By Peter Simpson, Postmedia News
OTTAWA — The National Gallery of Canada is caught between censure and censorship, and will take no further part in a controversy around the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., says director Marc Mayer.
“This issue isn’t about us,” Mayer said Wednesday. “It’s about AA Bronson and the National Portrait Gallery.”
The National Gallery of Canada loaned a photograph — titled Felix, June 5, 1994, by the Canadian artist AA Bronson — to the National Portrait Gallery for the current exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. Nobody protested Bronson’s piece — a life-size photo of fellow artist Felix Partz, taken moments after Partz died of AIDS — but the influential Catholic League and Republicans on Capitol Hill were outraged by another piece of art in the publicly funded exhibition.
The critics claimed that a 13-minute video by the late American artist David Wojnarowicz is “anti-Christian,” so the gallery cut out four minutes of Wojnarowicz’s video, including an 11-second segment that shows ants crawling over a bloody crucifix. The Portrait Gallery has been criticized by many, including Bronson, who is demanding that his photograph be removed from the exhibition.
The Portrait Gallery has refused to remove the photograph.
“I have great empathy toward AA Bronson and his request,” said director Martin Sullivan in a statement. “However, we want visitors to the National Portrait Gallery to experience the exhibition without further alteration. Mr. Bronson’s photograph is a brilliant and sobering meditation on the human tragedy of AIDS and the power of portraiture.”
Mayer said Wednesday that he did encourage the Portrait Gallery to consider Bronson’s request, “because he perceives he’s an accessory to censorship, with his work present in this exhibition,” but he did not ask that the photograph be removed from the exhibition. “Personally, I don’t think that you successfully fight censorship by indulging in more censorship,” Mayer said, and that, “I certainly don’t want to get involved as an institution censuring another institution.”
He added: “Why would we wade into the middle of a free-speech scandal in Washington, D.C.? It doesn’t have anything to do with us. We’re not an activist institution. We’re the National Gallery of Canada. Our agreements have been respected, so why would we do that?”
The National Gallery checked with its lawyers and found it has no claim against the Portrait Gallery, nor any further obligation to Bronson, Mayer said.
The two galleries signed a formal agreement on terms and “they haven’t infringed anything.”
If the National Gallery arbitrarily cancelled the agreement, Mayer said, it would have “dire consequences for us as a borrowing institution.”
Mayer noted that none of the media coverage around the censorship of Wojnarowicz’s video has put it within the context of the larger debate over the U.S. military’s contentious don’t ask-don’t tell policy on gay recruits.
“It’s about saving the larger exhibition, that I think is very timely in the middle of a national and very important debate,” he said. It’s an especially unfortunate time for censorship by the political right on gay-themed art.
“I think it’s really too bad, and obviously, it doesn’t work,” he said.
“These things backfire. That video is now being shown in about 20 museums across the United States. It’s gotten a lot more attention that it would have, otherwise. This has happened with every single art-related controversy that politicians get involved in.”
Bronson is the last surviving member of the influential Toronto collective the General Idea, which included Partz and Jorge Zontal, who also died of AIDS in 1994.