I got to see the extraordinary and powerful exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, Hide/Seek, over a week ago. It's impressive, subtle and involving. It is about American portraiture's navigation of sexual difference and homosexuality in the twentieth century. From Paul Cadmus and Thomas Eakins to Annie Leibovitz and Andy Warhol, it's a fascinating glimpse into how gay artists managed to be honest in their work, even while being constrained by society's strictures of what could or could not be presented in public. So much of it gains strength from its codedness; in many of the portraits, it takes a while to see what is really going on. And yet there are also pieces of quite shocking frankness and beauty.
I mean, look at this George Bellows take on a "shower bath":
This is a lithograph from 1917. Yes: 1917. Exuberant, self-aware gay life has been around for much longer than we usually acknowledge. And one of the most impressive decisions by the directors of the exhibit is their refusal to portray this history of gay portraiture as linear or progressive. And so the hilarious bath-house scene above leads forward to such heart-breaking pieces as the Keith Haring 1989 painting below, which says so much about the AIDS epidemic in such economy:
For me, the portraits from the era of AIDS, of mass death in the teeth of great hostility, fear and discrimination, struck home most powerfully. That is when I came of age as a homosexual man, and it is what necessarily soldered my heart to those of my brothers and sisters. It was an anguished and angry time, and few portrayed that as graphically as David Wojnarovicz. His self-portrait - his gaunt, dying face half buried in dust - brings back the cold, deathly panic of the time. And his 30 minute video, A Fire In My Belly", is a stream of visual consciousness about his dying, his grief at his friends' dying, his fear and his anger. It is disturbing, discordant, sexual and morbidly focused on death and stigmatization, so watch it at your own risk:
And it is this that has now been withdrawn from the exhibit because the Catholic League's blowhard, Bill Donohue, called the video - absurdly - something "designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians," and John Boehner jumped when pulled by Donohue's string.
Well, I'm a Christian and far from feeling insulted or injured or assaulted, I saw something as raw as it was orthodox. The whole video incorporates the image of Jesus as a dying, tortured man like those with AIDS: "unclean" as the audio shrieks over the image, rejected, covered by insects. It splices that image with grotesque attempts to sew a loaf of bread back together, to sew a human being's lips back together, along with desperate images of fire and decay. We are looking at the hysterical images of a dying man suddenly surrounded by the dying, overcome by the attempt to sew life back together. To see a rejected Jesus left on the cross and on the ground to be covered by ants, is, in this context, clearly neither offensive nor heresy; it's orthodoxy, for Pete's sake, with the death of Jesus one of countless images of suffering and isolation.
As Blake Gopnik notes:
The irony is that Wojnarowicz's reading of his piece puts it smack in the middle of the great tradition of using images of Christ to speak about the suffering of all mankind. There is a long, respectable history of showing hideously grisly images of Jesus - 17th-century sculptures in the National Gallery's recent show of Spanish sacred art could not have been more gory or distressing - and Wojnarowicz's video is nothing more than a relatively tepid reworking of that imagery, in modern terms.
This is so obvious in context that one simply wonders what on earth the fuss could be about. Maybe what is truly offensive to men like Donohue is the notion that gay men might actually seek refuge in Jesus' similar experience of marginalized, stigmatized agony. Since the message cannot be objectionable - Jesus shares in our suffering and exemplifies it - maybe it is merely the association with gay men that appals. For the powerful and privileged like Donohue, Jesus belongs in the corridors of power and respectability, among the mainstream, depictions of him restricted to images of pristine, prissy reverence rather than the alienated, despairing, naked agony he actually suffered. The idea that Jesus died for homosexuals is insulting to Donohue; but it is what the church teaches and what Jesus lived.
Which is why this reflexive, culture war spat is so depressing, so sad, so illustrative of how the alleged defenders of Christianity do not understand it at all. And how even after all these years, these young men, tens of thousands of whom died in agony or alone, are still despised, ignored and feared by men like Donohue and Boehner. May Jesus one day forgive them.