Q&A: Jonathan Katz
University at Buffalo professor and art historian Jonathan Katz could not have anticipated that curating could put him in the eye of a political firestorm—but it did. Katz, who founded the Harvey Milk Institute in San Francisco, is one of America’s most prominent experts in queer studies, the academic discipline examining sexual orientation and gender identity. In late 2010, Katz co-curated the groundbreaking exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. The popular show was the first prominent American museum exhibition devoted to gay and lesbian themes.
Shortly after Hide/Seek opened, G. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian, removed a film by the late David Wojnarowicz entitled A Fire in My Belly (available for view at www.youtube.com). He was reacting to a complaint from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, one that called the film “hate speech” due to an eleven-second shot of ants crawling on a crucifix. Media frenzy ensued. The Andy Warhol Foundation, which partly funded the exhibition, announced that it would not support future Smithsonian projects. Several notable institutions defiantly scheduled showings of the removed work. Earlier this year, the International Association of Art Critics (AICA/USA) awarded Katz first prize for the Best National Museum Show. He also received the Stonewall Book Award-Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award from the American Library Association for the exhibition’s catalog.
Katz recently talked to Spree about the awards, and his career.
Congratulations on both awards. How did it feel attending the AICA/USA ceremony?
After so many years talking about queer issues and trying to be heard, it was a pleasure to find myself in a group of folks who clearly heard and cared.
So what brought you to Buffalo?
I came here in September 2010 expressly because of UB’s stature at the forefront of progressive university education. I was teaching at Yale, and it was clear they didn’t really want a successful queer studies program. At UB, I said to one of the administrators interviewing me that if they hired me, I’d be specializing in queer studies, and he said, “Why do you think we’re talking to you, stupid?” I loved that.
In addition to the Catholic League response to Hide/Seek, incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House Republican Leader John Boehner, and Representative Jack Kingston, among others, have loudly opposed the exhibition and hinted at cuts to the Smithsonian’s National Endowment for the Arts funding. Have we teleported back to 1989?
It’s the Christian Right trying to ignite another culture war, because one, old habits die hard, and two, they have been slowly handing this country over to the rich, so they need to battle a straw man of an elite homo culture to make it seem like they have the interests of “the people” at heart. Apparently, they haven’t been reading the polls about declining homophobia. But I am tired of them using my community as raw meat to feed their minions. They are on the wrong side of history and shortly will be revealed for the evil bigots they are.
The Catholic League called A Fire in My Belly “hate speech.” GLBT groups like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation widely promote the elimination of hate speech. I’m guessing you don’t see this as a case of turnabout being fair play?
Actually, the Catholic League has been labeled a hate group itself by a number of progressive Catholic organizations. Look at their website; it’s a vile group. They not only misunderstand the work, they do so willfully because the old “hate the homo” politics won’t work anymore. So they had to invent an issue like religious discrimination to serve as a red herring. But if we’re going to object to images of Jesus as an allegory of human suffering, we’re going to have to close down the Vatican museum itself.
What was your reaction when the National Gallery pulled Fire in My Belly?
Red hot fury. They took a show intended to end the blacklist and blacklisted part of it.
For many years, Hallwalls held, without significant controversy, a biennial multi-media festival called “Ways of Being Gay.” In 1984, the Albright-Knox exhibited Robert Mapplethorpe’s “safe” work, while Hallwalls exhibited the notorious X-Portfolio, again without incident. CEPA has also exhibited GLBT themed art. We seem to be able handle this sort of thing.
We are spoiled by the progressive art world here in Buffalo. My fury at the Smithsonian was tempered by the realization that they, at least, agreed to do the show in the first place, despite knowing that they were tied to these rightwing congressional bigots by an umbilical cord of gold. I have to ask why all the wealthy private museums in Manhattan or San Francisco or LA, insulated from Congress, not only didn’t take the show, but are still complicit in the everyday homophobia of the art world. After not lending to the show, a lot of these museums then pointed a finger at the Smithsonian and called it weak for giving in to Congress. That’s naked hypocrisy.
Looking at the exhibit itself, you make a couple points that seem to be revisionist history. For instance, you say abstraction had high among its sources “the need to code, disguise, and sublimate identities that were regarded as taboo.” Are you suggesting that a leading factor in the rise of modernist abstraction was its value as a cloak for gay and lesbian expression?
The entire exhibition is intended as a revisionist history, in part because art history as presented by museums is still premised on the exclusion of queer issues. But I intend to add to our histories, not take anything away. If the playing field were more level, I could make such points less emphatically. But I realized long ago that emphasis was necessary in a field trying very hard not to see what was before them.
You cite Robert Rauschenberg famously erasing and exhibiting a Willem de Kooning drawing, saying this “indicated Rauschenberg’s awareness that silence was a prevailing reaction to the political and social repression of the 1950s.” The widespread view is that Erased de Kooning was a symbolic Dadaist oedipal murder of an artistic father figure that signified a changing of the avant-garde. Rauschenberg himself said that it was an expansion of his white paintings. Straight people often make art that has nothing to do with sexuality; isn’t that true for GLBT artists?
Actually, I’ve written extensively on this issue so it’s hard to answer it in brief. But straight people’s sexuality, as normative, is transparent; when a man talks about his wife or a woman in his family, we don’t say that he is addressing her sexuality. But when gay people reference their lives, we do. Not once do I address sexuality in the book; I address identity. My point is that this is not about identity per se, but the historical situatedness of identity. In order to understand this point about Erased de Kooning, one has to look at the sea change in Rauschenberg’s art that happened when he met Jasper Johns.
There is a startling Annie Leibovitz photo of a smoking, breast-clenching, whiteface Ellen DeGeneres. But you mention in the exhibition text that Hollywood has been skittish about representing sexual difference. Do you think things have improved in recent years, particularly in TV? Shows like Smash, Modern Family, Whitney, Glee, Happily Divorced, Being Human, and many others have sympathetic GLBT characters.
In a single hour of prime time television, there will be more acknowledgment of queer issues and lives than in a year of exhibitions in all the major museums in the country put together. And if issues around sexual difference can be addressed freely in a mass medium that streams into every household in the country regardless of political affiliation or social perspective, why is it that the self-selecting museum audience is still deprived of content that they clearly want to see?
It’s impolite to mention, but museum boards are composed of individuals with the resources and cultural capital to be invited to join. Unlike the widespread state support for museums in Europe and consequent civic governance, we have, by definition, entrusted our museums’ oversight to a self-appointed elite. Elites, naturally enough, tend toward the conservation of the very social conditions that enabled their ascendancy to the elite in the first place, so they trend toward the conservative, or are assumed to do so by directors and even curators. This has an inevitable self-censoring effect.
The NPG, for all its vulnerability to Congress, nonetheless took the exhibition. Freed of the responsibility of catering to a narrow, self-interested constituency of trustees, the NPG is cognizant of its larger mission to public service, and Hide/Seek fit squarely within its stated intention to chronicle the expansion of civil liberties in American life.
You can see excerpts from the exhibition at: http://npg.si.edu/exhibit/hideseek/index.html.
Bruce Adams is an artist, writer, and educator.