Activism and the Institution
via Wired New York
Yesterday it was announced that the Museum of Modern Art has acquired, and will be displaying, Wojnarowicz’ controversial video Fire in my Belly. The video will be shown alongside works from the Museum’s permanent collection in an ongoing show: Contemporary Art from the Collection. The news of the acquisition is neither thrilling nor shocking. Though their recent programming (particularly in photography) has certainly taken a stab at readdressing the relationship between social factors and art-making, MoMA, seems less interested with queer politics than politics in quotes, in this case censorship. Hide/Seek curator Jonathan Katz has been incredibly vocal about the lack of representation of alternative sexualities in major New York museums. During a discussion at the New York Public Library, the curator spoke of pitching Hide/Seek to every major institution in New York over the course of 10 years, choosing to move on to DC when not one of those museums showed interest. Was MoMA on that list that declined the opportunity to display Hide/Seek at the beginning of the millennium?
It would be unfair to suggest that this attitude is specific to the Museum of Modern Art. Blatant misinterpretation, rephrasing of events past, or, worse, their erasure, has long been crucial to maintaining the historiography of visual culture within the institution. Take, for example, BCAM, the Broad Contemporary Art Museum referred to here. The inaugural installation in 2007 showcased some of the most precious gems from the collection of Eli and Edythe Broad, and over three levels housed the work of exactly four women artists. Perhaps even more shocking, was the inclusion of the work of Jasper Johns, Cy Twomly, and Robert Rauschenberg in the same gallery space without a mention of their love triangle.
While walking around Contemporary Art from the Collection, I couldn’t help but search for what else was missing. The show itself is quite vast and incredibly educational, presented chronologically to emphasize the relationship between the trajectory of global cultures and that of art history. The exhibition committed to showcasing “the debates around economics, politics, gender, and ethnicity that have permeated artistic practices since the late 1960s.” It begs the question: to exactly whose politics and economies are they referring? Interestingly, queerness was examined, but only through the vectors of blackness, feminism, or AIDS.
Is this a 21st century phenomenon? Hide/Seek is all about unearthing works that were misread and pointing out the signifiers that were culturally relevant at the time. Didn’t think Bellows’ work was gay? See this portrait of a lithe young boxer from behind, the buttocks a compositional focal point. It’s sometimes difficult to recall a history of art when no one was out, even Warhol, who paid young men to pee on canvases for him and was obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor. These signifiers are crucial to excavating queer histories, not to mention art histories, and the analysis of contemporary work within this continuum allows us the luxury of decoding art as it’s made with our culture as a map.
In this climate of intersectional politics, the role of the museum is shifting and sometimes artistic intent shifts with it. In the case of Wojnarowicz, it is clear that some of the integrity of the piece was sacrificed through the controversy over its display. What’s more important is to recognize the relationship between two interconnected issues: activism and action. Fire was designed to depict the suffering of AIDS. Wojnarowicz sought to make visible the plague that was being hidden from view by the Regan Administration and by doing so, gave a voice to an entire population that was made silent. MoMA, meanwhile, collected it’s shekels and committed to showcasing a work which was stifled through homophobia and fear. Though their methods vary greatly, it’s difficult at first glance to separate Wojnarowicz very radical activist politics from MoMA’s fundamental politics of representation.