It’s 1989. Do you know where your art is?

This little news story, about which I say it’s ” little” because I feel I’ve seen little about it in most press, is disturbing to me. I caught this item yesterday at MPR. Search Google News for Smithsonian and Wojnarowicz if  you need to catch up.

Basically two congressmen, Boehner and Cantor, raised a ruckus and stirred up others, and the Smithsonian removed a controversial video from an exhibit. In fact, it seems, Boehner wants the entire “Hide/Seek” exhibit removed.

It’s all too reminiscent of the late 80s and early 90s, when figures like Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorpe and Karen Finley (along with her other three of the NEA 4) were raising hackles by conservative (read: narrow minded) politicians, calling for censorship and control.

David Wojnarowicz was raising his own hackles back then too with his own controversial works. Sadly he died from complications of AIDS in 1992, and isn’t here to defend himself. Floating around the internet, remind myself about him and his work, I learned he was only 37 when he died.

37 years old. That’s so young.

Wojnarowicz's Untitled (Buffalo)

Wojnarowicz's Untitled (Buffalo)

I remember seeing a large exhibit of his work at Illinois State a few years before his death. He spent several days, perhaps a week, on campus as a guest artist for students in the art department. I found his works exhilarating, challenging, daring, bold, scary…and many of them just plain brilliant. That exhibition has stuck with me for the past twenty years. I realized a number of things in that gallery, primarily that there are no boundaries to art as long as there’s a soul or a message or a story and a point of view. And Wojnarowicz’s work was full of layers, full of all those things.


I also remember meeting him and chatting briefly, really only long enough to tell him how amazing some of the pieces were. For as brash and out-there as his works were, he was a bit shy or perhaps reclusive. Granted, he’d probably been being inundated by students for hours when I ran in to him in the small lounge commonly known as vendoland (called so due to the numerous and myriad foods and drinks available by machines) and so he probably just wanted to be left alone. He was polite, but a bit reserved. He seemed to genuinely appreciate my blathering commentary.

The experience of art is subjective, and as an expression of our world (or one’s world) it should be thought-provoking, educational or even disturbing. Perhaps it’s only enjoyable and pleasant. In any case, a response.

But censorship has no place here. And it is not a small issue when a congressman of Boehner’s position, or frankly any politician, strong arms our cultural institutions in to pulling works of art. Whether it’s the national portrait gallery or the public arts in Bemidji, no where should the men and women who are elected to uphold our constitution forget our first amendment rights.

Thankfully numerous galleries around the country have apparently picked up the baton and are now showing it, including  CB1 in Los Angeles and the New Museum in New York.

I wonder if  the Walker will make a statement and join them here in the middle coast.


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