The raging controversy over an exhibition of “gay art” at the taxpayer-funded National Portrait Gallery raises an uncomfortable but unavoidable question: must all celebrations of homosexual history and identity feature disturbing and pornographic content?
The show in question, “Hide and Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” has drawn criticism from Republican congressional leaders for the inclusion of a video called “A Fire in My Belly” that includes imagery of Christ on the cross with ants crawling over and into his bloody wounds. Though museum officials agreed to remove this one outrageous item, other works in the display featured transvestitism, fetishism, sado-masochism, photographs of AIDS-ravaged corpses, full frontal male nudity, and other elements not readily associated with a national shrine in the nation’s capital best known for its displays of iconic portraits of American presidents.
While defenders of the “Hide and Seek” show describe all critics of the chosen art as bigoted and homophobic, the exhibit itself makes a crucial and revealing point about the essential nature of gay “pride”. Controversy surrounding the display has centered on the handful of outrageous items that deliberately cross boundaries of taste and decency, while most of the featured art has drawn no objection or unfavorable comment.
The exhibition, for instance, features handsome photographic portraits of celebrated gay figures from American history (including poet Walt Whitman and ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein); universally admired paintings by Thomas Eakins and George Bellows of athletic young men displaying their well-muscled bodies; Georgia O’Keefe haunting renditions of horns and antlers; Marsden Hartley’s emotionally charged collage paintings, and other worthy items that might appear in any major gallery in the country. The richness of this material, in fact, makes it all the more perplexing that the curators for this much-publicized holiday season show should feel the need to include items like the (now removed) ant-crawling Jesus; a photograph of two nude, muscular brothers engaging in an erotic kiss; an S & M gay couple in black leather fetish gear, complete with bullwhips; or an assemblage that mixed the ashes of a suicidal AIDS victim with nail polish to create the impression of “Charles Devouring Himself.” Another photograph features the hideously grotesque dead body of yet another AIDS victim, staring accusingly at the camera, grotesquely laid out on garish pillows and blankets, surrounded by “his favorite things,” including “his TV remote control and his cigarettes.”