That this museum is doing this is the greatest act of solidarity I know."