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by Jonathan D. Katz

Queer Curating and Covert Censorship

Acts of overt censorship are the most effective inoculations against the recognition of how policed our museum world really is. Every time authorities are imprudent enough to censor something, the rest of the museum world breathes a collective sigh of relief. The censorious museum, almost universally reviled, serves a purpose not lost on other museums: it’s the negative pole, the bad example against which other museums can now stand bathed in the light, ennobled in contrast to their compromised brethren. Notably, these newly virtuous museums generally position themselves in principled solidarity with the censored, not the institutions doing the censoring, all amidst high flying rhetoric about artistic freedom and respecting artistic choices. Dutifully, we, the art world public, routinely swallow this rancid bait, vowing to protest, to resist, to hold that lonely, outlaw, offending museum accountable for its actions. And once again, in short order, the image of the museum as an open market for dangerous ideas and dissident artwork is burnished to a high sheen, its social and political progressiveness reified. And we return to the world of fiction we prefer to inhabit, blithely unaware how baldly we've been used.

The fact is that only reckless museums censor. Savvy ones, and they are in the vast majority, censor art vastly more often, but they do so long before that art ever gets mounted onto walls, made into shows, given an institutional life. In fact, this covert censorship is the lifeblood of the museum world, the immune system that works to keep its entire body politic free of difference—which is itself the disease. But because this covert censorship occurs in boardrooms, Director’s offices and other sites shielded from public view, we never hear about it, and can pretend it simply doesn’t exist. In what follows, I’m going to plead that we shift our attention from overt censorship, which we’ve almost exclusively taken to be the defining political issue, to covert censorship. Covert censorship, namely the restrictive palette through which nearly every large museum in the US adjudicates artwork, interpretive texts, and ideas, is the real enemy. In saying this, I am mostly referencing our large, well-funded museums, the ones so famous, so grand, so well-endowed with private funding that they can weather any sudden conflict. And yet it is precisely these large museums that are often the most covertly censorious, leaving it to small and/or university museums to take the risks they eschew.

Change has come so very slowly to the large American museum that it generally feels as if it hasn’t changed at all—especially regarding a frank discussion of queer art and artists. I’m attending to queerness in particular here because the artwork in question is already in the museums. Unlike the politics of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and ability, wherein active diversification must be premised on aggressive acquisitions, fixing the queer problem is fast, easy, and cheap. All you need to do is change a wall label, and yet that’s apparently an insurmountable problem. When was the last time The National Gallery Of Art in Washington, DC, or the Museum of Modern Art even mentioned sexuality, much less allowed it to do active art historical work?[1] You’re much more likely to see a discussion or representation of sexual difference in popular, commercial mediums such as TV or film, than in any of the large, partially taxpayer-funded, non-profit educational institutions we call art museums. So clearly, this pervasive silencing isn’t what audiences are demanding. On the contrary, queer shows are almost always popular with all audiences regardless of their self-identification. So why are they so rare?

When my co-curated, queer-themed 2010 Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery exhibition, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture was attacked by Republicans in Congress, I got to witness the relative weight of overt and covert censorship first hand. The Republicans were of course simply looking for a wedge issue in the hopes of reigniting culture war, and with it, the lavish ideological and fiscal payoffs that have historically followed in its wake. In turn, we knew that the exhibition was going to be attacked—it was, after all, the first-ever queer show at a national museum in the US—and we prepared for it. Expecting that the assault would replicate previous attempts to censor, my co-curator David Ward and I deliberately crafted a relatively restrained exhibition, one not out of keeping with the Smithsonian’s usual fare. We made sure that, with one exception, all the nudes were by straight artists, so we could undercut any criticism of homoeroticism with the satisfyingly sharp retort that the artists were in fact straight. The Smithsonian even videotaped training interviews in which they asked me offensive and homophobic questions. We then reviewed the tapes together so I could learn how to respond on that cool medium, TV, and avoid such traps as repeating the question.[2] In concert with the director of The National Portrait Gallery, we thought we were being as deliberate and thoughtful as we could be, anticipating various kinds of responses to what we suspected would be the inevitable backlash against exhibiting queer art at a national museum.

Unfortunately, we underestimated the political savvy of our enemies on the Right and their capacity for a certain kind of basic political evolution. Unlike, say, the brouhaha over the Mapplethorpe retrospective The Perfect Moment, censored at the Corcoran museum in 1989—where all they had to do was name the artist a promiscuous homosexual, as if that alone sufficed as an argument—our enemies had come to understand that naked homophobia was by 2010 a politics of diminishing returns. So they camouflaged their old school homophobia in the guise of religious offense and improbably claimed that in fact our exhibition was an attack on them, on the Catholic Church, and on Christianity in general. The vehicle for that attack was the Right’s favorite whipping boy, David Wojnarowicz, who even 18 years after his death could still rile our culture police into a mad lather. Ripping a page from our own playbook and using it against us, they made themselves over into a discriminated against and endangered minority, leveraging the fact that we had finally, for the first time, secured queer representation in the Smithsonian to cast themselves as the underdogs. A work of art that was arguably the most traditionally Catholic in the exhibition, Wojnarowicz’s unfinished film Fire in the Belly, was their evidence. In that film, Wojnarowicz, shooting at a Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico, saw and quickly seized upon the metaphor of ants crawling on a crucifix to allegorize our generalized human indifference to suffering. Deliberately misreading the work’s intent, professional provocateurs on the Right such as the Catholic League then claimed that the inclusion of the films was a deliberate insult to Christianity, as if the tortured figure of Christ as an allegory for human suffering wasn’t a Catholic trope dating back nearly two millennia. They even argued that the exhibition was part of a larger attack on Christmas, though the exhibition opened in October. When the Catholic League, classed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a right wing hate group, published all my personal contact information—including my home address—I received a truly shocking wave of anti-Semitic hate mail, including one note saying that “we had our chance to rid ourselves of Jews at Auschwitz—and we won’t make the same mistake again.”

The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution caved in to this homophobic critique as rapidly as he did thoughtlessly. Without even consulting us and our contingency plans, and ignoring his own Museum’s director, he ordered the Wojnarowicz removed from the exhibition and an immediate dust up ensued. In solidarity with the censored art, a number of institutions bought and screened the Wojnarowicz film, thereby publicly allying themselves with an artist they never showed, hosted, nor screened when he was alive. Many of the museums so quick to attack the Smithsonian were privately endowed behemoths, unlike the publicly funded Smithsonian, and thus insulated from some of the more egregious forms of fiscal blackmail the Right threatened. But, even more galling, I knew that many of these protesting large museums had utterly refused to cooperate with Hide/Seek before the censorship battle, denying all loan requests, not to mention the prospect of hosting the exhibition on tour—they even, in some instances, attacked the queer premise of the exhibition itself. Although the exhibition was called Hide/Seek after a celebrated eponymous 1948 painting by Pavel Tchelitchew in MOMA’s collection, MOMA refused to lend the titular painting, and indeed refused all loan requests; nonetheless, it bought and screened the Wojnarowicz film and earned positive press for so doing. I am in no way excusing the Smithsonian’s cravenness and cupidity in censoring their own exhibition, but I am at the same time interested in calling attention to the way a censorship crisis can serve other museums so well, turning complicity into resistance, despite the lack of any genuine institutional social or political commitment. What got lost in the brouhaha was that it was the Smithsonian Institution, the museum perhaps more directly in national political crosshairs than any other in the US, that agreed to present this queer exhibition, despite its almost guaranteed controversy. Many of the museums that attacked the Smithsonian could have hosted the exhibition with much less severe political consequences—and yet they did not.

The unfortunate result of the Smithsonian censorship controversy was not only that, yet again, queer art provoked scandal and pushback, it was that museums that wouldn’t be caught dead doing a queer show could now “protest” the Smithsonian’s censorship and win on both counts—underscoring their progressive credentials even as they continued to justify engaging in covert censorship to ensure that such a scandal would never rock their own institutions. And since covert censorship is by definition invisible, there is never a public relations problem to work out. But while we can almost never point to covert censorship and directly call it out, the narrow range of acceptable exhibition frames underscores its nefarious workings. On the few occasions when I have had a chance to sit at the table and watch covert censorship in action, rarely do I hear anything even approaching the actual rationale for turning down an exhibition. Instead of copping to the political complexities, directors and curators tend to make off the cuff claims about what audiences want and their fear that a queer-themed exhibition will appeal only to a small, invested queer audience. History tells a different story, however, and, as but one example, Hide/Seek was one of the most popular exhibitions ever mounted at the National Portrait Gallery.[3] To argue that only queer people would be interested in a queer show is of course yet another variant of homophobic essentializing, one that phantasmatically projects a clear and knowable divide between queer and straight culture when in fact what queer exhibitions do is precisely blur that boundary.

In any case, as anyone who has worked in a large museum can testify, attendance fees are a fraction of a museum’s operating budget. Trustees provide the lion’s share of the support, and Directors are therefore loath to do anything that might displease the 1% that is their true fiscal base. Covert censorship is therefore generally a preemptive move to eschew any difference of opinion that might threaten a trustee’s largesse. Whether the Board of Trustees is actually politically conservative (and of course, composed of people who sit at the very top of the social hierarchy, many are invested in conserving that hierarchy as it now stands) or simply treated as such as a precaution, the net effect is the same: most large museums will go out of their way to avoid anything that smacks of the now-infamous Corcoran ruckus of 1989, in which Robert Mapplethorpe’s retrospective exhibition, The Perfect Moment, was preemptively pulled from the schedule so as to “protect” the museum from the threat of censorship—apparently by doing the censoring themselves. Needless to add, that act of overt censorship didn’t work, constituting an object lesson for museum directors in the US that openly censoring your own shows won’t protect your museum from controversy. The answer was to censor them covertly, out of the public spotlight.

Of course, covert censorship is never understood or framed as censorship, even in private. As one famous museum curator told me in covertly censoring acknowledgement of Robert Rauschenberg’s long term and significant relationships with his former partners Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns, while at the same time including a label that Rauschenberg was married (and not noting that he quickly divorced), “we just prefer to let the art speak for itself.” Among more sophisticated museum staff, acts of covert censorship are instead couched in a language of scholarly disagreement and dismissal. As Susan Davidson writes in her essay on the early Rauschenberg painting Mother of God for the SFMOMA website, “Other art historians may read the ‘traveling’ theme as a coded homosexual trope for ‘coming out’. While it is true that Rauschenberg’s personal life was undergoing significant and life-altering changes at the time Mother of God was created (i.e., meeting and partnering with Cy Twombly (1928–2011); the birth of Rauschenberg’s son Christopher; and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage to Weil), this author cautions against a queer studies interpretation. More likely, the artist was of a mind to celebrate birth and rebirth—thus the centrality of a circular form alluding to pregnancy.”[4] There are two problems with this. First, while the work has been read in queer terms, it’s certainly not with reference to the ahistorical category of “coming out.” Secondly, this blatant attempt to reinscribe Rauschenberg in line with dominant heteronormative ideology is, of course, a familiar form of policing. Note that Davidson simply throws out a different reading, without either arguing for her interpretation or against the careful massing of evidence by those with whom she disagrees. Furthermore, the attempt to disallow certain kinds of readings, “to caution against,” as opposed to allowing a plurality of significations to flourish, smacks of the censorial. I disagree with Susan Davidson, but I would never seek to indict her entire methodology without argument.

Another recent development that only seems more progressive is to frankly address an artist’s sexuality as a biographical fact, but allow it no purchase on the meaning of the resulting work. In this way sexuality becomes the functional equivalent of being born in Poughkeepsie, a fact that while true, lacks any substantive interpretive merit. Because the museum seems so comfortable acknowledging LGBTQ identity, these kinds of statements distract the audience from recognizing the reality of covert censorship. But to substitute declarative biography for art historical argument is a kind of sleight of hand, serving to carefully sever high-value commodities from the taint of sexual politics. Because an artist’s sexuality can now be addressed as a matter of biographical fact does not translate into any necessary revision of what the artworks themselves may mean. And that’s the rub, for a queer art history isn’t interested in the sexual lives of artists per se, but rather in how a socially sanctioned selfhood inflected their artworks’ communicative means and purposes.

A new tactic is on the rise that is perhaps even more effective in misleading public opinion. We are beginning to see museums actively cultivate niche audiences, and I have been struck recently by how often the LGBTQ community is now finding itself targeted. But only very rarely does this cultivation of a queer audience translate into an account of the art on display. Rather, most often it’s done in the form of ancillary programming and events, as audience development and a fundraising tool. The Metropolitan Museum in New York, for example, hosts receptions cultivating a queer public in its Great Hall, even as it studiously avoids any mention of sexuality in its Classical Halls, where homosexuality is plainly on display. The Art Institute of Chicago has announced the advent of drag queen tours, and other museums hold queer nights. But all this ancillary programming, while cultivating the appearance of a progressive and queer-friendly endeavor, actually serves the interests of covert censorship in keeping questions of sexual difference as far as possible from the works of art on display. When sexual difference is now an acceptable category of audience development, it takes the pressure off the curatorial, and we witness a strange reality wherein art audiences may be queer, and recognized as such, but apparently not works of art.

But perhaps the newest, and I would argue most insidious, means of naturalizing covert censorship in museums is to allow that very rare, carefully vetted exhibition of one or more contemporary artists whose work is unavoidably engaged with queerness. This permits the museum to point to its progressive programming. But in truth, such discursively queer exhibitions are not only extremely infrequent, they are deceptive in that they serve as a stand-in for an active engagement with queer studies scholarship across the vast bulk of art history on display. These isolated queer exhibitions, always of contemporary artists whose work is, by our contemporary standards, self-evidently queer, challenges, and thus changes, no dominant account. Rather, it isolates and pinions queerness only within the most contemporary of framings, as if there can be no history, however complicated, of sexual differences in the past. Because these artists are of our own time, they merely naturalize our extant binary narrative that sees sexuality as inherently divided between a heterosexual majority and a queer minority. A truly queer art history doesn’t construct sexuality in terms of a settled binary, but instead allows for a much more complicated account of slippages, eruptions, and repressions that restores to sexuality the force of the psychological. Sexuality is a powerful animator of human behavior precisely because it so often resists legibility and transparency according to our accepted definitions. And if that is the case today, it is ever more powerfully true for the art of different historical eras with different sexual schema and self-understandings. We cannot allow an occasional LGBTQ exhibition to license avoiding any of the more fraught or complicated (but far richer) questions that queer studies in art history has struggled to understand over the past few decades. These questions not only turn on the masking, or elision, of queerness in the historical record (addressing the sexuality of artists who, either because of personal preference or the context of their times, were not open about their sexuality), but equally about what a non-binary account of sexuality—a queer sexuality, in short—would look like and how we might know it when we see it. At the same time, we should not leave hanging questions of audience and interpretation, patronage and a host of other art historical questions that, in this relentless focus on the contemporary, are left on the table, questions that point to the problem of how we might reinterpret historical images alive to frames of reference regarding sexuality that are distinctly not our own.

This means that a truly queer art history may surprise us with its active dissent from our assumptions and naturalized meanings, that it may assume forms and modes of representation we as yet don’t understand. So I want to be very clear that in seeking more queer exhibitions, I am not asking that they take a form I can recognize. On the contrary, I would hope to have my definitions and naturalized understandings challenged and redirected. Because acts of overt censorship necessarily catalyze an opposition, the act of protesting that censorship, while politically necessary, is at the same time a reification of the very definitional boundaries a queer art history is struggling to erase, for in protesting the existence of these boundaries, we must necessarily mention and thus reinscribe them. Still, the most pernicious aspect of covert censorship is that it also leaves unchallenged our exceedingly familiar, binary models of sexual definition. Ironically, it is only in actively addressing sexuality that we might be able to move beyond or through it, towards a new horizon that understands our sexuality, as with so many other human differences, neutrally, not dissimilar from the way we confess to adoring a favorite food or color. After all, the fact that I like red need not entail disliking blue, and people who like broccoli are not deemed fundamentally distinct from those who hate it. On the field of taste, differences can happily cohabitate. And the more we can now forthrightly address our differences, the less these differences will come to signify and the less we will need to address them. Censorship, overt and covert, thus only catalyzes and reinforces what it would prefer to erase. Paradoxically, censors would be wiser to throw open a conversation that will, in the end, perish of its own irrelevance.


Jonathan D. Katz directs the doctoral program in Visual Studies at the University at Buffalo. He co-curated (with David Ward) Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, the first queer art exhibition ever mounted at a major US museum, which opened at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, then traveled to The Brooklyn and Tacoma Museums, winning the Best National Museum Exhibition award from the International Association of Art Critics and the best LGBT non-fiction book award from the American Library Association. His next major exhibition, entitled Art AIDS America, co-curated with Rock Hushka, traveled to 5 museums across the US, accompanied by a substantial eponymous new book. A pioneering figure at the intersection of art history and queer studies, Katz was the first full-time American academic to be tenured in what was then known as Gay and Lesbian Studies and chaired the first department in the field in the US, at City College of San Francisco. At Yale University, Katz was founding director of its Lesbian and Gay Studies program, known as the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies, the first in the Ivy League. An activist academic, he founded the Queer Caucus for Art of the College Art Association, the professional association of artists and art historians, co-founded Queer Nation, San Francisco, and co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting, the organization that successfully lobbied for queer anti-discrimination statutes in the city of Chicago. After many years as President of the Board, he is now the president emeritus of the new Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City, where he curated numerous exhibitions.

Katz is now completing two new books, Art, Eros and the Sixties, and The Silent Camp: Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and the Cold War. He remains an active curator, and a major new exhibition will be announced shortly.

In the case of the National Gallery of Art on the Mall, the answer is not once, never in all of its exhibitions, a scandal that is curiously invisible precisely because they have also never actively censored an exhibition once it was up in public.

2 As they explained, if they ask you about “the homosexual agenda,” and you use that phrase even mockingly, the lead on Fox News could have you confessing your “homosexual agenda” in your own voice.

3 The Smithsonian worked to gather extensive demographic audience data for Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture and by and large non-queers audiences were equally enthusiastic about the exhibition.

4 See Susan Davidson. 2013. “Mother of God.” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Accessed 04.02.2018. http://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.299/essay/mother-of-god/.

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