Government officials who play politics with works of art miss the point, said a Smart Museum–sponsored panel on the right to display controversial art in public institutions.
“Is it the purpose of the state to equate democracy to feeling comfortable?” English Professor Lauren Berlant asked a crowded room in the Cochrane-Woods Arts Center last night.
The talk came two months after a short, silent film called “A Fire in My Belly,” which is now on display at the Smart Museum, was removed from a queer-themed Smithsonian Museum exhibition. The removal was prompted by criticism from the political right, including the then-incumbent Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
It is a decision the four panelists lamented for artistic, public policy, and public discourse reasons, though constitutional law professor and former Dean of the Law School Geoff Stone was somewhat more straightforward. “Art requires a separation from politics,” he said. “That’s a hard thing for politicians to do. They have constituents.”
The film is a collage of sometimes jarring depictions of disturbing images and parts of life in 1980s Mexico, including ants crawling over a crucifix—an image that drew ire from conservatives, who argued it was inappropriate for families during the holiday season. Made by artist David Wojnarowicz, the work is not considered anti-religion, the panel said.
Stone mentioned that there hasn’t been much talk over First Amendment violations after government officials threatened to reduce the Smithsonian’s funding for showing “A Fire in My Belly.” The government cannot ban or exclude blasphemy on property designated for public use, though it can speak out against it. “The government is allowed its own message and its own communication, and it can do that in a way that is discriminatory,” he said.
Director of the Cultural Policy Center at the Harris School Betty Farrell said the backlash, which is similar to a number of others in the past 25 years, presents a unique opportunity to understand the state of cultural policy in the U.S. today.
She said it allows the nation to understand the function of public art in America and “the very iconic meaning of the Smithsonian as our national museum.”
Wojnarowicz was no stranger to controversy, according to Barry Blinderman, director of the University Galleries at Illinois State University. Blinderman curated a Wojnarowicz retrospective in 1990, two years before the artist died of AIDS. The exhibit courted national controversy through an image portraying Jesus shooting heroin that a conservative activist called “an orgy of degenerate depravity.”
A family-values nonprofit copied and disseminated that image and 13 others made by the artist. Wojnarowicz sued and won one dollar when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, “which he said he’d spend on either an ice cream cone or a condom, depending on what mood he was in,” Blinderman said.
He also noted that at the time, the ants crawling on the crucifix elicited no such concern. “In Normal, IL, it was fine with everybody,” he said.
The video is on display at the Smart Museum until February 6.