Winter 2011
Information, Censorship and Wisdom
Winter in the NorthWest is a steely gray. Some days we are blessed with a sliver of morning light along the Southern horizon down below Mt. Rainier, but most days the skies lighten by 9 a.m. and are fading again by 2 in the afternoon. The days are wet and the ceiling is low and dark. We’ll fly South when we can. 
Already it’s been a tough season; family issues and health issues in varied combinations. Betsy’s lovely Grandmother Nana died at 97. She was the matriarch of the family, and her passing was a great loss for all. My father has a new pacemaker, the old one wore out, or was finally being rejected as a foreign body after 25 years. We spent time with him and my family in Georgia over Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a mixed blessing now with families all scattered. It’s hard on everyone, we struggle to accept the inevitability of change… and give thanks for what is, for this day, now. 
After Thanksgiving, Betsy and I decided on a whim, instead of driving to the Atlanta airport, that we’d cancel our flight back to Seattle and drive from Georgia to Miami for the Art Fair; keeping our rental car, we drove straight through to Florida. The open road was a relief. While attending the opening of SevenMiami December 1st We received news from Wendy about the Smithsonian’s decision to remove the David Wojnarowicz’s film, ‘A Fire in My Belly’ from the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition ‘Hide/Seek.’ Wendy, of PPOW Gallery, has represented Wojnarowicz’s work since 1988. David and I entered the gallery the same year. PPOW has managed David’s estate since he succumbed to AIDS in 1992. (David and I met at one of his openings in the early years. At the time, I didn’t know much about him or his work, and although I never knew him well - his anger, grief and suffering were evident and pervasive in every conversation we had.) David, like most of the artists at PPOW, shared a seriousness about Art making and about how to use Art, both as a means for personal survival and expression, and as a way to address and awaken an audience. There was a marriage of personal and public in David’s work. As events unfolded for David, he became a public artistic voice in a charged political arena. He spoke eloquently and passionately before Congress about freedom of expression. He can be seen speaking frankly about these issues on this video clip from 1990. 
In early December, on World AIDS Day, when Bill Donohue of the Catholic League called for the removal of “A Fire in My Belly’ and Republican leader John Boehner and Eric Cantor (R) forced Wayne G. Clough, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, to cave and pull the film from ‘Hide /Seek’, or risk funding cuts for future Smithsonian exhibitions, an egregious offense occurred. Despite the fact that the ‘Hide/Seek’ exhibition was funded primarily from private funds from The Mapplethorpe Foundation, Clough still compromised the integrity of the exhibition and the choices of it’s curators. And in the process set off a firestorm on the blogosphere and twitterverse by left and right about public funding and freedom of expression. The fact that neither the Catholic League, Boehner nor Cantor had viewed the video nor the exhibition seemed a footnote in the fruckus. Apparently, it was the ants on the crucifix, which the League found to be sacreligious. The video has been flagged as ‘inappropriate for some users’ on YouTube, but the video can be seen on PPOW’s Vimeo page in three different edited versions. 
Letters have gone out to Martin Sullivan (The National Portrait Gallery) and to G.Wayne Clough at the Smithsonian to urge for reinstatement of the Wojnarowicz piece. Protests by the Arts communities in Washington DC and New York City (Dec 19th ) have garnered broad support. Obviously, the issue is larger than a single piece of art being removed from an exhibition. It is the touchstone for the current round of ‘culture wars’. The wide-ranging coverage in the popular media has given the Wojnarowicz film much more exposure than it would have ever received if it had sat quietly in the corner of the National Portrait Gallery for the duration of the exhibition. 
My take on the current cultural struggles... I was born and raised in the Southern Baptist Church… I lived in Georgia for my first 18 years and the NorthEast (Philly) for the next 30 years… As an open-minded, contemporary American artist, I feel that neither the progressive ‘left’ nor the religious ‘right’ have a right to claim what Art can or can’t be. Obviously, Art is anything we want to call ART. And the free expression of the artist, as with any individual or citizen in the culture, is mandatory in a free society. That said, as the old saying goes “just because one can do something doesn’t mean one should.” With Freedom comes Responsibility. But, what does that mean for the artist? There are obvious differences between ‘Moral Goodness’ and ‘Aesthetic Goodness’. One might write, paint, make movies about a particular subject which would not be acceptable in real life, but which is perfectly acceptable in the realm of the art. [For example, for the sake of the story, for it’s dramatic impact etc, Picasso might have to portray dying figures in the foreground of ‘Guernica’. Needless to say, the horror of such a reality is overwhelming, it is horrific, ‘bad’, but, within the context of the Art , it is acceptable, even ‘good.’ ] The ability to comprehend this simple concept, ‘the difference between moral goodness and aesthetic goodness ‘might help bridge the gap and allow for a conversation between two currently opposing sides. Granted, morals are on a sliding scale, as are aesthetics. David Wojnarowicz wasn’t portraying sexual acts or sacreligious imagery in a gratuitous manner. He was using the imagery for it’s conceptual and dramatic impact. For the religious ‘right’ to think that it is appropriate to censor Art in our government-funded institutions (even when the specific exhibition is privately funded) to somehow protect our feeble moral fiber is uninformed and misguided. The core strength of American society is based on our free exchange of ideas, of confronting opposing views and having the intellectual rigor to discuss them wholeheartedly without debasing the ‘other’. The intellectual ‘left’ doesn’t own Art any more than the religious ‘right’ owns spirituality. Art doesn’t live in the realm of ‘Duality’. Art is not an either/or commodity. Art doesn’t bolster a ‘side’; it is not about propaganda. Art is not about an idea, nor about beauty, nor about a cause. Art is not ‘Partisan’, Art is not ‘Bi-Partisan’, Art is, in the words of Ken Wilber, ‘Trans-Partisan’. 
From Wojnarowicz’s point of view , “They want to control information”, in other words, they are afraid of information. The problem boils down to control, to fear. Although on the surface, the fears appear to relate to protectionism, multiculturalism, fundamentalism, postmodernism, the Catholic church, homophobia, Gay, Lesbian, Trans, or sex in general… In reality, as the fear revealed by the recent Wikileaks uproar attests, the debate can be viewed in a much larger context. The cultural struggles can not easily be categorized as ‘right’ vs‘left’, as ‘class warfare’, or as ‘the haves vs the have-nots’; when seen in the syntax of the Wikileaks and the free exchange of information, the fear is revealed to be about self preservation and openness to ‘truth’ whatever it might reveal - Our egos desire to be right vs seeking the truth at all costs. True artists seek the truth at all costs. David Wojnarowicz was a great American. He pursued freedom of speech, freedom of expression with a pure voice that still resonates today.  @Rick Warren (of Saddleback Church, of Barack Obama’s inauguration) tweeted in September,“Wisdom is timeless; information is soon outdated. It's wiser to use your time getting wisdom than getting the latest news.” But, this is only true if we are not also closing ourselves off to new information. We live in the Information Age. Censoring information will not save anyone. Censoring Art will not save anyone. Every moment is a choice toward our future. 
In the end, protecting ourselves from Information won’t save us. Information won’t save us. What we do with information will save us. How we transform the information into some kind of Wisdom, will save us. 
Happy Winter
Vashon Island Washington
Official Statement by P·P·O·W Gallery and The Estate of David Wojnarowicz [PDF]

Statement by Johnathan D. Katz, co-curator of Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture [PDF]

The New York Times article, As Ants Crawl Over Crucifix, Dead Artist Is Assailed Again by Holland Cotter

Washington Post article by Philip Kennicott

The New York Times Op- Ed column, Gay Bashing at the Smithsonian, by Frank Rich 

Listing of venues screening A Fire in My Belly via HIDE/

Please go to P·P·O·W Gallery's Facebook page for full list of related articles and links