Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Censorship Forum and Emergency Screening at SF Camerawork: Another Clash in the Culture Wars

Coordinators Alison Maurer and Julia Haas, speaker Robert Atkins, organizer Rudy Lemcke, and QCC's Pam Peniston

Another salvo was released in the culture wars that started with the National Education Association’s (NEA) funding of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s work in the late 1980s. Mapplethorpe's thought-provoking "Self portrait With Bullwhip" was published on a show invitation to San Francisco’s 80 Langton Street Gallery in 1987, and was shocking even for the ’80s. To San Francisco and the gallery’s credit, that “Censored” exhibit had been barred from Manhattan galleries, but when it opened here a large enthusiastic crowd attended, and this journalist was there. The notation on the invitation that the NEA, a federal agency, was funding his work was more shocking and it resulted in a virtual tidal wave of controversy that continues to 2010.

It is astounding that federal money has not been spent on widely-promoted displays of LGBT artwork since then and until co-curator Jonathan David Katz was able to get permission to display the current “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., there has not been a major American museum exhibit of same-sex desire in portraiture. Censorship of a film from that exhibit was the subject of the forum packed with artists, photographers, curators, and activists on Friday, December 10.

The San Francisco censorship forum drew a surprisingly large crowd of over 160 people to SF Camerawork, and many of them were glad a film included in the Smithsonian show was censored because they feel that it will lead to a push-back by activists that will restore the film to the show and advance the cause of uncensored art across the country. Others were agitated because the national mid-term elections had brought anti-intellectual and anti-LGBT politicians to new positions of power and they fear that a hornets’ nest of censorship could be instigated that will set back proposals for public displays of LGBT-oriented artwork for decades.

The event was called an "Emergency Screening" and the film was artist/photographer/filmmaker/AIDS activist David Wojnarovicz’s “A Fire in My Belly,” an experimental effort that encompasses political, religious, cultural, sexual, and deeply personal themes. [To watch the film online for free, click here.]

What is remarkable about the sequence of events is that the show was approved, and that when the film was removed, religious offense was given as the reason. As Katz pointed out on a large screen in the front of the gallery space live on Skype from Washington, D.C., queers have become so accepted that to censor the film for being queer could not be attempted in the current era, so the image of ants crawling on a crucifix in the movie was used to object to the video art. Katz and others mentioned that the real offense was the intense close-up masturbation scene, but since times have changed from the ’80s and ’90s, there had to be some diverting of attention.

Katz and his co-curator David C. Ward deserve lots of credit for mounting the historic exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery and for continuing to defend it. Katz suggested that activists contact their Congressional representatives to demand that the film be restored to the exhibit, and that the rest of the exhibit remain on the gallery’s walls through the end of its run in February.

Writer Robert Atkins, who wrote an arts column in the Village Voice and who was the final speaker at the forum, seemingly taunted the throng to organize a protest march similar to the march being planned in New York City. Other activists jokingly spoke about one-upping New York activists by planning civil disobedience, as seen in the recreation of the 1968 Paris art riots in filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci’s erotic thriller “The Dreamers” (2003).

The censorship forum was conceived of by multimedia artist Rudy Lemcke, and event coordinators Julia Haas and Alison Maurer spoke while Lemcke filmed them and others with assistant Mic Sweney. Jennifer Sichel assisted co-curators Katz and Ward, and she added comments to the discussion, as did SF Camerawork’s Chuck Mobley. The Queer Cultural Center’s executive director Pam Peniston greeted artists and photographers, and she was happy to join SF Camerawork in sponsoring the successful event. The forum had national significance, as does the exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and it was obvious that another key moment of LGBT history is developing around the portrait show in Washington, D.C.

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