Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What Does the NPG Really Learn from the CAC?

A little over 20 years after Dennis Barrie and the Contemporary Arts Center was acquitted of the charge of pandering obscenity with the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit, our own John Boehner with Eric Cantor has successfully threatened the National Portrait Gallery into removing a work by David Wojnarowicz from its Hide/Seek exhibition. But this is not all. Boehner is seeking to remove the whole show, which the Smithsonian describes as "the first major exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture."

With its acquittal in 1990, the CAC has rightfully taken pride in its place in American art history. With Barrie as director it refused to bow to the pressure of Jesse Helms and Citizens for Community Values. So why, 20 years later, are we witnessing such weakness at the Smithsonian? And if the CAC did effectively draw a line in the sand against art censorship, how does Greater Cincinnati's golden boy Boehner come out on top? Should the CAC step up to defend or condemn the NPG?

Citizens for Community Values, founded in 1983, believes they did not lose the Mapplethorpe battle. Citizens quite accurately noted the case proved "that not everything is protected by the first amendment." While the CAC was acquitted, the message was clear, Citizens for Community Values continues to watch them. This message was made much louder when the Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts, now ArtsWave, temporarily cut their funding in the midst of the uproar. Now the ArtsWave and CAC walk hand in hand as they develop programming for the CAC and fundraising opportunities for ArtsWave, while tagging themselves with Mapplethorpe's name at every marketing turn of their respective campaigns.

For at least the last couple of years, controversy and entertainment have been the adopted exhibition strategy at the CAC. At the cost of art history, constructive dialogue, and education, the CAC and ArtsWave see Mapplethorpe as a marketing tool. (The upcoming Keith Haring 1978-1982 looks to be a perfect storm.) It should be no surprise then John Boehner, backed by Citizens for Community Values, feels he is on the right side of this debate. Like the Mapplethorpe show in 1990, Hide/Seek has become a noisemaker for politicians.

Unfortunately recent news indicates that along with the the CAC, the NPG has not learned in the last 20 years how to stand up for artists. Rather than holding in trust American art, these institutions have shamefully allowed others to interpret art for their own political or monetary gains.