“Some men are almost all mob-self, incapable of imaginative individual responses.” That is D.H. Lawrence, writing eighty years ago, in his essay “Pornography and Obscenity.” It’s the mob-self that controls the culture wars, and those wars may be heating up again right now, swirling around “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” a show that opened at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington in October. Once again the liberals, who are not exactly above getting into mob-self mode, are a little too willing to turn works of art into debating points, which takes nothing away from the disgusting tactical hijinks of Catholic conservatives and Republican members of Congress, who are up in arms about a video containing a sequence with ants crawling over a crucifix that was included in “Hide/Seek.” There are certainly people acting like mob-selves on the right, beginning with Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League. I am sorry to say that there are people acting like mob-selves on the other side, too, beginning with Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum in New York, whose Pavlovian reaction to the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly video from the National Portrait Gallery was to immediately announce that she would be exhibiting it at the New Museum, where it can be seen now through January 23.
There is a Wikileaks crudity about the way the “Hide/Seek” affair is unfolding, a delight in dumping everybody’s secrets out in public and letting the chips fall as they may. The curators of “Hide/Seek,” Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward, have apparently never encountered a hidden or nuanced aspect of an artistic personality that they did not believe ought to be given some boldface attention. Is their point that the elusive eroticism of Thomas Eakins, Marcel Duchamp, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Djuna Barnes, and Joseph Cornell is as American as apple pie? And given that Katz and Wardd want to “out” American art, is it any wonder that Eric Cantor, the rockstar Republican congressman with the square jaw and the wire-frame specs, turned up on Fox News to announce that the show was an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season?” It is one of the strange and sad facts of the culture wars that the opponents so often speak the same language of “outing” and “outrageousness,” while the withering of American cultural life continues unabated. The other day I visited Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey, where Walt Whitman, the gay poet who hid his outrageousness in plain sight, is buried in an archaic stone monument of his own design. To reach the last resting place of the great bard of democratic possibility, you drive through Camden’s battered streets, and you may well find yourself clinging to Whitman’s belief that every man and woman and child can have their “imaginative individual responses”—indeed naturally does have such a response.
For decades now the right has used the arts as a political distraction, while liberals have proven incapable of sustaining even the low levels of government funding for the arts that might make a difference in places like Camden. I would be the last person to wish that David Wojnarowicz, who died in 1992, had somehow been prevented from including a scene of ants crawling over a crucifix in A Fire in My Belly. As to whether Wojnarowicz’s work needs to be seen in a top-flight museum, this is not necessarily a question of free speech. Which is not to say that the president of the Catholic League should be in a position to decide what the director of the National Portrait Gallery, Martin E. Sullivan, puts on display. The situation is a nightmare. Hard-edged political calculations are called for. But cultural arbiters might be in a better position to fight these fights if they were less inclined to politicize the act of creation, which is what they do when they regard nearly all artists as dissidents or renegades or radicals of one sort or another. Surely these analogies between art and political or social radicalism, like the nineteenth-century analogies between art and religious transcendence, are meant to suggest that art is not business as usual, which is perfectly true. The trouble is that such analogies do not take you very far. And it’s pathetic, over and over again, to find liberals reaching out to celebrate works of art simply because they’ve been attacked by the right, as if the Tea Party might now become the reverse-arbiter of all taste. We hear a good deal about the right’s assault on the arts, but art can also provoke anxiety among liberal technocrats, who want to quantify every experience and are all too quick to exchange Lawrence’s “imaginative individual responses” for a pile of poll numbers and audience surveys that only serve to reaffirm Lawrence’s mob-self.
As for the New Museum, they are making their own political calculations. Lisa Phillips announced in a press release that “The New Museum has always defended freedom of expression and continues to oppose censorship.” That may have a certain irony for the many New York artists with distinguished careers who have never been given space at the New Museum. Are they being censored? And if Lisa Phillips were as dependent on Federal funds as the National Portrait Gallery, what would she have done? Where was her sense of fair play earlier this year, when she more or less handed the museum over to Dakis Joannou, the Greek mega-collector who happens to be a New Museum trustee and whose holdings, presented in a show curated by Jeff Koons and entitled “Skin Fruit,” may well have increased in value as a result of such high-profile New York exposure? Isn’t what Phillips supports really just free speech for powerful artists and dealers and collectors? At the New Museum, it is not always easy to tell where the culture wars end and the New Gilded Age begins.
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.